Saturday, October 11, 2014

Curiosity by Gary L. Blackwood

This well-crafted book adds depth to the plot with its intricate layering of history and fiction that follows the real life of "The Turk,"a chess-playing automaton that came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1835. The event led to crazy speculations of its inner workings in the media. The author captures the time period of the industrial revolution when children were used for labor and forced to work long hours and odd jobs that fit their size such as cleaning chimneys or as in this story working the mechanisms of a machine in a cramped space. The story is enriched by true historical details such as "Godfrey's Cordial," a mixture of opium and treacle, that was given to children by parents that couldn't afford to miss work because of a sick child. It was one of the many times I found myself researching a topic outside of the story. I also looked up the Battle of Trocadero, phrenology, automatons, certain historical people, and the King's Road. Historical books can't explain everything and Gary Blackwood does a terrific job dropping nuggets left and right that piqued my interest but didn't detract from the plot. Johann Maezal really did bring The Turk to America and references to Edgar Allan Poe, his wife, and P.T. Barnum make for a fun slip into the past. Then there is the chess playing brilliance of twelve-year-old Rufus Goodspeed. I don't even like chess but I felt like an expert experiencing it through his eyes.

Rufus is hired by Johann Maezal when he is spotted for his "freakish" ability at winning chess games. Maezel wants Rufus to run the automaton, The Turk, by stuffing himself in a box below it and operating the mechanisms to play chess with audience members in his show. No one knows a person operates The Turk and Maezal literally keeps Rufus a prisoner in a room because he doesn't want anyone to talk to him and try to pry out The Turk's secrets. Rufus agrees so that he can make money and get his father out of deptor's prison. The first person point of view adds to the claustrophobic feel of Rufus's situation of being in a box and imprisoned not only by Maezel, but others as well. Rufus spends his time with the craftsman and mechanic, Jacques, who repairs The Turk. Jacques is abusive and suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome after being in Franco-Spanish war. The two develop a tepid relationship where Rufus helps Jacques by getting him to talk and Jacques shows he cares for Rufus in his own way.

While the author's word choices and historical layers soar, the pacing is somewhat slow and dark in the beginning and Rufus is a character that might not appeal to some young readers. Rufus is curious and smart but he is passive and accepting of people that manipulate him. He's not one to take control of his destiny or put up a fight. I liked his dry and subtle sense of humor, but he is victimized much of the time due to a sheltered upbringing, hunched back and weak disposition. Of course he's stuck inside all the time so he is not strong. His slow progression toward standing up for himself is not fully realized as it is someone else that rescues him most of the time in dire situations. I liked it when he finally stands up to Maezel and uses his wits. Shortly after, he plays chess with daring abandonment during one session while operating The Turk. He moves back to his cautious ways but the incident shows some anger and grief motivating him to take control of his destination even if for a small moment in time. At the end, when he meets his friend that embodies the notion of free choice, I thought, at last, a final adventure will show Rufus finally taking full control of his life and not being a pawn to others. Unfortunately it is a stalemate. While he does progress some and he does show how he transcends his cruel situations, I wanted more at the end. Perhaps you'll feel differently.

The author creates interesting characters. They have distinct traits and unique voices. Maezel is into phrenology, a pseudoscience that determines characteristics of a person based on configurations of his or her skull. Maezel cannot relate to others and is a bully and cruel. He uses phrenology to try and understand people rather than using social norms. It shows how stunted he is in his relationships with others. In contrast, when Rufus decides to learn phrenology, he reads Maezel's book on it out of boredom and uses the knowledge to reveal how he feels about situations. He tries to read the skull of The Turk at one point in a funny, suspenseful scene. Other times he uses phrenology in a self-deprecating manner.

Jacques, as a character, suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome and does not get over it. His abuse turns to protection as he comes to like Rufus in his gruff way. The Turk's called "Otso" by Rufus and represents Jacques friend from the past. The last line is the same words Jacques said to his friend showing how closely machine and human are connected. Jacques also uses The Turk to communicate at the end of the story. Maezel has Jacques in the box telling fortunes for money. The Turk wears a sign saying "Swami" and Rufus calls Jacques a "swami" which means a religious leader that gains mastery over self. In an exchange Rufus learns that Jacques has not gained mastery over his nightmares. It suggests that Jacques cannot he is trying overcome his past but is learning to live with it by becoming The Turk.

Rufus at times can't control The Turk. When he wants to make a move that will allow a player to win, it won't let him. This mystical bend in the story shows how machine and human are interconnected. Rufus and Jacques don't have control of their lives. The end seems to suggest that while Rufus has freed himself from The Turk, Jacques has yet to do so. In the epilogue, The Turk collects dust like a long forgotten relic. I didn't really understand the ending and why Rufus risked his life for it. Maybe it was to show he could finally take action. Or perhaps it is supposed to symbolize the endgame like in chess. Or a stalemate. Or the curtain falling on the last act. I don't know. That's the best I can deduce from it.

Speaking of deduction, Edgar Allan Poe is worked into the plot as a journalist for a magazine where he wants to find out how the Turk works. He's a bit unscrupulous and his accomplice is a character that is a nice mixture of fact and fiction. Another tidbit that sent me hyperlinking through the Web and getting more information on Virginia Clemm. Like I said, I really liked how the author the sprinkled facts and references throughout the plot. Even a character with the name Fisher makes an appearance. It isn't spelled the same but still conjures up an image of chess champion, Bobby Fischer. Readers that liked "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick or "The Card Turner" by Louis Sachar should give this a go.

4 Smileys

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