Stella Montgomery, Wormwood Mire’s Brave Hero

So I just finished reading Judith Rossell’s Wormwood Mire for the second time in a few weeks. Wormwood Mire is the sequel to Rossell’s Withering-by-Sea, and there is apparently a third book–Wakestone Hall–coming soon, maybe at the end of the year. (Yay!) I really enjoyed Withering-by-Sea, but I absolutely loved Wormwood Mire. It is quiet and lovely and sweet and very much the page-turner (in a non-stressful way!). I love quiet books, but I often wonder how the author manages to keep the pages turning and still keep the book quiet. Plus, I’ve been struggling with a more character-driven plot in my current WIP.

So I decided to re-read Stella’s second book and take notes about what plot actions happen, who does them, why they do them, and how those actions move the plot forward. Now, I didn’t remember Stella being super active, but I thought I’d find out differently when I took a closer look.


Stella does things. She explores the strange house she’s found herself living in. She asks questions about the mystery surrounding her mother and her (perhaps) twin sister, neither of whom she can actually remember. She climbs a tall tree, and she ventures near the lake she has been warned to stay away from. She discovers a secret room and enters it. All in a world of gossipy whispers that speak of monsters and witches’ familiars.

But, other than finding the secret room, she does pretty much none of these adventurous things by herself. And she doesn’t instigate them either. Almost all the impetus for exploring and putting herself in dangerous situations comes from her energetic, inquisitive, and absolutely wonderful cousin Strideforth. Strideforth is a scientist and an engineer, and he doesn’t believe in spooky things. The house is filled with heating pipes, some of which are hot to the touch and some of which are cold, and Strideforth’s actions are driven by his curiosity–his absolute need to know–about where the heat is going. The house is freezing cold, except in the kitchen, and that is a problem Strideforth is determined to solve. So he explores and he questions and he draws Stella and his sister, Hortense, along with him.

So why is Stella a hero?

  • Stella is brave. We learn this about her in the first book, and we see it again in this sequel. Stella is a timid girl. She has reason to be–she has led an at-once very sheltered and very neglected/abusted life with her three horrible aunts. (No, you’re not wrong, you do sense a hint of Roald Dahlness!) And, yet, whenever a moment comes–and many of them do–where she has the choice of going forward or going backward, Stella goes forward. She has to take some deep breaths, she has to get encouragement from the sister she is imagining, and she has to push away the frightening story from the nasty going-away book of morals that her aunts gave her when she left. But she goes forward. Every time.
  • Stella is curious. Like Strideforth, she wants to know and  understand, but she is much more open than he is to the unexplained and magical. Things that she agrees, as Strideforth says, not possible, and yet…she sees them happen and accepts them as facts. Stella also reads whenever she can–even the horrible gift from her aunts, but more importantly the travel diary of her ancestor that she discovers in the secret room.
  • Stella’s actions move the story forward. Exploring with Strideforth and Hortense, Stella comes across pieces of her past that bring back memories–frightening and scary memories. She doesn’t push the memories away; instead, she actively stops (ha! Is that the secret to a quiet page-turner?) whatever she is doing and lets the memory come.  Each memory brings with it another piece of the mystery, and Stella is the one who puts those pieces together, along with the information she gleans from the travel diary.  Stella is the one to solve the puzzles of the book–that of the whispered about monster as well as the truth about her mother and sister.

Stella is Mary Lennox without the temper, without the force of action and power that temper gives Mary. She is Matilda without the magic. She is quiet, polite, well-behaved, and withdrawing. Opportunities for decisions and actions present themselves to her, and she has to push herself to take them. But she does take them, with us rooting for her every time.

And I’m pretty sure that is what makes her a hero.





  1. Hi Becky, Thanks so much for your thoughtful review of Wormwood Mire! You’ve made me think a bit about Stella. Basically, she’s me as a kid (I was timid and frightened of many things), but I gave her a couple of qualities I really admire, so she’s always brave, and she’s always kind. (this makes it easy to motivate her as well, she’ll always try to help someone out). I wanted to write something other than the more familiar ‘feisty’ girl character. I think she’s getting a bit more proactive, though. In the third (and final) book, which I’m working on right now, I’m trying to make her drive the action along a little bit more. The difficulty with a character like Stella is not allowing her to be overwhelmed by more forceful personalities, like Strideforth. (I’m so happy you liked him, I was worried people would find him annoying). Thank you!!!


    • beckylevine says:

      Judith, wow! Thank you so much for stopping by. I hope it came across in my post how much I loved your book–two of my co-workers both just read it on my recommendation and loved it, too. 🙂 I read a lot of quiet books like yours, by choice, partially because I like them so much and partially because I am still trying to write them AND figure out the hero part. So I was very curious to see how you made Stella so strong–I never had any sense of passiveness with her. In fact, I think one of her superpowers is resisting Strideforth’s certainty about what is and isn’t possible. 🙂


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