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The Thorne Miniature Rooms are one of the Art Institute of Chicago’s most beloved exhibits: 68 miniature detailed representations of rooms that might have existed in Europe and America over some six centuries.
Chicago resident Marianne Malone tells Here & Now that she’s loved the rooms ever since her mother brought her to the museum in a stroller.
The books feature Ruthie and Jack, two sixth graders who, through a magical key, are able to shrink small enough to fit into the Thorne Rooms. They discover that some of the rooms turn out to be portals to other times and places.
As Malone tells Here & Now, though she still loves the exhibit, she can never look at the rooms quite the same way again.
“I’ve never been able to go into them and not think about shrinking and going outside the windows. I have bought into that fantasy.”
By Marianne Malone
“‘Ahoy, mates! Steady it is!’ the captain bellowed as the ship listed in the angry sea, almost capsizing. But the unpredictable wind switched directions, righting the vessel. ‘You, Norfleet, batten down the hatches! Lively now!’
“‘Aye, aye, Captain!’ the youngest member of the pirate crew shouted. It was difficult to be heard over the sound of the raging storm and the creaking planks of the wooden ship. The Avenger tossed violently in the waves off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Frigid seawater crashed onto the deck. This was a nor’easter, the sort of storm that sinks ships. Jack Norfleet skidded across the boards, paying no mind to the danger. He had been a pirate for five years now and he knew exactly what had to be done. He tied the ropes securely and threw himself down the stairs, touching not a single step on his way to the hold.
“There, deep inside the tilting ship, was the treasure: gold and silver coins, jewelry and scimitars from the Barbary Coast. He scanned it quickly. Then he stuffed his pockets with as much as he could, mostly coins and gemstones. Had he participated in the plunder of this treasure? Maybe. But what choice would he have had after his parents had died on the way from England, seeking a new life in America? Jack Norfleet had been rescued by the pirates on this ship and had graduated from cabin boy to crew member. He was proud of this accomplishment, but it was all about to come to an end.
“He heard the exploding whack of the mast snapping. The ship rocked uncontrollably, and then it tipped further. He took one last look at the pile of gleaming treasure sliding to the far wall—which had become the floor—as the Avenger began to sink. Jack Norfleet grasped a timber post and shimmied along it until he came to the opening to the stairwell. Cold rain and seawater poured in. Somehow he made it to the deck and grabbed hold of a rope. He pulled himself hand over hand until he reached the deck rail, the one that was still out of the water. Men threw themselves into the sea; others washed overboard, swallowed by the foam. Through the torrential rain he saw land in the distance. Jack Norfleet was a great swimmer, even weighed down by gold coins. He dove in and swam with all his might.
“By the time he reached the shore, only the tip of the aft end of the ship was still visible. He watched it slip into the ocean, never to be seen again, along with all the souls still on board.
“As far as we know, Jack Norfleet was the only survivor. He had enough gold and silver in his pockets to start a life in this new land, the land his parents had been dreaming of. And would anyone care that the money was stolen, plundered? Who was left to recount the story?”
Jack Tucker put his paper down. “Dead men tell no tales.”
Then Jack opened a small drawstring pouch and pulled out a coin. “This was his. It’s called a piece of eight.” Oohs murmured throughout the classroom. The coin sparkled in Jack’s hand as he held it up for the class to see. From her seat halfway back in the room, Ruthie Stewart wondered for a brief instant, Was that flash just a little too bright?