Thirteen-year-old Bernie – named after St. Bernadette, but called Bernie because she doesn’t act very saint-like – is spending her summer helping her father and grandma at their monument company with simple things like dusting and filing, while wishing she could do something more worthwhile, like help design monuments and headstones. One day a man named Mr. Abbot Stein comes in with a hand-etching of a woman, asking for a job and place to stay. Despite feeling there is a “wrongness” about Mr. Stein, Bernie sees this as an opportunity to develop her drawing skills. Until, that is, she finds a hand-etching of someone who looks strangely familiar in one of his drawers and learns the next day that they have died. Now Bernie, in addition to continuing to help her father and grandma, and taking trays of food up to her mother who is refusing to leave her room, needs to find out the truth behind Mr. Stein and his etchings – preferably before anyone else dies.
The characters and their motives are realistic, and the main characters are well-developed. There are a few coincidences that I felt might be a bit too much in terms of how easy it is for Bernie to figure out what is going on with Mr. Stein, but for the most part it is a very solid read. Michael Romano – the boy who bothers Bernie until she gets to know him, and sometimes even then – is very likeable and brought a sense of comic relief to the story when needed, especially because of how difficult Bernie’s home life is, but also helped to bring Bernie out of her shell a bit more. Bernie herself, meanwhile, tends to lean more towards the serious side, wants to be able to help her family, and does her best not to put undue pressure on them which some younger readers might not be able to relate to, but is very realistic given the Morrison family’s history.
Jenny Goebel has taken some very serious subjects and melded them together in a great Middle Grade novel with a hint of fantasy. First there is the day to day dealings of death with Bernie’s family owning a monument company and trying to support grieving families through the process of choosing monuments and gravestones. I have occasionally seen something similar with family-owned funeral homes, but never monument companies. By using a monument company rather than a funeral home, Goebel doesn’t need to include an actual body to get us to feel for the grieving loved ones. Instead, we see an upset husband and how Bernie tries to help him through his grief while choosing a picture for the etching he wants on his deceased wife’s monument. These are the little moments that are sometimes overshadowed by wakes, funerals, etc. in fiction and it was nice to see such a small moment at the forefront of the grieving process.
You can read the rest of my review at my blog: http://readerlymusings.com/2013/10/28/book-review-grave-images-by-jenny-goebel/