[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up to a special post on Yang’s book.]
On more overt and more subtle lessons from a tale of historical horror.
More than five years ago (ah, how time flies when you’re AmericanStudying!) I wrote a post about young adult novelist John Bellairs and his supernatural horror novel The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull (1984). In the years since I’ve had the chance to share Bellairs’ books with my sons, and we’ve experienced together the chills and discomfort (in a good sense) about which I wrote in that post. I don’t know many other children’s authors like Bellairs, but earlier this year we discovered a book that’s very much in his tradition: Kate Milford’s wonderful The Boneshaker (2010). Moreover, while Bellairs’ books do tend to be set in a vaguely past moment (to feel slightly antiquated on purpose, that is), Milford’s novel is much more overtly historical: it’s set in 1913 Missouri (in the fictional crossroads town of Arcane), and is as interested in conjuring up that historical period and place as in its teenage protagonist Natalie Minks and the supernatural horrors she and her family and friends face. As a result, The Boneshaker communicates a number of complex and compelling historical lessons along with more than its fair share of chills.
Many of the novel’s most overt historical lessons concern the constrasting yet interconnected presences of traditional and modernizing influences in that 1913 moment. Without spoiling any specifics, I can safely say that the novel’s villains are a group of traveling snake-oil salesmen, huckers and con artists led by the sinister Jake Limberleg. They gain access to the town in part because the more modern Doc Fitzwater departs in the opening chapter, driving his fancy new car to a neighboring town that has been struck by a flu epidemic. In between those two ends of the spectrum are Natalie and her family: her father is a mechanic obsessed with new technologies (an obsession and set of skills he has passed on to Natalie), while her mother is a kind of town mystic who knows its past and stories (knowledge and talents she has likewise passed on to Natalie). To combat Jake and his crew, Natalie needs both sides of her heritage and identity, offering a compelling case for the roles of both past and future. But even beyond the book’s plot, these distinct influences position 13 year old Natalie as a particularly interesting representive of a moment and nation on the cusp of the 20th century but still very much linked to and defined by its 19th century past. That’s a complicated but crucial historical lesson, and one Milford’s book conveys on these multiple levels of setting, plot, and characterization.
The novel features a number of other interesting characters, but for both me and my sons by far the most compelling was old Tom Guyot. A supremely talented African American guitarist whose story features a prominent crossroads encounter with the Devil, Tom clearly echoes Robert Johnson, the real yet semi-mythic blues guitarist who was born in neighboring Mississippi just two years before The Boneshaker is set. Yet Tom differs from Johnson in a couple key ways: he was born into slavery, and brings that historical legacy into the novel; and he chose not to make a deal with the Devil during their crossroads encounter, a choice that echoes into the novel’s present and plot in many ways. Moreover, Tom becomes a crucial mentor and friend for Natalie, a role that partly echoes that of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (another novel set in Missouri) but with none of that novel’s controversial and (to this AmericanStudier) too casual racism. In an understated but potent way, then, Tom allows Milford to revise longstanding mythic images of African Americans (such as Johnson and Jim), to make slavery and its legacies part of her book’s setting and historical moment, and to feature a powerful and heroic African American character (something still too rare in much children’s and young adult literature). Just one more vital historical (and contemporary) lesson in a book the boys and I highly recommend.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?
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