Curiosity, by Gary Blackwood. Dutton, 2014, 310 pages.
Philadelphia, 1836: Rufus Goodspeed has led a sheltered life as the only child of his sheltered father, a Methodist minister. Partially crippled from birth (which birth also took his mother), Rufus feels he’s good for nothing but a life of the mind, and fortunately his mind is prodigious, especially when it comes to playing chess. The logicality and predictability of the game consume him—but then his life takes an unpredictable turn. Logical enough, though, considering Rev. Goodspeed’s ability to lose himself in a project to the neglect of practical matters. While working on a manuscript called The Development of Species (a pre-Darwinian speculation) he expends his funds, loses his job and ends up in debtor’s prison. Rufus ends up on the street, where a chain of circumstances lead him to the itinerant showman Johann Maelzel, his brooding technician Jacques, and “the Turk”—an internationally-known, chess-playing automaton. Rufus’s small size and chess acumen suit him perfectly to be the brains of the Turk.
Blackwood is a master of historical detail—for example, note his description of the street noises in Richmond. His characters are believably of their time, a rare quality in historical fiction for kids. As a plucky hero resolved to “accept any situation with good grace” (the chief moral principle his father passed on), Rufus endures a lot of ill treatment without succumbing to bitterness or broken spirit, but also learns more than he’d like about the world’s sorrows: “That’s the trouble with being so all-fired curious; sometimes you find out things you’d rather not know.” He will encounter some happier surprises along the way, and his amiable temperament and dry sense of humor make him an appealing guide to early 19th-century America.
Overall Quality: 4 out of 5
Cautions: Intense situations
Audience: Independent readers, boys, history buffs
Recommended use: Historical setting, Entertainment, Point of view
Awards: WORLD Children’s Book of the Year Honorable Mention