Twelve-year-old Rufus Goodspeed is dangerously good at chess.
Rufus’ “freakish prowess” for the game—and his unusually small size—lands him in a tight spot indeed when he’s employed by an ill-tempered showman named Johann Maelzel to be the brains behind “the Turk,” a wax-headed mechanical man in Turkish garb advertised as “the Original and Celebrated Automaton Chess Player.” Wedged inside a hidden wooden cabinet and breathing acrid candle smoke, Rufus plays chess on stage with unseen opponents via an ingenious mechanical system—all in the hope of earning money for his imprisoned father. The Turk was a real-life 19th-century contraption, and this novel focuses on its history after Maelzel brings it from Europe to Philadelphia in 1835, spurring wild public speculation about its inner workings, the intense scrutiny of then-journalist Edgar Allan Poe and man-vs.-machine debates that continue to this day. The suspenseful narrative unfolds through the first-person voice of the fictional Rufus, a sickly, stooped yet strong-spirited boy who never loses his insatiable curiosity or his passion for chess even through bouts of abuse, near-starvation, deceit and, alas, unrequited love.
A thrilling look at the 19th-century age of automata—“a time of curiosity-seekers”—and the riveting story of a likable Philadelphia boy whose life of the mind helps him transcend his extraordinary, oft-cruel circumstances. (afterword) (Historical fiction. 11-14)