Emily isn't a conventional 15-year-old girl, at least not for 1846. She neglects her household duties to lie in the grass and visit with the bees, she loves to think and talk about big ideas, and she dreams of making a mark on the world. And she writes poetry in a carefully concealed notebook.
Emily is, in fact, Emily Dickinson, one of America's greatest poets. She's also the heroine of "Nobody's Secret," an acclaimed new young adult novel by Michaela MacColl.
MacColl's fascination with the elusive Dickinson and her verse is evident throughout the story. It's a highly fictionalized account of the young Emily -- the 15 year old turns amateur sleuth after a man is found drowned on her family's property. But the novelist has done her research thoroughly, filling the story with authentic historical details, as well as snippets of and allusions to Dickinson's poems.
As the story opens, Emily meets an attractive stranger who tells her he's in town "to take care of some family business." Though they quickly strike up a friendship, she never learns his name; he tells her simply, "I'm nobody important," and (in a nod to one of Dickinson's most famous poems), she responds, "I'm nobody too." This makes things complicated when his body turns up in the Dickinsons' pond.
Apparently no one else in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, knows the young man's name, either, or anything else about him. The town constable declares that the death was accidental, but Emily isn't convinced, and decides that it's up to her to find out what really happened to "Mr. Nobody."
In many ways, "Nobody's Secret" is an enjoyable historical mystery, with a bright, determined young protagonist. Though more than one death occurs in the story, there is little overt violence. Religion is generally treated favorably; Emily and her mysterious friend banter about how they'd rather worship God outside of church (again, a reflection of themes found in Dickinson's work), but they both speak reverently of Him and His works. Later, when she is investigating the murder, Emily finds the local minister sympathetic to her quest.
As well, Emily shows signs of admirable character development. For much of the story she is in perpetual conflict with her mother, who couldn't be more different from the headstrong Emily. Mrs. Dickinson's life is dominated by fear of the outside world, fear of poverty, and a preoccupation with domesticity and propriety, which often lead her to repress both of her daughters. But over time, both Emily and the reader come to know her a little better, and, if not to agree with her, at least to understand some of her concerns.
The book's major flaw is its reliance on the old trope that an inquisitive teenager makes a better and more dedicated detective than any of the adults around her. That trope has been used to good effect in the past, of course, as any reader of Nancy Drew will attest. But in this book's generally more realistic setting, it's inconceivable that hardly anyone, except for one girl, cares at all about getting to the bottom of this young man's death. This incongruity detracts from an otherwise well-constructed mystery. Still, "Nobody's Secret" is a good read overall, and will appeal particularly to young fans of history and literature.
Image copyright Chronicle Books.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.
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