Arcane, Missouri is filled with odd stories about the town and the crossroads. Just ask Natalie Minks. She might only be thirteen, but she already knows all about the eerie goings on at the crossroads thanks to her excellent storyteller (and terrible cook) mother.
As much as Natalie loves a good story, she loves machines and gears more. Her father is an expert bicycle mechanic and Natalie is learning too–it’s 1913 after all and machines are popping up everywhere.
Even, it turns out, in traveling bands of snake oil salesmen.
Doctor Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show promises entertainment, information, and a cure for any and all ailments. Natalie is enchanted by all of the bicycles and automata the show brings along with its tents and patent medicines. But she can’t shake the nagging feeling that something is wrong, horribly wrong, with the medicine show and its four Paragons of Science.
To figure out how wrong the medicine show is Natalie will have to get to the bottom of an age-old bargain, tame the fastest bicycle in the world, cash in a dangerous favor, and ask a lot of costly questions–all before the medicine show can take Arcane for everything it’s worth in The Boneshaker (2010) by Kate Milford with illustrations by Andrea Offermann.*
The Boneshaker is Milford’s first novel.
The Boneshaker tackles a lot of narrative ground with unexplained visions, mysterious automatons, strange bargains, and a whole town’s secrets. The ending of the story leaves a lot up in the air with Natalie’s future and even her place in the town. The narrative also takes a lot of time to tie things together and explain details of the lore surrounding Arcane as well as to explain certain things Natalie begins to learn in the story. The premise is interesting and Natalie is a great protagonist but the whole package was not quite as well-realized (or resolved) as it could have been.
That said, Milford writes like a natural storyteller. The opening pages of this story draw readers in with prose that sounds like a traditional folk tale and a setting that immediately evokes the era and feel of a midwestern town at the turn of the last century. Everything about The Boneshaker is charming from Natalie and her cantankerous bicycle to the vivid illustrations by Offermann that bring Natalie’s world to life.
This story is well-written and will find many fans in readers of fantasies and historical novels alike.
*The Boneshaker is not to be confused by a similarly titled but completely different book by Cherie Priest called Boneshaker.
Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Exclusive Bonus Content: This is probably just me, but The Boneshaker reminded me a lot of Plain Kate–the book that I had the most issues with from 2010. Like Plain Kate this book starts with the whimsical feel of a light(ish)-hearted middle grade novel. Then by the end it veers into dark (very dark in the case of Plain Kate) territory that grounds the story more firmly in the young adult audience area. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but it felt like a big leap here that did not work effectively for me (though as I said, I might be particularly touchy about this since I’ve noticed it in several books already).