Written by Gary Blackwood
If you have ever stopped while on vacation at an automated wax museum or one of those museums of oddities from the past, this book will fascinate you. It is Gary Blackwood’s newest historical fiction. It revolves around the story of a real automated chess playing device called The Turk. It was very a very popular attraction invented by the same man who invented the metronome. People were intrigued by this machine that could play chess against a real person and actually win. It was part of a traveling show between the years 1826 and 1838.
Rufus is the main character in this story. He is a young penniless lad who is curious about everything. When his father is thrown into debtor’s prison, Rufus gets sent to a terrible House of Refuge. The description of this place will make the reader think immediately of Dickens houses for orphans. But this young man has a most refined skill at the game of chess. It is something his father taught him, and because of a weak body and sickly childhood, Rufus spent hours entertaining himself with the game until he became a master in his own right.
For a time, Rufus played against grownups in one of Philadelphia’s Chess Clubs. Later, he got to work with the Turk and be the keeper of all of its secrets. He worked well, but was neither paid nor fed. Even though his only flaw is “asking too many questions,” which is a phrase that many grade five or grade six readers will find familiar. His story is intriguing and well told. Middle school students will enjoy the adventure and suspense.
Teachers, librarians and parents can use the book to meet core curriculum standards and teach literacy skills. This story provides excellent opportunities for students to distinguish between fact and fiction by researching unfamiliar terms like phrenology or hunchbacked. It also provides a great opportunity to discover the exciting development of mechanical devices during the 1800’s.
As with Gary Blackwood’s previous historical novels, this is well researched and smoothly told. Its title was particularly well chosen as curiosity completely envelopes the reader from the first page to the last.