________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 6 . . . . October 12, 2012


The Boy in the Box. (Master Melville’s Medicine Show, Bk. 1).

Cary Fagan.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2012.
284 pp., hardcover, $17.99.
ISBN 978-0-670-06585-1.

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Todd Kyle.

**** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected and Unpublished Proofs.


Two weeks went by and still no one wanted to play Scrabble or watch a movie. For it wasn’t just Sullivan’s parents who grieved over his drowning. Every resident had known Sullivan well, had shared a joke with him, or had told him a story about the old days. Most kids think of old people as if they had always been old—as if they had been born old. But the truth is, their young selves still live inside them. Sullivan had been a rare boy, genuinely interested in hearing about their pasts, and for that they had all loved him. Seeing Sullivan had made them feel as if they were still a part of the world. As if they still mattered.


Twelve-year-old Sullivan Mintz, whose parents run a retirement home, is kidnapped by an old-fashioned travelling circus known as Master Melville’s Medicine Show after showing off his amateurish juggling act to Melville and his ghostly wife. While inept police are led astray by evidence planted to suggest he had drowned, Sullivan gradually becomes part of the travelling show’s “family” of other kidnapped young performers, experiencing the Master’s manipulation, the Mistress’ wrath, and the other kids’ kindness and jealousy, and culminating in developing and presenting his own act as the “accidental juggler”. Meanwhile, Sullivan’s young sister, Jinny, and his favorite resident, Manny Morgenstern, who believe he is still alive, embark on a journey to find him. The Boy in the Box, the first of an apparent series, ends as the pair discover more clues about Sullivan’s whereabouts while, at the same time, Sullivan’s triumph in his performance brings him to finally accept his new home.

     A complex, fast-paced, engrossing read, The Boy in the Box is Fagan at his best. Readers feel every disappointment, triumph, and agony with a cast of appealing, multi-faceted characters. Sullivan’s warm, tight-knit, small-town life (strangely populated almost exclusively with Jewish surnames) is at once familiar and farcical. The farce is brilliantly balanced with entirely kid-friendly observations about life. In a brilliant move, Sullivan’s once-tormenter Samuel Patinsky becomes one of two people in the school intent on honoring his memory when he is presumed dead, Samuel’s bullying habits attributed to a quest for identity and the influence of a brother.

     The miniature travelling circus and its cast of small-time yet proud performers propel the best scenes, filled with action and surprise, tearing the reader between fascination and contempt. The tension between the Medicine Show’s captives wanting to fit in and to be great performers, and secretly pining for home when the Mistress locks them into the caravan for the nightly journey, mirrors the reader’s frustration at the lack of rescue, the lack of justice, and even the Master’s occasional kindness and subtle discomfort with his criminal enterprise. A child welfare advocate (and most parents) might be uncomfortable with it, but this book is for the kids. In the grand tradition of one of Fagan’s obvious inspirations Mordecai Richler (Fagan wrote a Jacob Two-Two sequel), kids are heroes and smarter than adults. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Highly Recommended.

Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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