Title: Nobody’s Secret
Author: Michaela MacColl
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Publication Date: April 30, 2013
Hardcover: 240 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: No, there’s no magic whatsoever (although Emily is accused of being a witch).
The protagonist of “Nobody’s Secret” is: Emily Dickinson, girl detective! MacColl crafts a work of historical fiction and mystery based on one of Dickinson’s poems, which reads,
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Fifteen-year old Emily, out in the fields behind her house one day trying to convince a bee to land on her nose instead of tending to her domestic duties, meets a handsome stranger who introduces himself to her as Mr. Nobody. Though they only meet a handful of times over the course of a few days, and though she never learns his name, Emily comes to consider him a friend, one of the only people who understands her Soul. Then, he turns up dead.
His body is found floating in the pond behind the Dickinson home and the authorities are quick to dismiss his death as an accidental drowning. Emily, who has a scrupulous eye for detail, has her doubts. Before he died, Mr. Nobody told her that he was in town to settle an unpleasant family affair. That fact, coupled with the blue skin beneath his nails, the strange flower found in the collar of his shirt, curious treadmarks found in the mud by the shoreline, and the clothes he was wearing at the time of his death which fit neither his style nor his frame, suggest to Emily that there was nothing accidental about his death. She resolves to uncover the truth herself, because “Not one stranger in a thousand would have understood why she wanted a bee to land on her nose. Or would see the humor in her ridiculous parents. Or agree that one could worship God anywhere” (50). He was special. And he deserved better.
This book could have been ridiculous, and I was worried that it would be. When I told one of my coworkers, who is a Young Adult Librarian, that I was planning to read it, she grimaced and said that she’d read a scathing review which tore it apart. When I mentioned it to my boss, she objected “But wouldn’t that mean that she would’ve had to have left her house?”(What I learned in the author’s afterward was that though Dickinson had a reputation for being a hermit, those habits came about in her adult life. As a teen, she was remarkably social and sought out company). I read it despite these preliminary objections, and I actually really, really enjoyed it. And as a general rule, I don’t even like mysteries!
Admittedly, I wouldn’t have noticed if there were any glaring inaccuracies or details that proved incongruent with Emily’s actual biography or character. In high school, I was one of those ignorant saps who dismissed her poetry on a technicality. I resented her unconventional use of capital letters and dashes, and really I was just being haughty. (Also, my best friend had a literary crush on her and we disagreed about everything. So I probably disliked her just to be contrary). Now, after having worked a surprisingly high-paying gig as a Professional Writing Tutor (my pockets are still mad that I left for something less profitable), I’m ironically more lax. You’d think the experience would’ve made me even more pretentious and hoity-toity, but it didn’t. If someone wants to get creative with their capitalization, so be it. If they want to throw some dashes around as a stylistic manuever, I’ll respect them a lot more for it than if they were whipping their hair around (and secretly, I even think that song’s a little catchy). You may have noticed that I’m a little loose with my commas, – and my dashes. So I have no criticisms or insight on that front. But as a freestanding story, I thought it was great.
The characters were engaging and well-drawn. I loved Emily for her rejection of conventional femininity, for her sense of wonder and appreciation of the natural world, for her desire for adventure and freedom, and for her knowledge that “some things are more important than propriety” (114). It’s true that MacColl had a wealth of source material at her disposal when creating her protagonist, but some things were pure invention. In her afterward, MacColl attempts to separate some of the fact from fiction, and I found that one of my favorite details from the story was an example of the latter; While there’s no suggestion that the real Emily ever did so, MacColl’s Emily replaces the stiff whalebone in her corset with a handmade notebook, which can be extracted at her discretion. Though none of the side characters (Emily’s sister, her mother, various townspeople and suspects) are as convincingly sketched, none are unlikeable or unbelievable.
The pace never dragged, and though I didn’t wasn’t eager to find out who the killer was, it’s simply because I never am. That’s just not what draws me to a story. And when I did find out whodunnit, I wasn’t disappointed.
The prose was delicate and true, without contriving to imitate Dickinson’s style. I think that would have been a cheesy mistake. Instead, it’s simply infused with her mood and character. There’s morbid curiosity, but there’s also beauty and awe.
If I liked mysteries more, I’m sure I’d be even more enthusiastic about “Mr. Nobody,” but as it stands, I’m simply happy that I read it. I’m the picture of contentment.
My biggest complaint is that it was printed on really thin paper, which made it difficult to turn the pages. Especially with paws that were sticky from sunblock (the insides of my ears have a tendency to burn). And really, that’s no complaint at all.
Pooka Rating: 3.95 out of 5
*They also could’ve done a better job with the dust jacket. The cover’s not especially artful. I hope they go in a drastically different direction with the paperback. Two fewer people; more bees, or lavender, or foxglove. Or bleeding-hearts! Maybe something sun-dappled.