Ten-year-old Pia Kolvenbach has recently found herself ostracized by most of the children in her school in a small town in Germany. Her grandmother died in a freak accident on Christmas, so now all of her schoolmates see her merely as the girl whose grandmother exploded. The only student who will hang out with her now is the equally unpopular Stefan, who is usually known as StinkStefan. Pia is trying to adjust to this new and unwelcome situation when another event grabs hold of the city’s attention: a classmate of Pia’s named Katharina disappears in the middle of Bad Münstereifel’s Karneval celebration.
The town is baffled by the strange disappearance of this young girl, and no one can find a trace of her. Parents clamp down on their children’s activities, and everyone is considerably shaken. But tongues wag, as they always do in the place where “gossip is raised to an art form.” Many of the town’s residents point to the odd and reclusive Herr Düster, whose brother’s daughter disappeared similarly decades before. Herr Schiller, embarrassed by his brother, went so far as to change his last name years before.
Pia considers the kindly Herr Schiller a friend, and she reluctantly allows Stefan to get to know him as well. The old man invites the children to his home for strong coffee and riveting retellings of scary local legends. After some consideration, and another disappearance, Pia and Stefan begin to suspect that an otherworldly force is at work, and they try to investigate on their own.
Their attempts at solving the mystery lead them to question the older people of the town and to sneak away to scary locations. Eventually, they find out the truth of the matter, one that shocks them.
Helen Grant has written an enthralling story that conjures up perfectly the feelings and challenges common to children of Pia’s age and their interest in chilling fairy tales. She injects what could be a simple mystery with strong doses of imagination and wonder taken straight from childhood ghost stories. The tale has a strong sense of place in small-town Germany and feels appropriately foreign and steeped in folklore. Grant has a witty way with words, and her story is light on its feet. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden may be about kidnapped children, but it is a pure delight.
Rated: High, for language. There are about a dozen uses of moderate language in German, translated in a glossary at the end of the book, and 10 uses of strong language (in English). All but one of those occur in one quick passage, in which the main character’s English cousins are teasing her on her use of the f-word in English. There are some mildly scary situations and some other mild language in English and German. The book really feels mostly like a mild, except for the one page of uses of strong language.