Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Literary Awards: YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2011)
Thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks loves machines, particularly automata—self-operating mechanical devices, usually powered by clockwork. When Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show arrive in her small Missouri town with a mysterious vehicle under a tarp and an uncanny ability to make Natalie’s half-built automaton move, she feels in her gut that something about this caravan of healers is a bit off. Her uneasiness leads her to investigate the intricate maze of the medicine show, where she discovers a horrible truth and realizes that only she has the power to set things right. Set in 1914, The Boneshaker is a gripping, richly textured novel about family, community, courage, and looking evil directly in the face in order to conquer it.
I have put off reviewing The Boneshaker for some time now because it leaves me feeling absolutely inadequate to the task. It is quite possibly one of the best books I have ever read.
The Boneshaker is the story of Natalie Minks, a young tomboy with a passionate love of all things mechanical. Few things give her more pleasure than tinkering with her father on their automata, unless it is perhaps her red Chesterlane, a beautiful boneshaker of a bicycle he built for her. Except that she cannot ride it just yet. She has grown up in a small Missouri town near a crossroads, listening to her mother's fantastical stories of the town and it's people, because all things are possible at a crossroad. And it is in this way that The Boneshaker becomes a story of stories. Tom Guyot's victory over the devil with a guitar that can talk. The mysterious drifter. Simon Cofferett's frightening jump, and his uncanny youth for one who has lived just outside town as long as anyone can remember. When 'Dr. Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show' comes into town with intricate automata, fantastic healing machines and miraculous cures, Natalie begins to realize there is more truth in her mother's stories than she previously suspected.
Though a steampunk novel (for kids!), The Boneshaker is so much more. There are layers upon layers to it. The language is so evocative of the region and time about which she writes that her fantasy feels like truth. This absolutely could have been Missouri in 1914, it just wasn't. It makes me think of my Grandmother, and the way she would say, "sometimes it's easier to see the truth when it's in a story." Everything about it feels real from the dusty roads under her bicycle tires to the taunting boys down the lane. You can hear the music as Tom Guyot plays. No, really. You can.
"Tom's humming turned into strange syllables, sounds that weren't words but sort of broken pieces of words, bits and bobs of song dodging and darting over and around and under the music of the guitar, rising and falling and ducking, and every once in a while climbing sharp and clear and plaintive...
It made a strange tableau, and plenty of people paused to look: the old black man singing blissfully with the guitar flashing sunset colors on his knees; and the sweaty, bruised, and scraped girl, unmoving and rapt, absently holding on to a bizarre bicycle with her head cocked like a bird's. Neither of them noticed anyone else's stares." (p32-33)
It is like Milford lifted the essence, the very life force, of the folklore of an entire region, and slipped it into her novel. I could feel my grandparents in it. I could hear the echos of their parents. I caught myself, over and over again, stopping to savor something I had just read. As soon as I finished the book, I immediately read it again, only out loud to my husband and son. We spent weeks lingering over it, bellowing to sell wares or whispering in fear. It almost feels wrong to NOT give voice to the words, to NOT have the Boneshaker become the very oral history it describes.
The Boneshaker is the kind of book that will grow with you. A mid-grade reader could pick it up and be entranced by the mystery, captivated by Natalie's courage. A few years later, they may better understand the fear motivating the choices Natalie's father and brother made about her mother; grasp the deeper, darker elements of the story that are always running just under the surface. It talks about darkness and light, good and bad, courage and weakness in a way that just leaves me breathless at times for its beauty. The different meanings of this book are so multilayered that different readers of different ages will experience what is happening in very different ways, none of them wrong. If I could, I would give a copy of this book to every boy or girl I know. Adults, too.
I purchase my copy from Barnes and Noble.
Review also on Goodreads