Curiosity by Gary Blackwood
The author of The Shakespeare Stealer returns with another historical novel for children. In 1835 Philadelphia, twelve-year-old Rufus has lived a sheltered life, kept inside by the curve of his spine and his small stature. Then his father is thrown into debtor’s prison and his life changes dramatically. Taken into a home for orphans, Rufus is rescued by his skill at chess and taken to live with Maelzel, a sinister man who owns a collection of automatons as well as The Turk, a chess-playing machine. Rufus is forced to hide inside the cabinet below The Turk and play chess against ticket-paying customers. He is promised a small salary with which he hopes to help his father get out of prison. But Rufus’ life is not just playing chess. He must remain hidden at all times to avoid the secret of The Turk being discovered. He can’t ever go out, making this a twisted version of his earlier sheltered life. Now he struggles to get enough to eat, to not be beaten and to find a way to not meet the dark same end as a previous Turk controller.
Blackstone’s historical fiction is rich and detailed. He offers just the right amount of information so that young readers will understand the difference in society and the way of life, but not so much to slow down the story. And what a story this is! The Turk hoax is revealed in all of its twisted, waxy glory through the eyes of a disabled young boy whose entire world has been turned upside down. Yet Rufus is always looking on the bright side, scheming himself to try to survive as best he can and yet also having a child-like wonder at things too.
Blackstone brings early 19th century America to life on the page. He populates his story with real people like Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum, adding to the already strong sense of reality in his tale. At the end of the book, the author does speak about the liberties he took with these historical figures, including making the sinister Maelzel much more evil than he seemed to be in real life.
Strong writing, a compelling story and a shining hero all make this work of historical fiction a dark delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.