Monday, June 3, 2013

Nobody's Secret by Michaela MacColl

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Nobody's Secret is a well-crafted historical mystery novel with a touch of romance. Set in 1846, in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, the novel's main character is American poet, Emily Dickinson.

One day while lying in a meadow, hoping for a bee to land on her nose, fifteen year old Emily meets a handsome, utterly charming stranger. The stranger refuses to tell her his name, instead referring to himself as Mr. Nobody. Reluctant to have the stranger know that she was the eldest daughter of one of the town fathers, Emily tells him that she too is a nobody and he decides to address her as Miss Nobody. Emily learns that the stranger has been to Amherst before but that he ran away from home "to be free from what was expected of me." He tells her that he is on his way to California but first has to take care of some family business in Amherst. Before leaving her, he offers her a dab of some special honey to try to attract a bee to her nose!

Emily meets Mr. Nobody again and during the course of their conversation, he asks her where the law offices of Mr. Dickinson are located. Emily is taken by surprise and realizes that if he is one of her father's clients he will come to know her name anyways, so she tells him who she is. She asks Mr. Nobody not to let her father know of their acquaintance, because in Amherst, everyone knows everyone else's business. However, when she asks Mr. Nobody to reveal his identity, he refuses but asks her to meet him at a church to show him around town.

The next morning before Emily can arrange to meet Mr. Nobody, one of her family's hired help discovers a man's body in the pond on their property. Emily's father who is a lawyer, is away on business in Boston, so they notify Reverend Colton, who comes with some men to remove the body. They decide to lay out the man in the vestry of the Meeting House, in the hopes that someone in Amherst will be able to identify him.

Emily is determined to have a look at the mysterious dead man and manages to slip unnoticed into the vestry of the First Congregational Church. Emily is shocked to discover that the missing man is her Mr. Nobody and she is determined to discover his true identity and how he died. She writes her observations about his clothing and his body down in a little notebook that she carries about with her. Emily also visits the pond, making a few important observations.

While the town constable and the doctor are convinced the death was accidental, Emily is certain that Mr. Nobody's death is murder. So she begins to carry out a clandestine investigation, beginning with the odd clothing that was found on Mr. Nobody, the blue tinge under his nails, and an unknown flower caught in his clothing. Eventually, with the help of her sister, Lavinia, the two uncover clues that begin to suggest Mr. Nobody's death was not accidental. Can Emily discover the truth behind the mysterious death of her beloved Mr. Nobody and see justice done for him?

MacColl manages to capture her readers' interest from the very beginning of this delightful short novel, with the blossoming attraction between young Emily Dickinson and the gentlemanly Mr. Nobody who enjoys and respects Emily's inquisitive mind. It's truly a shame that this great character was eliminated from the story so early on. Just when readers are being drawn into this romance, Mr Nobody is found floating in the Dickinson's pond and the novel switches gears into a murder mystery. Emily becomes determined to learn the true identity of Mr. Nobody, so that he will not be buried in an unmarked grave in the potter's field. But she is also certain that his death was not an accident, and learning his identity will help her to discover the truth about his untimely death. MacColl drops a ton of hints throughout the novel, which makes the reading both fun and challenging. Readers should be able to discover on their own who is responsible for the death of Mr. Nobody, but if they do not, all is revealed in the end.

Nobody's Secret has a great cast of characters, from the enigmatic Mr. Nobody, to the quirky, persistent Emily Dickinson. Emily is shown as an intelligent young girl who sees it as her duty to learn the name of the unknown dead man. While everyone else seems eager to write him off as just a tramp who met with an accidental death, Emily knows that this is not so. Vinnie is an equally strong character; when she learns of Emily's investigations she decides to support her sister and even covers for her several times. All characters in the novel are well drawn and reflect attitudes and actions consistent with this time in American history and are therefore, convincing.

Emily Dickinson
MacColl has also taken a well known American historical figure and crafted a great story around her. Her storytelling is simple, yet effective. It's evident that the author has done her research about Emily Dickinson and the time period she lived in, because these facts are seamlessly integrated into the story. The various ways people lived, from the frugal Dickinson's who churned their own butter and made their own clothes to the more stylist and cosmopolitan Wentworth's who had dressmakers and cooks are all effortlessly incorporated into the story.

It's possible that MacColl's novel may lead young readers to investigate more about Emily Dickinson and perhaps read some of her beautiful poetry. MacColl has included a lengthy Author's Note about the life of Emily Dickinson and also provides some suggestions for further reading. Those interested can check out the Emily Dickinson Museum online at and those who would like to read her poetry can do so here.

Nobody's Secret is a good short novel that I highly recommend to fans of historical fiction and mystery.

Book Details:
Nobody's Secret by Michaela MacColl
San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2013
240 pp.

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