I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody too?
Fifteen-year-old Emily is only somewhat embarrassed when a handsome young stranger finds her lying in a field of wildflowers trying to convince a bee to land on her nose. He quickly sets her at her ease, though, and while they never exchange names—they call each other Mr. and Miss Nobody—it’s quite clear from the first moment that they are kindred spirits, and she very much looks forward to seeing him again soon.
A few days later, he is found dead in a nearby pond.
So begins Michaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, a mystery starring a young Emily Dickinson, and the first in a series that, according to the press copy, “imagines great literary figures as teenage crime solvers.” Which is an intriguing concept, though this installment sadly doesn’t pan out as well in practice as it does in theory.
Aspects of it work. Fans of Emily Dickinson—well, those who don’t find the basic premise vaguely sacrilegious*—will definitely appreciate the requisite bee, gingerbread and coconut cake cameos, but more especially the poetry that MacColl uses in the chapter headings and directly in the narrative. Newbies, meanwhile—although Emily is 15, I’d peg this book as an upper middle-grade/lower-YA crossover—will hopefully discover how easily accessible and enjoyable Dickinson’s poetry can be. Also, while they aren’t always integrated into the storyline particularly smoothly—many of the scenes read as if the author was writing directly from her research notes—the details given about everyday life in the Dickinson household are so well-chosen that my appetite has been whetted for more**.
The major problem is that, in a word, Nobody’s Secret plods. It’s possible that it could have worked as short fiction, but there’s so little story here that 230 pages feels really, really long. It’s clear that the author has an appreciation for her subject both as a person and a poet, but the characters—including Emily, which is especially unfortunate—never make the shift from two-dimensional characters into three-dimensional people. Ultimately, it has the emotional impact of a shoebox diorama. In other words, it’s flat. Which, considering the humor and grace and empathy and depth found in Dickinson’s poetry, is a real shame.
While this one wasn’t for me, I’ll keep an eye out for the next book in the series. Who knows? Maybe a different protagonist will make all the difference. In the meantime, I’ll track down Kathryn Burak’s Edgar finalist Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things. Well, that or re-read Jane Langton’s Emily Dickinson is Dead. Love that book.
*I admit it: Before I really thought it through, my hackles went up. But I reminded myself that while Dickinson was very protective of her privacy in her adult life, she was quite social as a teenager.
**I’ll be tracking down a biography in the very near future—any recommendations?
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.