Children's Literature - Gwynne Spencer
Book One of "The Clockwork Dark" series rests on the premise, ‘What if the legend of John Henry were more than just a story?' Evidently, I am the only person on Planet Earth who did not know the legend, either of John Henry or his nine-pound hammer, and it is not recounted in the book anywhere, so I consulted Wikipedia and found that dozens of people have recorded songs about John Henry, including Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, Dave Van Ronk, and Johnny Cash. An equally impressive number have written and recorded songs about the legendary nine pound hammer that defeats the steam-driven drill in a contest to chip through solid rock to build a railroad tunnel somewhere Down South. Since the author is a Southern musician, the likelihood of his knowing ALL of these songs is pretty high, so I felt kind of miffed that there was not one word included in the book for a poor soul like me. I kept thinking maybe I would find a link to listen to the author sing the details for me. The story starts out with Ray and his sister on an orphan train to "somewhere north." Ray jumps off the train to begin his adventure, led by a lodestone his father gave him. He quickly meets up with a cast of weird characters (a snake lady, a blind sharpshooter, a siren, a giant) who travel together in a medicine show on a train; for quite a while it is hard to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, but eventually we figure out that the friendly giant Conker, is John Henry's son (all this time I thought it was Ray) and that the Evil Gog has created a Hoarhound (a frosty machine creature who eats people) which is after them. There are numerous cinematic-style chapters in whicheach of the medicine show characters gets a chance to show off their skills, and since we can only presume there is another book to follow this, we also assume Ray does not die in this one. Somewhere in the story I had to sit back and wonder, "Whose story IS this?" since I thought, silly me, it was Ray's story. In most of the classic definitions of HERO, it is the character who is willing to lay down his life for the good of all, the one who changes the most in the story, and the one who owns the majority of the action. So Ray is disqualified on all three counts. He changes hardly at all, he is constantly rescued by others for the consequences of his actions, and he most sincerely does not lay down his life for the good of all he holds dear. It turns out the story really belongs to Conker and his nine-pound hammer. Just like the title says. So I was confused from beginning to end, left the book with a vague sense of having been misled, and smartly peeved that I still did not know the legend of John Henry, the Nine Pound Hammer, or what the Clockwork Dark was. The book feels like a screenplay turned into a novel, so it would not surprise me one smidgeon if we see a movie deal in the very near future. Reviewer: Gwynne Spencer
VOYA - Ava Ehde
At only twelve years of age, Ray and his little sister Sally speed toward their uncertain future on an orphan train. Ray has only his father's lodestone to provide a source of direction as this magical adventure unfolds. After jumping off the train at the encouragement of Mister G. Octavius Grevol, he decides to strike out on his own, leaving his sister a better chance of being adopted alone. His travels lead him to fantastic woodland encounters, a fearsome ship of pirates, and work on a medicine show train featuring sideshow performers and an enchanting siren. He encounters many amazing and frightening people, animals, and magical potions during his daytime travels, while his nightmares give him glimpses of the future, including the threat to his world by the evil Gog and his mechanical monster hound. He learns of the brave power of the Ramblers, especially that of the once mighty John Henry and his nine-pound hammer as well as his own father's heroic role in the last attempt to defeat the Gog. This rich epic fantasy draws from the roots of American and African American folklore. It engages readers and captivates them while providing exciting fodder for their imagination. It is original and fresh and definitely leaves the reader on edge waiting for the next installment in The Clockwork Dark series. Middle graders with any inclination toward fantasy or magical realism can be directed toward this one. Reviewer: Ava Ehde
School Library Journal
Gr 6–9—Bemis's debut novel presents a unique way of creating fantasy by drawing on the themes and archetypes of Southern folklore and American legend. In place of knights and dragons are hoodoo conjurers, pirate queens, and sirens. Twelve-year-old orphan Ray Cobb has a lodestone his father gave him that is pulling him to the South from rural Maine. He jumps from an orphan train and connects with the Ballyhoo, a train that houses a medicine show with a blind sharpshooter, a snake dancer, a fire-eater, and a sword swallower. Ray learns that his father was (and perhaps still is) Li'l Bill, a Rambler who helped John Henry win the competition with the steam engine. Ramblers, like knights of old, are protectors. Their evil adversary, known as the Gog, is a captain of industry—a cold and calculating champion of the machine who desires dominion. The medicine show is hiding the last of the mythical Swamp Sirens from him as he wants her for her ability to lure people so he can feed his evil machine with ruined souls. As the Gog rebuilds an even more monstrous machine than the one John Henry destroyed, a new generation of Rambler heroes, including Ray, takes up the fight of defending the wilderness. While Bemis's setup is fascinating, the novel is as overblown as any tall tale. The convoluted plot is difficult to unravel, and the connection with John Henry and his hammer not clear for the better part of the book.—Connie Tyrrell Burns, Mahoney Middle School, South Portland, ME
What's a brother to do? It occurs to 12-year-old Ray that his younger sister will have a better chance at adoption if he disappears from the orphan train that is taking them to good homes. All he takes is the special stone left by his father. Ray connects with a traveling medicine show, where, despite the many strange personalities, he feels at home. It is after leaving them that he discovers possible links between some in the show, his father's disappearance and a force of evil seeking dominance. Set in the period after the Civil War, this first in a series provides a compelling fantasy using the tall tales of the American South and frontier. The early parts of the novel move slowly as all of the characters-including John Henry's son-and their connections are introduced. However, as Ray becomes more determined to stop the man he thinks killed his father, the pace accelerates. Bemis successfully manages the large cast and achieves a balance between the tenor of the historical period and the tall-tale tone of the story. (Fantasy. 10-14)
Bemis, in his debut novel, first in the Clockwork Dark series, attempts to spin classic American tall tales into an epic historical adventure, but undercuts the solid setting and action sequences with some poor character choices and predictable twists. Ray, an orphan being taken south for adoption, jumps the train, thinking his sister will have a better chance of finding a family without him. His adventures in the wilderness bring him to a medicine show traveling on a train called the Ballyhoo. The assorted members of the show have unusual powers, and as Ray talks to them, he learns about the heroic Ramblers and their fight against the mysterious Gog. Encounters with pirates, a siren and a fearsome mechanical beast called the Hoarhound all enliven the book, and the climactic battle is engrossing and well-choreographed, but there's little new in the story itself. Every twist—from the inevitable betrayal to the revelation of the Gog's identity to the heroic sacrifice—is telegraphed, and along with some awkward racial stereotypes, the action sequences are not enough to sustain the story. Ages 9—12. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
Tom Angleberger, author of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda:
"A rigorous adventure set in our own country’s folkloric past, when the sons of John Henry and Little Bill fought a desperate, fantastical battle for the soul of America. A series which any self-respecting middle school book nerd would wolf down eagerly."
"This is one of the best books I ever read! There are many twists and turns throughout the novel that kept me on the edge of my seat. Once I started I couldn't put it down until I was finished."
Read an Excerpt
He was being hunted.
The man sank to his knees in black water. The night air pulsed with the reverberations of a multitude of insects, punctuated by bullfrog croaks and the occasional splash of something leaving the muddy banks for the safety of the swamp water.
Before him, two others struggled through the marsh.
“Go!” he cried. Dragging his legs through the muck, he pulled himself up on cypress knees to the slippery embankment. Free of the mire, he ran. The palmettos and spiny bracken tore his trousers as he ripped away low-hanging limbs and spirals of Spanish moss.
Some distance behind, a hound bayed.
The other two stopped before a large pond. One was a girl with wide eyes, as fierce as lightning flashes. Scratches crisscrossed her pale arms, and a gash on her cheek bled freely. Her lips trembled. By her side stood a man with long dark hair streaked with silver; it fell about his face and covered his eyes. He held the girl’s arm with one hand.
In the other he held a sparkling silver pistol.
The girl pulled toward the pond.
“No,” the gunman said. “We need another way.”
“But . . . the hound!” she cried.
As if in answer, a roar erupted from the dark, shaking the trees around them and silencing the buzzing chorus of insects and frogs. An icy breeze pushed back their hair as their damp clothes grew crisp.
“Go around,” the man said. “Follow the pond’s edge to the north and there’s a crossing.”
The gunman nodded and urged the girl forward. As the two disappeared into the brush, another roar tore through the trees, felling limbs and flattening shrubs. The moisture in the marshy earth froze, pushing to the surface in splinters of ice. At his back, the man heard the cracking of ice forming at the edge of the pond. He removed his straw hat and dropped it to the ground.
With a snort of cold air, an enormous muzzle broke through the trees. Slowly the hound stepped out. More massive than a bull, it was seven feet at the shoulder. Its jaws were huge. Each tooth was as long as a hunting knife. Its dark metallic eyes were set deep into bone-white fur, tufted and spiked with frost. The groaning and whining of gears churned from beneath its flesh.
The man faced the monstrous hound as it snarled and leaped forward.
Ray jerked awake. The voices of the other orphans chirped over the rattle of the train. He was in the passenger car, Mister Grevol’s exquisite passenger car, with his sister, Sally, napping at his side.
Ray settled back onto the soft velvet bench and opened his hand. On his sweaty palm lay the lodestone. He hadn’t meant to nod off with it in his hand. He knew better.
Pushing the lodestone into his pocket, Ray craned his neck to scan the passenger car for Miss Corey. She was still not back.
Miss Corey had given the orphans an extensive list of rules, instructions, and threats the morning before Ray and Sally and the other seventeen children boarded the beautiful, dark train with its powerful ten-wheeler locomotive:
“Mister G. Octavius Grevol is a highly respected industrialist,” Miss Corey had warbled. “He has generously allowed us passage on his personal train. I expect you”—she had looked directly at Ray, who at twelve was the oldest of the orphans—“to be well-behaved, well-mannered, and to remain at all times in the passenger car designated for our use.”
But Ray had never been very good at listening to rules, instructions, or threats. He had decisions to make and needed someplace quiet to think. As he stood, he glanced down at Sally. With her hands pillowing her dirty cheek on the upholstered bench and her tattered boots kicked up against the lacquered black paneling, Sally—all the orphans, really—looked out of place in Mister Grevol’s princely train.
Ray started down the aisle toward the back of the passenger car. He stumbled a moment with the sway of the train, but steadied himself against the back of the next bench before continuing. Some of the orphans were taking naps, but most were talking boisterously or playing with jackstraws or cornhusk dolls on the ornately quilted seats. They were excited, and they had good reason. They were traveling on a marvelous train away from the horrible city. Soon they would reach the South, where Miss Corey had arranged for them to be adopted. Wishing he could share their enthusiasm, Ray reached for the vestibule door’s polished brass handle.
As he stepped out onto the vestibule, a coal-smoke wind met him, accompanied by the noisy clatter of the train’s wheels. He quickly shut the door. Finally, he was alone.
The vestibule was a short, open-air passage between the train cars. Ray settled his elbows on the railing and looked out at the green and gold fields, speckled with clusters of trees and white clapboard farmhouses. The wind batted his brown curls across his brow. Ray pushed them back as he took the lodestone from his pocket.
The lodestone began moving at once, tugging against his grip. Ray clutched it tighter and wondered, as he had again and again over the last month: What was it pulling toward and why did it keep showing him the monstrous hound?
His father had given him the dark stone eight years ago—before Sally was born, before his father had left. Ray had only been four at the time, but he still remembered it vividly.
“I’m heading down South for a job of work, Ray,” his father had said that morning on the banks of Lake Wesserunsett in rural Maine. His father had grown up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of eastern Tennessee, and his words sometimes sounded funny compared to the way New Englanders spoke. “Might be a spell before I’m back.”
Then his father had taken out the flannel pouch he always carried in his pocket. He opened the drawstring and slowly removed a rock.
“What is it?” Ray asked.
“That’s a lodestone,” his father said, placing the stone in Ray’s hand. “They’re magnetic. Folks use them to make compasses. But this ain’t no ordinary lodestone. I want you to keep it safe while I’m gone. It’ll guide you when you have a need.” Then he had added with his lopsided smile, “It’ll help me get back home, too.”
But it hadn’t. Ray’s father had never returned. Eight years had passed. Eight terrible years.
Ray looked down at his hand, feeling the lodestone pressing against his fingers as if the little stone was struggling to escape.
From the Hardcover edition.