I first heard about this from Joanne Fritz, another MMGM blogger, and I knew this would be right up my alley. I’ve never read Gary Blackwood before (I know!) , but now I’m a fan. I loved it so much, I passed it along to my 12-year-old, who’s devouring it as well.
When I asked him what the best part was, he said: “The part where they describe how the automaton works!”
Here’s the synopsis:
Philadelphia, PA, 1835. Rufus, a twelve-year-old chess prodigy, is recruited by a shady showman named Maelzel to secretly operate a mechanical chess player called the Turk. The Turk wows ticket-paying audience members and players, who do not realize that Rufus, the true chess master, is hidden inside the contraption. But Rufus’s job working the automaton must be kept secret, and he fears he may never be able to escape his unscrupulous master. And what has happened to the previous operators of the Turk, who seem to disappear as soon as Maelzel no longer needs them? Creeping suspense, plenty of mystery, and cameos from Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum mark Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction.
What I loved about this book:
- The main character. His disability is integral to the plot and who he is, but he never feels sorry for himself. I love how his motto is “whatever your fate is, accept it with good grace,” although that gets challenged throughout the book.
- The real historical tie-ins. My son was intrigued, because he’d heard of the Turk. I loved the tie-ins with Edgar Allen Poe—he really did write about the Turk. The fact that there were so many “real” things about this book made it feel authentic. I see how this book would be interesting to use as a read-aloud in the classroom.
- The interesting narration. The narrator (the main character, Rufus) is often reflecting on his story. “Every person’s life has its dark corners, of course, but I suspect that mine has had more than most…I’m only warning you, in case you’re easily upset.” This brings humor to the otherwise tense narrative, but it also adds authenticity. Books from Rufus’ time period often broke the third wall, talking to the reader, and I loved how the author did this.
- A behind-the-scenes look at automatons and early 19th century life. I loved all the details about how the automaton worked, phrenology, and the exhibition in Raleigh.
- A book for boys that’s smart. As a parent, I find it hard to find fiction for my 12 year old, who prefers reading nonfiction. It’s often assumed boys like action-action-action, but he likes books with smart characters and interesting science or historical tie-ins. I wish there were more books like this!If you like suspenseful historicals, automatons, or Edgar Allen Poe, check out this book!
If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.