The Atomic Weight of Secrets, or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black, by Eden Unger Bowditch (Bancroft Press, March, 2011, middle grade, 339 pages) is the first book of The Young Inventors Guild, a historical sci fi story of five brilliant children. Their parents were extraordinary too, so much so that one day in 1903, when the mysterious men in black came calling, they had to go. But the men in black had a plan for the children too, one that involved sending them off to rural Ohio, where they went to their own special boarding school, under the loving care of Miss Brett (the first adult to ever read out loud to them--the brilliant parents were too busy being brilliant to have much time for their kids).
Twelve-year-old Jasper Modest (a young inventor) and his
six-year-old sister, Lucy (gifted with a perfect memory), were taken from London. Nine-year-old Wallace Banneker, determined to follow in the footsteps of his family of African American scientists, inventors, and mathematicians, was taken from New York. Twelve-year-old Noah Canto-Sagas, brilliant both mentally and musically, was taken from
Toronto. And the oldest child, the thirteen-year-old Faye Vigyanveta, taken from the luxurious home of her parents, Indian scientists, is fiercely determined to find out the secret of the Mysterious Men in Black who have torn apart their lives for no clear reason.
And they are indeed Mysterious. "In black," for them, includes black tutus. Black bear suites. Black scarfs concealing their faces, which are shrouded by black sombreros, Easter bonnets, and the like. All manner of grab bag bits of clothing, concealing them utterly. And they are not exactly forthcoming to the children--which is to say, they don't say anything.
Although the children's strange school is a virtual prison, and their weekend trips to loving foster mothers carefully orchestrated to make escape impossible, this bizarre situation is one where the children can thrive, becoming each other's first true friends. All the delicious food they want, adult attention and love, and beautiful lab equipment.
Except that there is no getting around the fact that their parents are missing (and though they might have been distant, un-nurturing parents for the most part, this is still disturbing), the men in black are their jailors, and if they want answers, they are going to have to escape. And being brilliant young inventors, the answer comes to them--they must build a flying machine...
This is a book that requires from its reader an acceptance of the bizarre. The children's situation is like a dream, and the reader knows no more about the men in black then they do (although this reader, at least, has read more science fiction than the kids have, back in 1903, and has a theory....what do they actually look like, under all that black concealment???).
Acceptance is also required regarding the pacing of the book. We meet all five right at the start of things, just as they are about to try to escape. But then the author goes back to the start of things, but doesn't introduce us properly to all of the kids at once, instead, doling the introductions out at intervals. She doesn't rush it--we don't get Wallace Bannaker's back story, the last one, until page 182, which I found extreme. So it wasn't until the final third of the book that I felt I had a really firm handle on the kids, and could really appreciate their interactions and character arcs. Likewise, although the book starts with the escape plan getting underway, it then goes back to tell all the story up to that point.
So I read much of the book with a slightly uninvested feeling (though I liked the kids, enjoyed the details of their strange school life, and was curious to learn more about the mystery). It was not till the story catches up to closer to where the book begins, with the great escape project well underway, that the pieces all clicked for me. At that point, all the disparate gifts of the kids combine to make things really start humming, the tension grows, and the reader waits with baited breath for the Great Reveal....and realizes she's not going to get it. Nope, no little wrapping up the plot threads here, just waiting for the next book...
Still, though I have reservations, it never occurred to me to put it down. And I think it might work well for the right young reader--smart, lonely kids in particular!
(Thanks to Wallace and Faye, this is one for my list of multicultural sci fi/fantasy, and it's also one for my spec fic school list too!)