New York, 1893: “Look at someone on the street and you may never see that person again—ever. Then you bump into a stranger and your whole changes—forever.”
Hawking newspapers on the street is no way to make a living, especially when all you make over expenses is eight cents for five or six hours. But Maks (not Max) Geless, 13, has to hustle ‘cause his parents (who came here ‘bout 15 years ago from Denmark), still can’t talk the language too good and are stuck in low-money jobs. It’s not so bad, ‘cept when a tough mug like Bruno and his gang of plug-uglies are laying for you to steal you blind, and when they’ve backed you up in an alley this raggedly girl who calls herself Willa drives ‘em off with a stick and you have to take her home for dinner ‘cause she’s hungry even though she’s tight-lipped as a banker’s purse. And then, when you get home, you’re smacked with the bad news that your favorite sister Emma, a maid at the Waldorf, got accused of stealing a watch and the cops threw her in the slammer! Not a good day. But Maks knows his sister is innocent, and he has four days to prove it . . .
That should give you an idea of the voice. The story moves along at a good clip with realistic details that breathe authenticity: “Even the air is crowded. Crisscrossing telephone lines make the smoky sky look like lined paper. Hundreds of signs posted here, there, and everywhere.” Immigrant life in the big city during the 1890s was no lark; as Mama says, “People are freer in America. But there are more tears.” Whatever their trials, the family is solid and determined to stick together and do what it takes. I was afraid it going to get political and anti-capitalist, but Avi, a veteran of children’s literature, doesn’t let politics get in the way of a good story. It comes to a strong, if coincidental, conclusion, though the reader may forget some early foreshadowing that isn’t developed. But decent pacing, sympathetic characters, and fully-realized setting make this a contender in the historical fiction genre.
“My name is P. K. Pinkerton, and before this day is over I will be dead.” P.K. has found a stack of ledger sheets at the bottom of the Mexican mine on the outskirts of Virginia City, and is writing this account while waiting for the inevitable death blow from his nemesis, “Whittlin’ Walt” Darmitage. With an opening like that, the reader who anticipates a wild ride will not be disappointed—not only imminent danger and hairbreadth escapes, but plenty of old-west lore and color. P.K. himself is a case in point: a half-breed autistic savant and devout Methodist who can do complex sums in his head but can’t read faces. The latter is a handicap that, he solemnly informs us in the first chapter, is his thorn. “My foster Ma Evangeline used to say that when God gives you a Gift he always gives you a Thorn in your side to keep you humble.” With his straightforward, slightly antique voice and avoidance of contractions P.K. reminds me of the great Mattie Ross, and no wonder—the author cites True Grit as an inspiration.
Our hero was adopted by a Methodist minister now homesteading in a tiny burg in Nevada: “Pa said he would build a town where there was nothing to tempt a person to sin. He said it would make his job easier. That shows you how little he knew about human nature.” Human nature has its dark side, as P.K. discovers when he comes home from school to find his foster parents dead and scalped on the floor of their cabin. Ma has enough life in her to tell him it wasn’t Indians, but a band of desperados who are after the boy for something he does not know the value of. As P.K. soon learns, they are not easily deterred.
Despite some comic flourishes, Walt is no comic villain, but a psychopath who would not think twice about carving up a 12-year-old boy to get what he wants. The chase takes P.K. to Virginia City, heart of the silver-mining boom of the 1860s, where he meets Belle Donne, a “soiled dove,” Ping, a Celestial, Poker-Face Jace, a gambler, and a newspaperman named Sam Clemens. The action is nonstop, the characterization is sharp, the voice is authentic, the details fascinating, and the author throws a couple of plot twists that will stun readers as much as characters. In fact, there’s a bit of gender-bending I haven’t totally figured out—and what’s the connection with Gal. 3:28 (“You are all one in Christ Jesus”)? Some parents might object to Belle Donne (though references to her profession are oblique, and she’s not entirely sympathetic), the use of hell as a swear word, and a primer in poker tells compliments of Poker-Faced Jace. But I was liking it just fine until near the end, when Jace takes the name of Jesus in vain. It’s in character, but there’s no other reason, and it’s something we see in children’s literature more all the time. If that objection is enough to avoid the book, I understand; I wrote about my own objections to such language here.
But Sam Clemens gets to work in a few bon mots, particularly during the finale, while P.K. is deciding whether to pursue his fledgling detective business or go to school: “I never let school interfere with my education,” says Sam. Neither does P.K., meaning there will probably be more Pinkerton Detective novels in the future. I like this character a lot; just hope he finds some more wholesome companions.
Historical fiction is my favorite genre, but there may be less and less of it. See “Is Historical Fiction Dead?” and the accompanying links for more thoughts.