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Friday, June 20, 2014

Curiosity, written by Gary Blackwood. Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin. 2014. $18.99 ages 11 and up

"Though I was responsible for operating the Turk, Maelzel was the one running the show. He insisted on rehearsing the act over and over until every detail, no matter how small or insignificant, was exactly the way he wanted it. Perhaps the most crucial moment was at the very beginning, when Maelzel opened the doors of the cabinet to show the audience there was no dwarf or trained monkey inside..."

Rufus is the perfect person to be the 'brain' that guides 'the Turk' to success in an age when audiences were intrigued by automata. Rufus is only twelve, with a pronounced stoop and alone in the world, since his father was thrown in debtor's prison. Early on his father recognized Rufus' unprecedented skill at the game of chess, and encouraged him to become ever more skillful. Those things and the fact that he is small for his age, ensure that he suits the needs of Johann Maelzel to a tee.

Mr. Maelzel is the current owner of The Turk, a mechanical man advertised to be 'the Original and Celebrated Automaton Chess Player'. Of course, it is a farce. Maelzel is in need of a new operator of the mechanical system, and he chooses Rufus because he is in such dire straits that he is willing to do anything for food and a place to stay. Rufus takes up the little space available to him within a hidden cabinet, and has the chess savvy to play against those opponents willing to pay to try to best The Turk. The conditions are deplorable; Rufus takes the job in an effort to make enough money to improve his father's life in prison.

The Turk was a real 19th century sensation, brought to the US in 1835, setting in motion many attempts to disprove the notion that a machine could beat a man at chess. Edgar Allan Poe was one of the many naysayers who kept a watchful eye on the automaton. He plays an imagined role in this fine novel, narrated in the first person by Rufus.

Rufus has so many strikes against him...he is alone in the world since his father has been sent to prison, barely able to survive on the streets, treated abominably by Maelzel and forced to continue working in almost unbearable conditions. Through it all, he remains strong, curious and driven to be an even better chess player. He is a worthy and honorable male protagonist. His self-deprecating voice makes for many humorous and poignant moments.

There is much here for readers to appreciate: the setting, the eighteenth century parade of exhibitions that drew curious and eager attendees, the workings of an automaton, the plight of orphans, an eclectic assortment of well-developed characters, the solving of a mystery, and the game of chess itself.

An afterword by the author acquaints his readers with some of the historical characters who are included within the text.

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