Dickinstein: Emily Dickinson - Mad Scientist by Shannon Yarbrough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A friend sent me a book I had won in a drawing and, knowing what a huge fan of Emily's I am, she slipped this one in with it. What a treat! Even though I had some quibbles, nonetheless this is the most imaginative, wild, unexpected, and entertaining book I have read in some while.
Yarbrough does something that few male authors seem to be able to do: he gets the women right. He has a real ear for how women talk to each other, and best of all, he brings Emily Dickinson to vivid and intimate life here. Her poems appear at the beginning of each chapter, and the descriptions of life at the Homestead made me feel like I was walking next to Emily every step of the way. Having visited the Homestead myself, and felt Emily there, this was pure joy for me.
So, naturally, Yarbrough then turns our girl into a mad scientist! Truth be told, she is not mad at all, except in the way of much madness being divinest sense. A friend sends Emily a copy of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", and that sets the wheels rolling. (I'll have more to say about that book in a minute.) Emily manages to create a machine that can restore life to small dead creatures. She starts with a damselfly, then a chipmunk, some bees, and a Labrador duck. All the while, she adheres to a set of rules she invents for herself, to keep her pursuits good and right. How long will *that* last, you may be wondering. Not long.
An alliance with a charismatic preacher she comes to call her Master takes Emily down a dark and disturbing path, involving grave robbing, reanimation of a corpse, and the whole hearse-load of Gothic stand-bys. But just when I thought the book had spun away from a believable Emily and straight into late night movie cliche land, it righted itself and stuck the landing.
I did have problems with some things. The author admits beforehand that he altered the timeline of when Emily attended school, for purposes of his story. No problem there. However, there are several other time snafus that just don't wash. One chapter is headed "1845", but then references, in past tense, an event that happened in 1856. That's the year Amherst's new train station opened, and Yarbrough has it electrically lit. He also has a motor car take Emily for a ride home, all in the mid 1850s, a quarter century before the earliest automobile, or electric lighting. The electric lights I could overlook, because it furthers the story, but the car just jarred, in my opinion.
Then there is the business of the "Master" fellow. One minute he is a new, if intriguing, acquaintance, and the next he is her Master with a capital "M". This is not the spirited redhead I know at all, sitting still for that!
I doubt that a copy of "Frankenstein" would ever have made it into Emily's hands. In fact, she was advised to avoid the poetry of Walt Whitman as "unsuitable"! (Too bad...I bet she'd have loved him.) However, the introduction of the Shelley book sets the story in motion, so let's just go with it!
Despite these hiccups, the novel never flags, Emily lives and breathes again (without electrodes!), and this is simply a gorgeous and singular humdinger of a book, if you love Emily (and creepy tales) as much as I do. To make it all even better, the soul of who Emily was stays true right to the end. Even the cover art is way cool, though uncredited. Five stars!
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