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The Einsteins of Vista Point
By Ben Guterson
Illustrated by Petur Antonsson
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When Zack’s younger sister dies in a tragic accident, his family moves to a small town in the Northwest to try and heal from all the pain. Eleven-year-old Zack blames himself for his sister’s death, and he struggles to find any comfort in his new surroundings. Vista Point is home to many mysterious landmarks: The great domed Tower casts inscrutable shadows, and what is the cryptic message in its ceiling medallion? There are several hidden watering holes and even a secret cave in the woods with messages written on its walls. Zack, at first, feels lost in Vista Point. Until he meets Ann, a girl who lives in the area and shows Zack all the special places to be discovered. But there’s something that seems a bit strange about Ann—and perhaps a secret she is keeping from him.
With emotional depth, an unforgettable setting, and a winning cast of characters, this masterful novel thoughtfully explores the grieving process, and how a season of pain can evolve into a summer of healing.
I once wrote down this sentence in a journal, but I can’t for the life of me recall where I read it: “I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.” That line always makes me think of a dear friend I lost.
From The Wonderful World of Words! by Dylan Grimes
— One —
THE GIRL FROM THE WOODS
Zack Einstein was reading his favorite novel, Falcons and Bandits, when he looked out the open window of his room and saw a girl walking toward the abandoned Tower. He shot up from his bed, fumbling the book to the floor with a smack that echoed through the house.
“You okay?” Zack’s father yelled from the kitchen below.
“Just dropped my book, Dad,” Zack called, keeping his eyes fixed on the girl heading for the stone building in the distance. It seemed she had emerged from the thick cover of hemlocks west of the Tower, something that was very odd, given that the building was strictly off-limits to everyone and was just on the other side of the property the Einstein family now owned. But what astonished Zack most of all was that the ponytailed girl looked—from far away, at least—like Susan, his sister who was gone forever.
Zack stared. The girl’s hair was red, her jeans were light blue, and her white shirt hung loosely from her tiny shoulders—all in uncanny imitation of Zack’s little sister.
Why is she going to the Tower? he thought.
And then, although he’d tried to stave it off, came the question he’d asked himself countless times over the past ten months: Why didn’t I watch out for Susan?
For half an hour he’d been able to lose himself in a book he loved, and now thoughts of his sister had returned to him like rain resuming.
“As long as the book’s okay,” his father yelled. When Zack said nothing in return, his father added: “That’s a joke, son.”
“Okay, Dad,” Zack called just as the girl stepped behind the stone building and disappeared from view. He stared, waited.
The Tower, a hundred yards to the north and taller than the third-story window through which Zack was watching, stood in all its solitary majesty near the edge of the bluff. On the far side of the Tower, an immense hill sloped to the river below. It was an impressive building, nine-sided and rimmed with graceful, sturdy columns; though after Ruth—the closest in age to Zack, two years older than his eleven—had said it looked like a gigantic cake with gray frosting, the image had been hard for him to get out of his mind. There was no official name for the building, as far as any of the kids knew. Miriam, herself two years older than Ruth, had suggested they call it “the big thimble” when their parents brought them to Vista Point three months before for their first visit. (“We’ll be living here come summer,” their mother had explained.) Once Ethan, the oldest of the siblings at sixteen, had dubbed it “the Tower,” the name had stuck.
When the girl did not reappear after a long minute, Zack imagined she was standing before the front doors of the Tower and taking in the impressive view on the opposite side: the quarter-mile-wide Grand River, the range of mountains to the northeast, the thick forest on both sides and across the water, the clear sky above. From that spot, everything was deep blue or lush emerald, endless and broad. The girl was most likely admiring all of it, just as Zack and his brother and sisters had done every day since they’d moved to Vista Point five days before. Their new house was only an hour away from Roseburg, the only place they’d ever called home, but it might as well have been in another country. Vista Point was a speck on the map, more a community of scattered houses and large plots of land, while Roseburg was the biggest city in the state.
“A fresh start will do us all good,” Zack’s mother and father had said so many times over the past several weeks that Zack had begun to wonder if they believed it or if they mainly wanted him and his siblings to believe it.
During the previous winter, his parents had found a fixer-upper put up for sale by an elderly couple who could no longer maintain the home or the property, and now the future was starkly laid out: The Einsteins would be turning the bottom floor of their new house into a bed-and-breakfast, something Zack had come to understand was sort of like a small hotel set up in a regular home. Why his father had quit his architect’s job at the Valencia & Hartnett Firm to serve people scrambled eggs and change their bedsheets—and why Zack’s mother seemed just as eager to join in, abandoning her teacher-training coursework at Roseburg Community College—was something that didn’t seem to add up. He couldn’t understand their enthusiasm for the move or why they’d become intent on relocating to the middle of nowhere.
“I think Mom and Dad feel we won’t be so sad about Susan if we move,” Miriam had once told him, but Zack couldn’t get the words to make sense.
Zack continued to stare out his window, yet the girl did not reappear. He wondered if maybe she had descended the slope and then circled back into the forest, which would be the surest way of departing—or approaching—the Tower if a person didn’t want to be seen from the house. Zack glanced at his clock: 3:17. His mother and his siblings had gone to the nearby small town of Thornton Falls for the afternoon and weren’t due to return for another hour. They’d all pressed Zack to join them—his father, too, had encouraged him to get out—but, as had been his habit ever since the awful night the previous August, he was more comfortable staying in his room and reading. He had no desire to be around people, around crowds.
“First day of summer’s a good time to explore, Z,” Ethan—only three merit badges from becoming an Eagle Scout—had told him at lunch by way of encouraging him to join them on their afternoon outing. “You should come with us. There’s a map store we could check out.”
“I’m taking the basketball, Zack,” Miriam, the athlete of the bunch, had said when Zack had indicated he was going to stay home. “We could play H-O-R-S-E. I’ll even show you my new crossover move.”
“Or we could all compose poems under the gazebo in the town square,” Ruth had said, giving her sister a well-practiced and exaggeratedly eager look, because she knew writing was the last thing Miriam would want to do—and Miriam had goggled her eyes right back, all in good fun.
Zack understood and even appreciated that his siblings went out of their way to try to include him—and make him laugh. He just wasn’t in the mood to be cheered up. Ever.
Now all he could think about was that he had another hour to himself, and the girl who looked like Susan was out there somewhere near the Tower. He waited a minute, and then another minute, watching all the while. The thought came to him that maybe the girl was lost—or maybe she had tried to go inside or had even hurt herself somehow. That she had gone to the Tower and was still out of sight was worrying him. Zack glanced at his clock once more, looked back at the Tower, and then slipped on his shoes and departed his room, hopping quickly down the stairs.
“Gonna go outside for a few, Dad,” he called as he dashed for the front door.
“Don’t be gone long,” his father said. But Zack was already out the door and heading for the Tower, thinking as he began to jog: Maybe that girl needs help.
— Two —
THE FORBIDDEN TOWER
The Tower was absolutely forbidden to the four Einstein kids. They were allowed to admire it from the outside—the clean lines of gray sandstone bricks that made up its walls, the precise planes of its nine sides, the gentle arches of the now mostly boarded-up windows—and even sit on the stone stairs in front of its enormous metal doors; but, as their parents had made clear to them, the Tower wasn’t part of what they owned, and they were to make no attempt to go inside. Not that doing so would be possible—the doors were locked tight (though none of the four kids had dared test this), and several No Trespassing signs were posted on the building. The place certainly looked abandoned—its windows were covered, and the masonry of its outer walls was chipped and flaking in spots and mildewed in broad patches—though all the Einstein kids had agreed it didn’t appear quite as run-down as their parents had led them to believe before they’d seen it for themselves.
“This must have been the coolest rest stop ever,” Ruth had said when the four of them visited the Tower on the day of their arrival. “So scenic, so romantic. The kind of place I could write about.” She looked around wistfully and then said, “When Bridgette Carlisle gazed out at the river from the Vista Point Tower, she knew she would love Thomas Cooper forever.”
“No one would read that story,” Ethan had said, shaking his head and turning to point—his arm fixed straight and steady—upriver. “Interesting. From here, Mount Knox is almost exactly at a forty-five-degree angle.” He took his compass out of his pocket and began to fiddle with it.
Miriam pantomimed a jump shot in the air. “Forty-five degrees when the ball leaves my hands,” she said, and Ruth sighed heavily. Miriam called out, “And that’s a three-pointer for the win!” as she stared at an imaginary hoop, and then she stopped and peered downward to the river far below and the strip of highway that ran just beside it.
“I wish they hadn’t built the highway down there,” she said. “Dad says if they hadn’t, the old road up here would still be the only one through, and people would still be traveling by and stopping here. The Tower never would have gotten so run-down.”
Zack, however, wasn’t thinking back to that visit from a few days before just now—he had slowed his run and was striding closer to the stone building, keeping his eyes out for any sign of movement. He was keenly aware that his father might be watching him from the kitchen window, far behind him on the other side of the big field that separated their house from the Tower. He veered off to the west, close to the forest that bordered the field, and drew near the bluff; and then he trotted down the slope a short way, deliberately overshooting the Tower and glancing at its front stairs as he did. No one was in sight. Zack came to a stop and turned around. The slope now blocked his view of the house—and ensured that his father could not see him—as Zack studied the building. All was silent beneath the high, hot sun, and Zack felt not only all alone but very distant suddenly, as though his new house were miles away.
The memory came to him once again from late August of the year before.
All seven of the Einsteins had gone to the Western State Fair, south of Roseburg, near the town of Hugard. Zack and Susan, his younger sister by two years, had stayed with their mother while the others had scattered to enjoy the rides and sights and booths; Ethan and their father had stayed together, and the two older girls had gone off on their own. By eight o’clock, with twilight deepening and the strains of a country music band wafting from the arena at the center of the fairgrounds, Zack and Susan were sharing cotton candy while their mother led them to the gate and out to the street that lined the way. The three of them stopped and waited beside the chain-link fence, noise and lights and people and cars moving in a swirl of motion before them. A huge WELCOME TO THE 2001 WESTERN STATE FAIR! banner was strung between two high poles just before them.
“Where are they?” Zack’s mother said after a short while, scanning for the others. “They should be here.”
Susan plucked at a wisp of cotton candy clumped on the stiff paper stick Zack held, and the two of them giggled and smacked away happily. Zack felt his mouth and cheeks becoming sticky from the pink sugar. His mother appeared worried as she glanced about.
“Wait right here, you two,” she said, giving Zack a severe look. She pointed to the gate just off to their right. “Maybe they thought we were meeting inside.” And with another hard stare at Zack, she said, “Don’t move from this fence, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Susan was focused on the cotton candy; but then she stopped plucking at the sugary wisps, gave Zack a sly look, and said, “Susan sees a man wearing purple flip-flops.” She lifted her chin to look skyward, her typical way of confounding Zack whenever they played this game.
“Right there!” Zack said almost immediately, pointing to a man who’d just passed them and who was, indeed, wearing purple flip-flops. They both loved this game, all the more so because it always seemed to exasperate their siblings.
“And now Zack sees a woman holding two caramel apples and a hot dog,” he said.
“I see her!” Susan said. “Gosh, remember last year when you ate two hot dogs before we rode the roller coaster?”
Zack clutched his stomach theatrically. “Don’t remind me!”
As Susan reached to snatch another shred off the stick Zack held, a kitten appeared from behind a plywood program stand beside them.
“Look!” Susan said, pointing to the tiny gray cat. She knelt to reach out to it as Zack watched; and then she jerked her hand too quickly, and the small thing darted off.
“Oh no!” Susan called as the kitten skipped through the mass of people passing on the sidewalk—and before Zack could stop her, Susan was racing away.
“Hey!” he yelled, but she was gone, following the tiny cat; the last image he had was of his sister—in her blue shorts and her favorite white sweater—frantically chasing a kitten. After that, his memories were only of a weirdly dark sky, the squealing of car tires, an awful thud, and then what sounded like a thousand people shouting all around him.
The moments from that point on were pure chaos, and he never could recall how his mother—and then his father and his siblings—had found him or how he understood Susan was missing, and everyone seemed to be crying or in shock or feeling some other emotion he couldn’t understand. In fact, as hard as he tried to remember the details of what had happened after Susan rushed away, his mind couldn’t make any sense of it. How he’d ended up back at his house and what happened later that night—none of it remained with him. There were days of strange sadness, and then a funeral, and then weeks of nothing more than sitting in his room or lying on his bed; he still couldn’t remember what had happened or what he’d done during that time, though eventually he returned to school and the days continued marching forward. He only knew that Susan would never be coming back—and he felt absolutely that the reason for this was that he’d let her follow the kitten. There had been something he had failed to do or some part of him that had caused things to unfold as they had.
“I never should have left the two of you alone,” Zack’s mother would often say whenever she took him up in a tearful embrace. “Never.” But he always felt she was only trying to make him feel less sad by claiming it was her fault. He knew better. He’d not watched his little sister as carefully as he should have. His mother or his father or Ethan or the girls could say whatever they liked—he knew the truth of things.
Zack gazed at the Grand River below. A bridge, the only one within twenty miles up or down the broad river, spanned the water to the east, though it was so far away and so far beneath him, the cars on it moved soundlessly, like small toys on a distant track. For that matter, the water itself appeared to move slowly enough from up here that the river looked like a long, motionless strip of blue that stretched to each horizon. Unbroken forest covered the hills on the opposite shore, so distant that the trees merged into a single cover of thick green. Zack studied the Tower once again. The girl must have gone back into the woods, he thought.
The gray building looked imposing in the sunlight, both graceful and sturdy, and Zack considered how perfect it must have been before the tall windows were boarded up and the tiles on its roof cap had become frayed or torn loose. It was hard to believe, now that he’d visited the Tower a few times, that it had been allowed to fall into disrepair like this. He squinted and tried to picture the building as it had once been.
Something moved inside.
At a window—just barely visible through the wooden boards covering it—on the upper level of the Tower, a silhouette appeared momentarily, a shadow that passed so quickly, Zack couldn’t be sure his eyes hadn’t played a trick on him. He waited and watched, but nothing more appeared; he took several steps toward the Tower, scanning the upper windows all the while. And as he drew closer to the stairs, he saw something he could hardly believe: The doors to the stone building were slightly ajar.
Zack walked softly up the few steps. In the space created where the doors had been left open, he saw a thin portion of the inside of the Tower, shadowy and dim, with only a bit of light from the few windows high above. He put his hand on one of the doors and turned his head to listen within. No sound came. Zack leaned closer to the crack in the doorway and saw muted light gleaming off a marble floor. He glanced at the river one more time, and then he gave a slow pull on one of the doors and entered the Tower.
— Three —
A NEW FRIEND
It took a moment for Zack’s eyes to adjust to the dimness inside, but once they did, he was dazzled by what he saw. Aside from the white marble floor—so pure and delicate, Zack almost felt he was hovering on air—the walls were smooth and held a light-pink hue. He’d assumed they would be gray sandstone, simply the other face of the bricks on the outside; but these walls were seamless and clean, as though they’d been painted just the week before. The stone ribs of the insides of the columns rose up and around Zack on all sides; and although the window openings on the first level were covered in plywood, a few unbroken windows—done in panes of green and yellow glass—high up on the second level allowed in a delicate light that gave the entire interior a spectral glow. It was like being in a deep part of the forest late in the day with tall cedars all around, when the air is a pleasant and soft emerald and everything feels quiet and still. What was most remarkable, though, was that the inside of the Tower wasn’t a fraction as grubby or run-down as Zack would have guessed, particularly given the condition of the exterior—in fact, the inside looked almost perfect, as though it had been closed up one day and had suffered hardly at all in the time since.
Zack stared upward at the golden-tiled domed ceiling. At its very center—the highest and farthest point from where Zack stood—was something round and silvery that looked a bit like a very flat smoke detector, though this seemed so out of place that Zack was certain he was mistaken. He looked more closely, and an unaccountable feeling of intrigue came over him. The thing—whatever it was—glinted in the faint light as Zack shifted his head to get a better view. It was, it seemed, some sort of large medallion set in the very midpoint of the ceiling, though the light was too faint to let him make out any detail. Zack was curious, powerfully so, about what it was.
He scanned downward from the dome’s peak. Between the two levels of the Tower’s interior, set in a circle around the rim dividing the sections, were small sculptures—plaques, Zack realized, faces of what appeared to be people from long ago: Native Americans in headdress, pioneers, settlers, soldiers in peaked caps. As Zack turned to look at each one, he noticed a narrow marble staircase against the wall to his left, and his eyes traveled up to where it reached the second level. There, just above the railing, the girl with the ponytail of red hair was staring down at him.
“Hi,” she said softly, greeting him with a hesitant, barely raised hand. The shadows were so deep where she stood, it was difficult for him to see her.
“Hi,” Zack answered as he lifted a hand in return. There was something so easy and natural about the girl’s voice and the way she acknowledged him that Zack wasn’t startled or surprised at all. As he gazed upward, Zack thought the girl would say something, but she only clutched the railing before her and kept looking down at him.
“How did you get in here?” Zack said. His voice echoed in the airy space.
The girl pointed to the door Zack had left open behind him. “I just came in,” she said with a soft shrug.
“It wasn’t locked?” Even as he spoke the words, Zack mentally reviewed the handful of times he and his siblings had visited the Tower, and realized they’d never once tried the doors. They might not have been locked at all.
The girl shook her head. “No. I just came in. I’ve been outside lots of times before, but this is the first time I’ve been inside.”
“We just moved here,” Zack blurted out. “I mean, me and my family.”
“You live in the big house over there?” she said, pointing.
“Yeah. My name’s Zack. We used to live in Roseburg.”
Zack glanced at the doors once again. “Are you by yourself?”
She nodded, and then, with a tug on the railing to stretch her chin over its top, she said, “You should come up here and take a look.”
Zack moved quickly to the stairs and skipped up them, and then he was standing just before Ann and marveling, once again, at how much she resembled Susan—her red hair, her ponytail, her big brown eyes. She was even about Susan’s height.
“I thought I saw someone in here when I was outside,” Zack said. “And it was you.”
Ann smiled with her lips pressed tightly together, and she nodded with excitement. “I thought I saw someone outside. And it was you!” She gave a little shrug and looked as delighted as if Zack had brought candy for them to share. “At first I thought you were a boy I know from school, because you have bushy black hair like him. And you’re skinny, too.”
Zack felt himself smiling at Ann in return. “How old are you?” he said.
“I’m eleven,” he said.
“One and one. Wow!”
Zack laughed. “My birthday was in October. When’s yours?”
“Cinco de Mayo.”
“What?” Ann said.
“It’s a holiday.”
“It’s my birthday.”
Zack laughed once more, but only because Ann spoke so bluntly, so sincerely. “You live near here?” he said.
Ann nodded. “Vista Point is the best. There’s waterfalls and places to swim and trails. I love to hike around and explore. That’s one of my favorite things to do.” She glanced over the side of the railing. “I like it in here. I always wanted to see inside.”
“I just didn’t know we could get in,” Zack said. “I thought it would be falling apart, but it’s pretty nice here.”
“It really is.” She began examining the ceiling, her mouth dropping open. “Quiet, too.”
“How far away do you live?” Zack said.
“Just on the other side of the woods.”
“Your parents let you go out alone?”
“I know every trail around here,” Ann said, which, Zack thought, didn’t really answer his question. “And all the good places to swim. I’ve always lived in Vista Point.”
Neither spoke for a moment, and a deep hush held inside the Tower. Zack glanced at the medallion in the ceiling; there appeared to be words written on it.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Ann said. “I don’t.”
“One brother and three sisters,” Zack said. He paused. “But the youngest sister isn’t here with us anymore.” And then, because he felt he’d revealed something—partway, at least—that he didn’t want to explain, he said, “The others are with my mom, shopping in Thornton Falls.”
Ann was looking at him; she seemed to be waiting for him to go on speaking. “What do you mean, she’s not with you anymore?” she said.
“She had a bad accident last summer,” Zack said. He glanced at the ceiling.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ann said, and the Tower became silent once more. Ann stretched her neck over the railing and swept her eyes slowly over the walls and marble floor of the Tower, a deliberate and steady survey.
“You okay?” Zack said, turning to her.
She looked at him and gave a tiny, reassuring smile. Her teeth were slightly crooked, which made her look a bit younger than nine, Zack thought.
“What’s your favorite thing to eat?” she said. “Mine is oatmeal with chocolate chips in it. It’s so good!”
Zack laughed loudly—Ann’s question had been completely unexpected.
“My favorite thing to eat?” he said. “I guess German chocolate cake. My mom always makes it for me on my birthday, and my dad says it’s lucky to eat that kind of cake, but I think he’s just making that up.”
“My mother told me this place is lucky,” she said.
Praise for The Einsteins of Vista Point:
"Guterson does a splendid job of conjuring up the ideal setting for a classic summer story…. There are compassionate explorations of grief and loss, but obvious familial affection and gracious communal support keep the tone warm and hopeful. A properly old-fashioned adventure that begs to be read by flashlight under bedcovers."—Booklist
- "The fascinating cipher that ties it all together is the highlight of this wholesome, gentle story.... An inspirational throwback for families seeking tales with a classic feel."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Guterson (the Winterhouse trilogy) sensitively explores Zack’s journey toward self-forgiveness in this contemplative adventure featuring a captivating northwestern U.S. setting, a splash of the paranormal, and a tidy ending."—Publishers Weekly
- "Guterson treads carefully, demonstrating how grief can be maneuvered but not entirely left behind—this is a bruised family, even as they heal through shared experiences, conversations, and renewed trust that their loved ones will support their unique ways of mourning. The mystery of a tower, secret messages, ghostly communications, and a cranky old man are all appealing elements that move the story forward . . . readers will be glad to see the Einsteins get some closure, joy, and good karma."—BCCB
Praise for Winterhouse:—Kirkus Reviews
“Guterson provides readers a treat: mean caregivers à la the Dursleys; a vast, luxurious hotel where oddities abound; a new word-puzzle-loving friend; a shrouded history for Winterhouse; and sinister circumstances…. Clever and captivating."
"A charming, atmospheric mystery with some fantasy elements, for fans of Kate Milford’s Greenglass House and Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society."—School Library Journal
"A natural fit for readers with a penchant for puzzles and wordplay in the vein of the Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series and Pseudonymous Bosch."—Booklist
Praise for The Secrets of Winterhouse:—Booklist
"Guterson’s rich mystery and lively characters will keep readers turning the page to solve the puzzles within and leave them eagerly anticipating the next book in this intriguing and magical series."
"An engaging blend of sleuthing, puzzle-solving, and magic."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Oct 24, 2023
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Christy Ottaviano Books