Strange things can happen at a crossroads, and the crossroads a mile east of the small town of Arcane, Missouri (circa 1913) is one of the strangest. The ruined buildings of a place now known only as the Old Village are all that remain of an ancient town following a mysterious disaster that occurred long, long ago. What happened is barely known, though enough rumours exist that make for some excellent stories, and stories are the life-blood of young Natalie Minks, the daughter of Arcane’s machine-shop owner.
On the surface, Natalie Minks lives a quiet life. In Arcane, the departure of the town’s doctor (by car) who has to go to Pinnacle (the next town over) to deal with a flu epidemic there is such big news that half the town shows up to see him go. But Natalie is anything but ordinary. Her first love are the automobiles, bicycles and other machines that her father helps fix. The two of them have made a hobby of building complicated clockwork automata, including a model of the Wright brothers’ flyer. And Natalie keeps trying to ride around town on a restored Chesterfield Eidolon, a boneshaker of a bicycle that steadfastly refuses to be ridden.
And while there are plenty of your average small town people for Natalie to interact with, including your typical bully George Stills, the flightily and frilly Miranda, the sensible druggest Mr. Finch and the mean-spirited busybody Mrs Byron, there is far more to the town than meets the eye. Consider the old African-American Tom Guyot, former slave and veteran of the War Between the States who sits around all day strumming his homemade guitar and who, it is said, was challenged to a musical duel by the Devil himself, and won. And what about Simon Coffrett, the richest person in town, who lives on a mansion on the hill, but about whom nobody knows anything? And what about Mrs. Minks, Natalie’s mother, who knows a lot of these stories about Arcane and the Old Village, and shares them with her daughter? How did she come to know them when some of them couldn’t possibly have been told?
Strange though the town is, its quiet existence is still disrupted when an even stranger travelling medicine show is forced to stop in town due to a lost wheel and decides to set up shop (something that the owners of the show are initially reluctant to do, having just performed their huckstering in Pinnacle). The showman, “Doctor” Jake Limberleg, tries to dispel the image of a snake oil salesman, but there is something very odd about the patent medicines he is selling. For one thing, his cures work (much to the alarm of the town’s druggest Mr. Finch). But how, and why? Is it possible that there is something far more sinister at work here, and is the good health that the citizens of Arcane are buying with Limberleg’s cures coming in exchange for something far more dear?
It’s up to Natalie and her friends to find out what is going on, but Natalie has another worry: her mother, the great storyteller, is falling ill. Worse, neither her father nor her older brother know what to do. And with the town’s doctor in Pinnacle dealing with the mysterious flu there, might they be tempted to try Limberleg’s medicine?
Kate Milford’s debut novel, The Boneshaker is, after Plain Kate, the best book I’ve read in 2010. The story starts slowly, with a meandering narrative that might discourage readers who prefer to jump into the action, but the book is the work of a master storyteller. After page 40, when Mrs. Minks settles down to tell Natalie the story of Old Tom Guyot and his duel with the Devil, we enter a different world. This part of the Boneshaker has the feel of something that would be told around the campfire, in the dark, and never forgotten. Milford’s voice is perfect, and the tale is riveting. Here, the story reaches out, grabs you, and holds you in place until it comes to an end. And, of course, it helps that the tale is absolutely true.
The Boneshaker quickly moves on, building a big plot around the small town. Natalie Minks finds herself in the thick of an epic battle between good and evil, where there are more than two sides in this fight, and the fate of the whole town of Arcane lies in the balance. She has to piece together the mystery of Dr. Limberleg, why his patent medicines work, and how it is possible that his own mechanical automata work forever, without the need of a clockwork key.
Some have compared Milford’s Boneshaker to the works of Ray Bradbury (particularly Something Wicked This Way Comes), but I think that sells the author short. The story has many subtleties and, like the best storytellers, Milford borrows from many sources, and makes the mix her own. Natalie Minks is a wonderful heroine: sweet, smart and stubborn, but the characters around her are no less detailed. There’s a particularly good development that takes place around Miranda that shows the character in a whole new light and made me appreciate the story all the more. The good characters have flaws, other characters rise to the occasion, and not all of the villains are wholly evil, except for one. In the end, the fate of the whole town of Arcane rests on the shoulders of one thirteen-year-old girl, who has to face down the Devil himself.
Some readers may quibble about certain parts of the book. The plot takes a little while to get started, and some of the dialogue goes on for too long (the conversation Natalie has with Simon Coffrett in particular; given who he is likely to be, I thought Natalie was really pushing her luck sticking around and asking so many extra questions). I also had trouble picturing Arcane as being set just before the First World War — with all the reference to electricity and dust, I kept on thinking we needed to be in a Great Depression setting, but I suspect that this is my own bias speaking.
The book includes illustrations by Andrea Offermann, which complement the story very well. I admit, I had my own image of what Arcane and its citizens looked like in my head, and Offermann’s work didn’t intrude on or contradict them.
The Boneshaker is storytelling at its finest, rich in history and in detail, full of characters to cheer for, dealing with the oldest battle in fiction and stakes that simply could not be higher. You must read it. It starts slow, but give it a chance. You will be charmed, you will be riveted, and you will have the pleasure of closing the book on a good story, well told.