March 10, 2015


Those of us who were English majors can be some of the biggest sticklers for facts, just the facts, ma'am, when it comes to our literary giants. We might argue loudly about canon, be Holmes buffs who tend to be wary of fan fiction, and dispute over details of costume in a Victorian cosplay. We're picky, picky, picky, some of us.

You might approach this young adult mystery -- starring Emily Dickinson -- Yes, that Emily -- THE Emily -- she of the dashes -- with trepidation --

-- but, you have nothing to fear.

Summary: In a tiny, claustrophobic New England town lives the daughter of a very well-known and wealthy, busy, fussy founder of Amherst College and his fussy, hypochondriac wife. Their eldest, Emily, is the plain older sister to lively, merry, beautiful little sister Lavinia; suffering ill-health for much of her life, she is like a wren caged. Even though she doesn't get out much, Emily Elizabeth knows she's ...different than other girls. She doesn't mind dirt, prefers to be outside as often as possible and loosen - or outright lose - part of her whalebone stays, and always has grass or leaves somewhere they oughtn't be. Except when her mother fusses at her, Emily's unbothered by being thought peculiar; scribbling in her "odd ideas" in her "secret notebooks" and closely observing the world is what makes her happy. That, and ducking out on chores. A chance meeting with a charming man who not only has no interest in her well-known parent, but styles a "Mr. Nobody" brightens her day. Emily knows well what it is to be a Nobody, too. When she finds Mr. Nobody face down in the family's pond, however, the blooming friendship crumbles into grief. If only she had asked his name a second time!

No one seems to know the identity of the dead man, though the whole village trots through to take a look at him -- Worse, no one seems to really care how he died. The Reverend and the doctor are prepared to put him in an unmarked grave, and go about their business. But he's not a nobody - not to Emily. Perhaps nobody but Emily cares to discover the truth behind the mercurial and troubled young man she met, but she - scribbler and thinker, observer of minutiae... she, Emily Dickinson, girl poet, is on the case -- whether it sends her mother into a fit of vapors or not.

Peaks: Obviously, from the time spent on the summary, I want you to read this book, so I crammed in as much detail as I felt. Reading this book feels much like time-traveling to a lovely little place - albeit one where a murder has taken place.

The joy of this book is that its voice is so clear it feels like meeting Emily Dickinson for a second, better time than in school, in a time and place set aside for such wonderful things. The character seems drawn from life - by turns impertinent and guilty, protesting and apologizing. She is so very real - and so very charming, quirky and unsentimental -- a wonderfully apt understudy for Sherlock and Mycroft's little sister.

Valleys: As this is a novel set in 1845 in Massachusetts, one of the earliest of the states to both adapt to slavery and to abandon it, that there is a singular person of color featured seems unusual. Perhaps since Emily doesn't leave the house much, she had limited opportunities to see freed slaves and workers about their work. At any rate, the one freed workman is caricatured as "big," and "simple," with "darting eyes" and "giant fists." When confronted, he speaks briefly, then runs away. It seems a shame that this description hews so closely to the 19th century stereotype of the African American male as oversized, brutish, childlike/childish, slow-minded and easily spooked.

Conclusion: This book has so much to offer - a charming sense of place, the unique voice and inner-mind of a closely-written and researched character, the freshness of a vividly real dead-body-whodunnit mystery, the eye-opening inclusion of snippets of Emily Dickinson's actual poetry. All of this combines to create a well-told tale "told slant," and this short but engaging mystery will delight readers and provide an afternoon's respite from less palatable chores.

I picked up my copy of this book @ KidLitCon, courtesy of Lara & Jamie from Chronicle Books. You can find Nobody's Secret by Michaela MacColl at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

1 comment:

Sarah Stevenson said...

I feel foolish that this one is still in my TBR pile, but I'm glad you got to it. I get all weird about books that put real historical people into fictional situations, but it sounds like this was a good one. :)