In the early nineteenth century, young Henry Phipps is on a quest to realize his dying mother’s last wish: to be buried at sea, surrounded by her family. Not an easy task considering Henry’s ne’er-do-well father is in debtors’ prison and his comically earnest older brother is busy fighting the redcoats on the battlefields of Maryland.
But Henry’s stubborn determination knows no bounds. As he dodges the cannon fire of clashing armies and picks among the ruins of a burning capital, he meets looters, British defectors, renegade slaves, a pregnant maiden in distress, and scoundrels of all types. Mad Boy is at once an antic adventure and a thoroughly convincing work of historical fiction that recreates a young nation’s first truly international conflict and a key moment in the history of the emancipation of African American slaves. Entertaining, atmospheric, and touching, it is “a wartime coming-of-age story filled with nonstop action and genuine pathos” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review).
“This brilliant musket blast of a novel—in which the lucky reader will encounter falling cows, repurposed pickle barrels, fascinating schemes and fabulous schemers—is alive with humor, heat and heart. Mad Boy is a tremendous accomplishment. Nick Arvin is the real thing.” —Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome
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Henry Phipps runs through the shadows under great trees. He's angry. Someone has lied — the slave Radnor has lied to Henry, or someone has lied to Radnor: some liar has lied to someone a terrible lie. He runs through wet heat and spongy mud, through clouds of gnats and sprays of pale flowers, a small boy, lean like a figure cut from a length of wood too thin for the intended shape. He wears a shirt that's scarcely more than sacking with buttons, trousers patched in several places and cinched by a rope belt, boots with a hole in one toe, no hat.
When a bramble scratches his leg, he stops to yell at the plant and kick it. Then he runs on.
Old forest still covers much of the land between the Chesapeake and the Potomac, and America has been at war with Britain for two of Henry's ten years, mostly losing. From ahead drifts the sound of an English voice, which Henry would notice if not for the noise of his own breath, rushing blood, fury.
Why would Radnor lie? Who would lie to Radnor? Henry cannot fathom. He jumped to his feet and raced away before Radnor finished explaining. Henry wants to talk to Mother; Mother will know what to do. Henry is so outraged and wrathful that he gives only contempt to the idea that what Radnor said might be true — that Henry's brother, Franklin, is dead.
He runs under hickories and sycamores, not slowing as the land slopes upward, trying to go yet faster against the ache in his legs.
He careens into a clearing, stumbles, stops. Before him is a round-eyed, jug-eared man holding a musket and wearing a brass-buttoned wool jacket, well-worn, dirty ruddy-pink. Behind this man, scattered about the open meadow, are some three dozen soldiers in similar coats, like a flight of faded cardinals.
They are of course redcoats. A couple of months ago Henry's father was sent to the debtor's prison in Baltimore, but previous to this setback Father had often traveled to Washington, Alexandria, Annapolis, and Baltimore, where he drank whiskey and played faro. He always returned poorer but bearing the latest news, and for two years the news has been of the redcoat raids up and down the Chesapeake, capturing food and goods, destroying farms, taking away slaves.
The jug-eared redcoat, who looks not yet eighteen, yelps, fumbles for the musket on his shoulder, catches a heel, falls on the seat of his patched trousers.
The other redcoats turn and stare. The humid air lies quiet. The ironwork of the British muskets shines like Spanish dollars. The stocks are painted vermillion. Among the British — surprising Henry amid his surprise — are a few black-skinned soldiers. The redcoats span a long, narrow meadow, cut across by a zigzag fence. Out of sight, behind the trees, is a house, and Henry knows the family there a little: the Jeffery family, they keep several cows, pigs, goats, and an uncommon number of turkeys, which they chase across their tobacco field to peck the horn worms.
One of the redcoats has straddled a she-goat with enormous conical teats and slashed her throat. As he stares at Henry, the throat drizzles, and the goat appears both sleepy-eyed and irate.
Some twenty yards behind the jug-eared soldier, who still sits in the grass, stands a redcoat with a gold epaulet, a brass-tipped black leather scabbard, and a jacket that is redder than the others. In each hand he grips a headless chicken. "Hello there, boy," he calls. "Hold up." He looks at the chickens, as if unsure whether to drop them, or throw them, or some other course of action.
Henry, in his surprise, laughs.
Then he turns, jumps for the bushes, and tumbles downhill.
He ends up with his face in branches and dirt. He proceeds sideways through scratching brambles, hoping the redcoats will assume he would continue straight down. He wriggles into a hollow beneath an evergreen and lies panting and trying to swallow his panting.
Behind him the redcoats yell insults at one another. Henry hears the jug-eared soldier call, "Oh, close your hole, egg sucker!" He plods loudly into the brush and trees. "Why run away, boy?" he calls. "Because you're a spy? A stupid one? Come out, stupid spy! Come out, so I can kill you!" Henry watches him aim his musket to the left, then the right, sigh, turn, amble away.
Henry shifts a branch to see the others. This is exciting. Father said that the British would never come this far inland — but for Father to be proven wrong is a circumstance with many precedents. The British have a trio of donkey carts, loaded with cornmeal, tobacco, dead livestock, whiskey. The redcoats smash up the rails of the fence to make a path for the carts, and they move on in the direction of Mr. Suthers's house. A black soldier leads the way. Henry wonders idly how long it will take for the Jefferys' livestock to find the hole in the fence and wander off.
He trails behind the redcoats for a half mile, then turns toward the cabin and Mother, thinking again of what Radnor said. Immediately he's angry, fears he may weep, runs.
In the grove of black walnut that Henry's great-great-grandfather planted a hundred years ago the sun casts shivering fawn-spots on the earth. Henry runs through, footfalls padded by moss. Great-great-grandfather believed his heirs would appreciate the nuts and might use the wood for gunstocks or fencing. He would have been disappointed. His progeny did nothing with the walnuts and instead established and advanced a nearly mythical reputation for dissolute laziness, dependence on neighbors' charity, and love of whiskey and gambling. Henry's great-grandfather and grandfather sold away slaves to pay debts, and the Phippses remained too placid or shiftless or — arguably — stupid to rebuild their accounts by working the land or nail-making or shingle-cutting or ropewalking or some other craft. After Henry's grandfather died of a wart that became gangrenous, the estate passed to Henry's father. Father, in due time, gambled away the land. General opinion held that the only wonder was it had taken so long.
Father was forced to move the family out of the big house to the cabin, and Henry took his first breaths in a borning room built on the side of the cabin. It is the cabin he approaches now. The borning room is gone, after its roof leaked for years, and finally its rotted walls were pulled apart for firewood. What remains is the one-room cabin with the hearth along one wall, beds along two others, a table and benches in the middle. The cabin is built into the side of a hill, and the cabin roof merges directly into the grassy hilltop. Henry has carried buckets up the hillside many times to extinguish fires in the cabin's bark roof and in the clay-and-stick chimney. Most of the cabin has burned and been replaced at one time or another, except for the back wall, which is integral with the hill and faced with granite. When Mother is sick with the black spirit, she lies abed on her side, facing the granite stones, gripping her left thumb in her right hand. Where the chinking between the granite stones has come free a worm or grub or root sometimes noses through.
Nearby a square-doored cellar is dug into the hillside, and next to it stands a chicken hutch. Slouching opposite the hill is a barn — someone many years ago laid the stone foundation for a proper barn, but the barn itself is a low, leaning, sagging-roofed, provisional structure. A couple dozen chickens peck in the sun-blasted dust, while off to one side lies a vegetable garden surrounded by a jumbled fence of sticks and bits of string, which the rabbits wander through at will. Beyond, wrapping around one side of the hill, is a field of several uneven acres where the biggest stumps have never been removed. Shafts of corn stand out here and there, but much of it is weeds.
As Henry comes up, Mother stands in the garden. She's not working, only standing, talking to herself.
Henry, who has not considered that what Radnor said might be true, sees Mother, and is forced to consider. It is in the way she shapes her body, somehow proudly downward. Grief and fear clamp a hold on Henry. Grief for his brother, but also the choking fear that this may make Mother ill.
But she turns to him, says his name, and he knows, by the fact that she speaks, that she will not be sick, not right now.
All this he sees in a second as he rushes across the yard.
He becomes furious again. When Mother tries to clutch him, he escapes to run round and round the garden, screaming.
"Eat, Henry," Mother says, dipping a bowl of succotash from the kettle. She brings it to him at the table. "Eating can only do you good, and we must have our strength for traveling."
They will go to Baltimore, she said when he stopped running and screaming.
Mother talks without stopping. "Eat all you can. I hate to think what we will leave behind. But this is not the place for us anymore, is it? That's plain. 'For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.'"
Henry only recently came to understand that although Mother sometimes quotes the Bible, she doesn't particularly believe in it. It's ridiculous, she told him, but it's handy. Henry eats his succotash. He has already decided that he thinks Franklin is still alive.
A mounted soldier riding messages from Washington to Annapolis stopped at the Sutherses' house yesterday and left a letter, addressed to Mother. No one in the Suthers household bothered to pass the letter along until today, when they sent Radnor with it. Written by a soldier in Franklin's regiment, the letter said, General Winder has ordered no news of a military nature of any kind should be provided to civilians in this time of war, but I am writing to you in confidence because I believe that you must be informed that your son, Franklin Phipps, has been captured in desertion in the city of Alexandria and sentenced by the courts-martial. He will be put to death by the firing squad before the assembled 5th Maryland regiment at sunrise the morning of the 23rd of August. I am very sincerely sorry. Franklin is a good man and valorous, albeit at times hesitant in certain operations of the mind.
Today is the 23rd of August. Mother did not receive the letter until midmorning.
After she read the letter to Henry, he stood stupefied, then began stamping his feet and sputtering. He told Mother about the British he had encountered. Franklin's regiment would need to go fight the redcoats, Henry said. They wouldn't have time to shoot Franklin. Mother said it didn't take long to shoot a man, but Henry said that because it was an execution they would want to make a spectacle of it, everyone in clean uniforms, drums and bugles, polished buttons and bayonets and swords, officers very solemn, and so forth. "They'll put it off," Henry says, "and when there's fighting, Franklin will make himself a hero, and they'll forget all about the execution!" "I don't know," Mother said. "I don't know whether to hope you could be right. Because if he's dead, it'll be worse for having hoped."
Now she studies a pan in her hand, then throws it with casual violence at the corner of the cabin. "Won't be taking that." Henry watches, concerned that she may yet fall ill. He has never been able to predict the sickness, although he has always believed there must be signs for it, the way sparrows flit low to the ground before a storm. If only he knew what to look for — a movement of her fingers, a twitch of her eyelid, a pinch of her lips?
Regardless of any doubt about Franklin's fate, she remains filled with the idea of going to Baltimore. "Franklin's regiment is stationed near Baltimore. If he's not dead, then he'll soon return there. We'll find news of him there. And we need our family to be together again," she says. "Also, if the British are near, and if there will be fighting, we had best move on before worse fortune strikes." Henry wants to go to Baltimore, too. He wants to see Father.
Mother is a tiny woman — to make her laugh, Franklin sometimes lifts her and sets her on his shoulder, where she perches as if seated in the branches of an ambulating tree. She always wears the same gingham dress, always clean and neat, the only assuredly clean and neat item in the household. When she married, her parents gave her an enormous bolt of fabric, which she keeps hidden to prevent Father from selling it for a gambling stake. Whenever a dress begins to show wear, she cuts and stitches another to the same pattern. She hems it a little short, showing the outward turn of her ankles — she stands bowlegged, as if astride a log of considerable circumference. She holds her shoulders high and back in a prideful way. Her family were boatbuilders and fishermen. She is the second to youngest of three brothers and six sisters, and her parents paid little heed to where she married off. Father always said, with an awe that gave it the weight of truth, that she was the prettiest of the sisters.
Now she paces. The cabin floor is packed dirt, hardened with river clay; sometimes, on a Sunday, Mother works swirling, flowery patterns into the floor with a sharp stick. But now the only pattern is the pattern of her pacing. Behind her glows the green window, glassed with upside-down bottles, over Henry's bed. The window was a birthday present for Henry. Father could always find bottles.
She picks up things, sets them down or casts them aside, talks about what she has packed, what she will pack, what she has left out, what she will leave out, talks on and on. Except when the black spirit is on her, Mother always talks, whether or not anyone is listening, her presence extending itself in an ongoing chatter or mutter or murmur, often unintelligible. Father said that it was a wonder her teeth didn't get sunburned. He once brought home an enormous conch shell that he won at faro and gave it to Mother — she often spoke of missing the sea, said she wanted to be buried at sea, with her family around — and the endless sound inside the shell reminded Henry of Mother's talking.
Henry eats, and she paces and talks of Baltimore. "The land here may never belong to the Phippses again. When your father's luck does turn, who can say if Suthers will sell? In Baltimore we will have more opportunity. I will take in wash or sewing; you will find work on the docks, perhaps. We will sell corn cakes or candles or bits of string. We may befriend rich men and beg aid ..."
Henry is thinking of Franklin, big bull Franklin. Why, even if they did shoot him, it'd be like shooting a bear that won't slow unless you hit it just right. What had Franklin deserted for anyhow? Franklin wouldn't be afraid of fighting. It makes Henry angry, that Franklin would do this and make Mother upset. Henry thinks of what he will say to Franklin, how he will talk about dishonor and Franklin will feel bad, because Franklin is hopeless about honor.
An hour later, the thing happens that is the worst thing.
Mother is still talking, although not about Franklin — she hasn't mentioned Franklin since she read the letter. Perhaps not mentioning Franklin is why the sickness hasn't come over her, it is a means of keeping it away, and Henry has decided that he must not say a word about Franklin. She talks instead of the uncommon number of dragonflies that swarmed yesterday evening as she picked green beans, scores of them flocking, with darting blue bodies and shining wings. "Rushing hither and thither, one to another," she says, "like gossips at a fair."
The worst thing begins with a noise, short but loud, of creaking timber. Henry and Mother look at the ceiling, spanned by rough-hewn, burn-scarred timbers. The big timbers have survived all the roof fires, and the cabin is old, no one is certain how old. Looking closely, a little rot can be seen, so mostly no one looks closely. Mother says, "That's curious." She falls quiet, listening. Her silence is nearly as alarming to Henry as the noises overhead.
The creak sounds again, even louder, becomes a quick shriek, which ends with a sound of detonation. A wide section of roof swings as if on a hinge, a huge strange shape slides through, bleating, and Mother disappears.
Henry stands from the table. What is it, bleating? It sprawls massively on the floor. Henry has the idea that Mother stepped behind it, but he sees she's not there. She's underneath it. It is a cow.
Mother's underneath a cow.
Henry cries out, rears back, punches the cow, hard, on her thick moist nose.
A cow has come over the hill, onto the cabin roof, and fallen through, her big dark empty cow eyes rolling. But why? There's never been a cow on the roof before. Then he remembers the redcoats, knocking down fences.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mad Boy"
Copyright © 2018 Nick Arvin.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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