The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford, ISBN #978-0547241876
There is a certain danger in reviewing books that I really, really love. They render me inarticulate, which leads to excessive use of CAPS LOCK. You may have already noticed this. There is also a danger in reviewing books that have already been reviewed a hundred times over by professional critics, bloggers, and the like, for reasons that are a lot more obvious. There's no way I can do a book the same kind of justice, particularly when everyone seems to think said book DESERVES A NEWBERY. See? The caps lock? It's already started. I finished The Boneshaker, by Kate Milford a month ago, and have been humming and hawing, sitting on it ever since. Making matters more confusing, is the fact that I still can't put my finger on who the audience is for this book. Young readers? Middle-schoolers? Teens? It's what I like to call the 'Lois Lowry Effect.' (She is the Newbery award-winning author of The Giver, Number the Stars, etc.) The book's characters are mid-grade, but younger readers will be riveted by the mystery, and teenagers will grasp the deeper, darker implications that lie just beneath the surface of the story. It's the sort of book where the meaning is so multilayered, that readers of different ages will understand what is happening and what's at stake in very different ways. Does that make sense? No? Fantastic. Let's just pretend I'm good at explaining these things.
The Boneshaker has been touted by some as the first true Steampunk novel for kids. (For a little help understanding the definition of the sub-genre, see here.) And it is. But it's more than that. Set in 1914, it follows the story of Natalie Minks, a tomboy who loves machines, particularly automata, and her dangerous, unwieldy, bone-shaking bicycle--the one she hasn't figured out how to ride just yet. She has grown up in Arcane, a small Missouri town, near a mysterious crossroads where, according to her mother, an older village once stood... until the day its inhabitants simply vanished. Her mother is a teller of stories. Natalie, like any 13 year old, is prone to disbelief. There is also the story of Old Tom Guyot, the town musician and drifter, and the day he beat the Devil in a guitar match. (The Devil, being a sore-loser, has supposedly had it out for Old Tom and Arcane ever since.) There is the story of Simon Cofferett, who has lived in a mansion on the edge of the village for far longer than just one lifetime. There are a lot of stories.
It is not until 'Dr. Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show' comes to town with his army of automata, fantastic devices, and miraculous cures, that Natalie begins to suspect there is some truth to the old town legends. There is something very wrong with Dr. Limberleg's machines. His cures come with strings attached. The town is promptly hoodwinked as the snake-oil salesman preys on both their collective and individual fears. It is in many ways a scary story, although no scarier than your average Goosebumps installment. Milford is a wizard with realistic villains. There are no vampires or werewolves or mummies. Just a few very flawed human beings, and maybe a spectre or two in disguise. The Boneshaker, for all its spooky elements, is far more concerned with courage. Courage in the face of fear, illustrated best, I think, in the words of Old Tom: 'When there's evil standing in your way, you got to get around it however you can, Natalie. You got to look it in the eye, let it know you see it and that it can't creep up on you. What's dangerous is pretending it isn't there at all and letting it get closer and closer while you're looking someplace else, until suddenly evil's walking alongside you like you were two friends out for a stroll on Sunday. So you look it in the face. You tell it with your eyes that you know what it is, that it don't have you fooled. You tell it you know what good looks like.'
This book is so closely tied it is to the mythology of my own childhood that I just can't view it objectively. (See? I told you it would be impossible to review.) My father was born in the 1920's in a rural town in North Dakota, arguably, the most rural state. It was the height of the Great Depression; he was sixth out of eleven children. The first time I ever heard the words snake-oil salesman, I must have been six or seven. I had fallen prey to a particular informercial selling Barbara Mandrell records (seriously. Barbara Mandrell.), and it was torture to think I would miss out on something special if I did not act fast enough. He talked me down from that strange, manufactured fear with a story of a particular snake-oil salesman, and I think of it every time I turn on the television now late at night. Those phrases were part of my vernacular, as were so many other peculiar references to his childhood. They were from a time that seemed to me more fantasy than reality-- one of traveling medicine shows, revivalists, children moving about with absolute freedom. I couldn't tell the real from the unreal, and I think, neither could he. Whether I begged him to tell the story of the axe-races, Uncle Ora meeting the devil (who looked just like everybody else), or the time they fell into the sewage with their new Sunday suits on, nobody much cared whether they were true stories or not, because they were the kind of true that mattered.
My father understood, as someone born at that time into a very large family, under those very precarious circumstances, that children don't mind when the legend and reality get all mixed up, when God and the Devil duke it out before your eyes. Also, that most kids love to be scared out of their wits. When I remember my father, as I often do on Father's Day, I remember him this way, telling stories late into the night, with my younger sister and I huddled on our parents' bed. I'm usually a whiz when it comes to figuring out what will get kids excited about a particular book, but I'm at a loss here. I can't say that I've had this experience before. Have you ever read a book that seemed to echo your own memories so closely that you couldn't separate the two? I know that readers of all ages will love The Boneshaker, but in very different ways. I could tell you that the writing is amazing, about the incredible sense of mystery, the characters, the heart-stopping action, but in the end, it is about Milford's ability to suspend our disbelief. Smoke and mirrors help us spot the smoke and mirrors, and truth is more truthful when it's slippery. I guess it just might win a Newbery Honor after all.
Wishing you a Happy Friday, and Happy Father's Day, friends.