Margaret Peterson Haddix completes the “Greystone Secrets” trilogy with the conclusion, “The Messengers.” Like many of her middle grade novels, this one has a clear message for young readers. It’s a message that teachers across the country echo: Be an upstander, not a bystander. In this trilogy, we see what happens when evil grows and people just look the other way, each hoping someone else will confront those who hope to control their country through lies and fear.
In the first book, the Greystone children discover that three children, with the same names and birthdays as they, were kidnapped. Then their mother leaves on a mysterious “business trip.” They must solve the cryptic and coded clues left by their mother to find out where she’s gone. This first book ends on a cliffhanger. It’s in this book that we first see a theme that is repeated throughout all three books: that siblings Emma, Chess, and Finn are stronger together and stronger through their love for each other. In the second book, they must go back to the alternate world that their parents were from, and where their mother has been imprisoned. They must save her. While this book has a satisfying conclusion, we know that the siblings are determined to help those left in a world that holds no hope for its residents.
I wrote of the second book that, “Younger readers may not see parallels to our current situation, but older readers and certainly adults will see a scarily similar situation to the alternate world where it’s against the law to tell the truth and a totalitarian government rules everything.” In the third book, Haddix really takes this theme to the ultimate frightening scene wherein the authoritarian government has literally brainwashed the population to believe anything they say. The Greystone children and their friends have discovered a way to protect themselves against the brainwashing, but how can they protect millions of people who are subject to the mind control?
Haddix’s ability to create dialogue and action that move the plot forward make this book flow and the characters seem authentic. As the children race from one world to the next, from one unbelievable situation to the next, always risking themselves in a quest to save a world that they no longer belong to, we cheer them on. We admire them and recognize each of their individual traits. Because the narrative is told from each sibling’s point of view in alternating chapters, we realize that all three of them come to understand their strengths as well as their flaws.
The brainwashing mechanism that the evildoers in the alternate world invent is something that makes people feel that they are helpless, they they are worthless, and that they must accept whatever the government decides for them. In a conversation between Emma and someone from the alternate world, she says that her mother told her the alternate world ended up such a disaster and so different from our world because of “a thousand tiny decisions.” Gus, who is helping them, responds by pointing out houses surrounded by razor wire and says, “It was people deciding again and again not to trust their neighbors, not to care about their neighbors, not to believe the people who were warning, ‘Your leaders are lying. It matters! Look for what’s true!'”
If young readers finish reading the trilogy and come away with a concept of the importance of truth, then I believe Haddix will be pleased. In this alternate, authoritarian world, there is only one political party, only one voice on the media, only one message being shared. When there is only distrust of what is real, and a belief that no matter what lies you are being told—that is reality, it’s too easy for those in charge to mislead. What this trilogy shows is that there should always be voices that are free to disagree with government. When members of a political party silence any opposing voices instead of welcoming diverse ideas and suggestions, it’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s never too early to learn that lesson.
Do the children in your life a favor and get them the whole trilogy. Start them reading the first book, “The Strangers,” and continue with the second, “The Deceivers.” The characters will draw them in and the action will keep them entertained. The messages will make them think. Can anything more be asked of a children’s novel? I think not.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Katherine Tegen books, for review purposes.