3 out of 4 stars
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Freeing Linhurst by Al Cassidy is a young adult mystery with paranormal elements. While doing research for a class assignment, ninth-grader Jack Alexander becomes curious about Linhurst, an abandoned state school and hospital for the mentally challenged. Some people think the old place is haunted and others would rather forget the stain of an institution where the residents were mistreated. When Jack starts asking questions, the locals get nervous and warn him away from investigating what happened there. Even Mr. Thomson, the school’s principal, may have something to hide as he intervenes and changes the topic of Jack’s assignment. Linhurst is scheduled for demolition in a few days. Armed with a map of the buildings, will Jack and his friend Celia discover what the town has been hiding before the secrets are buried forever?
Jack is a likable science geek who is intellectually curious and assertive toward adults when the need arises. The friendship between Jack and his friend Celia is realistically written and their characters are well drawn. Mr. Moseley, the school janitor, is an intriguing supporting character. He used to be a doctor at Linhurst and provides Jack and Celia with important details about the institution. On the other hand, some of the supporting characters are one-dimensional and almost seem cartoonish.
The author has done a fine job of crafting a fresh, creative mystery with vivid setting descriptions. The story has a nice blend of interesting themes – local politics, mental institution abuse, environmental, and paranormal. Placing key parts of the plot on Halloween night was an effective way to ratchet up the spookiness.
In the first third of the story, the pacing is slow with high school routines and long explanations of the tragic history of Linhurst. Then Jack and Celia sneak into the abandoned property on Halloween and the suspense kicks into high gear. The scenes inside Linhurst feel a bit choppy and rushed at times. That may have been the author’s intention, but I found it dizzying as the characters darted around the property. Still, the imagery is clear of the eerie sights and sounds as the teens make their way through the different buildings and underground tunnels.
I rate this book 3 out of 4 stars. It is an enjoyable read, despite a slow start. I found it particularly interesting that the author was inspired by a real-life mental institution in his Pennsylvania hometown. Although the main characters are in ninth grade, the writing style and characterizations seem more suited for tween readers rather than high schoolers. I would recommend this story to readers ages 11-13 who enjoy mysteries with a mix of paranormal and social themes.
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