CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 6 . . . . October 12, 2012
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.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.