A remarkable group of young inventors change the course of history (and eat lots of nice food)
In The Atomic Weight of Secrets, or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black by Eden Unger Bowditch, a group of remarkable children must become masters and mistresses of their own fates, while inexplicable, somewhat vague grown-ups hover around the edges. (Sound familiar? I suspect many children, even if more prosaically, experience the world in a similar way.) In this intricately plotted, well-written novel, the five main characters -- Jasper, Lucy, Wallace, Faye and Noah -- are not just any old kids, but rather the remarkably intelligent sons and daughters of scientists (and one opera singer). Under the most puzzling of circumstances, they are separated from their parents, kept prisoneralthough in very friendly places, with glorious food, soft beds and kind nannies and a sympathetic teacherby the truly mysterious Men in Black.
The Men in Black are literally dressed in black, but in this world, that means way more than black trousers and tops; it means black inner-tubes, feathered bonnets, velvet capes, lace ruffs, fluffy ear muffs and fur boots. This whimsical touchthat each man in black is distinguishable from every other by some strange quirk of clothingadds humor, but also a sense of the unreal. It seems impossible that such oddly-dressed, silent men could have so much power, yet they have taken and hidden the childrens parents (perhaps keeping them working on a secret scientific project), and have placed the children in the hands of strangers.
What the Men in Black may or may not be counting on is that the children are scientists themselves, engineers and chemists and inventors. Although all five are from very different worlds, after they are thrust together and faced with a common enemy, they learn to work together and together, they invent something remarkable they could none have them invented on their own.
The book is written in a slightly old-fashioned style that suits its setting (the beginning of the twentieth century), and there were passages where the writing truly soared. This is a story that could only be told from multiple perspectives, and yet the hopping from one childs story to another to another did sometimes keep the reader at an emotional distance. The book starts a bit slowly, but truly hits its stride in the last third, when all the stories come together into a whole and the children work as one force to outwit those forces opposing them. The threads left untied at the end are of the ooh, I wonder what happens next variety (so different from the argh, what just happened kind of ending). Its an ambitious and complex story -- and if it does not quite live up to its promise, neither does it disappoint.
The design is very appealing as well (I particularly loved the gears-and-compasses font used in the chapter headings) and the book is as satisfying to look at as it is to read. The Atomic Weight of Secrets is very likely to appeal to those who loved The Mysterious Benedict Society (which is in some ways, a very similar book), and I for one am looking forward to the next installment.