VOYA - Rachelle M. Bilz
During a late-night tour of the Peale Museum in 1827, former slave Moses Williams reveals details of his life to his daughter Maggie. Moses was born into slavery in 1776 to parents owned by Charles Willson Peale, a famous portraitist, who opened the first public museum in the United States. Moses' lifelong quest for freedom is intertwined with the Peale family's success and failure. As he recalls his life, Moses gives slavery a voice. Through him we are reminded that men who were proponents of freedom wanted it only for themselves and their peers. Moses reveals his dichotomous position as slave and family member through his tenuous friendship with Raphael, Peale's eldest son. The relationship becomes complicated when Moses learns that Raphael, Peale's chief taxidermist, is being poisoned by the arsenic used in the process and that Peale seems to allow it to happen. Lyons provides the reader with a fascinating look at Philadelphia during the late 1700s and early 1800s. From the yellow-fever epidemic and young chimney sweeps to indentured servants and slaves, the author renders an excellent picture of the times. The Poison Place is more than Moses's personal narrative; it illuminates a period of American history as well. Fast paced and well written, this novel is sure to appeal to historical fiction fans. VOYA Codes: 5Q 2P M J S (Hard to imagine it being any better written, For the YA with a special interest in the subject, Middle School-defined as grades 6 to 8, Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9 and Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8--As in Letters from a Slave Girl (S & S, 1992), Lyons enlarges upon the known history of a real person born into slavery. Moses Williams is owned by painter/museum entrepreneur Charles Willson Peale. Because he is close in age to Peale's oldest son, Raphaelle, Lyons creates a fictional friendship. As Rafe struggles to earn the respect and love of his father, Moses tries to earn his freedom. The story, told by Moses as an old man while he leads his daughter through Peale's museum, shows clearly the frustration of an intelligent and talented young man who is forced to endure invisibility and subhuman treatment even in relatively enlightened post-Revolutionary Philadelphia. The first-person voice conveys Moses's resentment toward the Peale family, Charles in particular, very clearly. Unfortunately, the device of answering his daughter's unheard questions and referring to the hazards as they move from room to room in the museum serves more to disrupt the story than to create immediacy. The mystery, whether Peale knowingly allowed Rafe to die slowly of arsenic poisoning from the taxidermy solution used to preserve animals for his museum, never moves beyond Moses's speculation. The story of the rivalry between Rafe and his father's favorite son, Rembrandt, is given equal treatment with Moses's longing for freedom, so the slave's struggle lacks strong focus and dramatic tension. However, once readers get into the rhythm of Moses's folksy voice, this is a quick-moving read, full of fascinating detail about extraordinary people in an extraordinary time.--Sally Margolis, formerly at Deerfield Public Library, IL
In a riveting work of historical fiction from Lyons (Catching the Fire, p. 1032, etc.), readers take a transforming tour through Charles Willson Peale's museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Moses Williams, a silhouette cutter and former slave, leads his daughter through each room and recants the story of his master's life, creating his own sketch of the jack-of-all-trades who produced portraits, plays, and a museum of art and taxidermy to make money he couldn't hold on to. Readers learn of a greedy and deceitful man (hardly recognizable as the man in Janet Wilson's The Ingenious Mr. Peale, 1996) whose relationship with his eldest son was a tragic battle of wills. Williams's own struggle from servitude to freedom, based in facts, unfolds in stark contrast to Peale's apparent scheming and frivolity. The authentic details and fertile atmosphere combine with lively characterizations until even Williams's daughter, always silent, ever listening, has a personality as she moves through chilly rooms where the smell of arsenic seems to linger in the air.