Emily Dickinson: Girl sleuth

Emily Dickinson: Girl sleuth

Author Michaela MacColl's first two books featured a young Princess Victoria ("Prisoners in the Palace") and future aviator Beryl Markham ("Promise the Night"). With "Nobody's Secret" (Chronicle Books, 2013), MacColl once again breathes life into a historical character: Emily Dickinson.

Fifteen-year-old Emily is lying in a field of tall grass and wildflowers, hoping to entice a bee to land on her nose, when she is discovered by a mysterious young man.

She is surprised to learn that he doesn't seem to know who she or her family is — Amherst, Mass., is a small town, after all, and her grandfather was one of the founders of Amherst College. Even more surprisingly, the handsome stranger refuses to divulge his name.

Emily enjoys her secret flirtation with the "Mr. Nobody" until he is found dead in her family's pond. None of the townspeople seem to know Mr. Nobody's identity, and it seems that the mystery man's body is destined for an anonymous pauper's grave.

Despite her overprotective mother's orders ("A dead man is no sight for a young lady!"), Emily is determined to discover the stranger's identity — and how he died. As it becomes clear that a certain Amherst family had its own very good reasons for wanting Mr. Nobody to become permanently anonymous, Emily finds herself in grave danger.

While the mystery plot of "Nobody's Secret" is a little thin — our girl sleuth's dogged style of investigation is much like that of Nancy Drew's, and readers may well find themselves guessing the identity of the murderer well before the end — I enjoyed the rich imagining of Emily's life.

In an author's note, MacColl explains how Dickinson's writing inspired the book's themes, from Emily's interest in bees (they appear in more than 50 of her poems) to her preoccupation with death, loss and loneliness. MacColl uses lines from Dickinson's poetry as chapter headings and threads them into the text itself, offering readers a glimpse of how the poet's life influenced her work.

Readers familiar with Dickinson's poems will instantly recognize the lines introducing the opening chapter, "I'm nobody! Who are you?/Are you nobody too?" — which nicely introduces the desire for privacy shared by Emily and Mr. Nobody.

In real life, of course, Emily Dickinson never actually investigated a murder, but MacColl makes the reader believe that she just might have — given the chance. A quick read, recommended for younger teens and fans of Emily Dickinson.

Sara Latta is a science writer and author of 18 books for children and young adults. You can learn more about her work and find past reviews at saralatta.com.

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