13 Hangmen, by Art Corriveau (Amulet Books, April, 2012) is one of this year's crop.
The story begins when Tony DiMarco's great uncle dies, and leaves him number 13, Hangmen Court, an old row house in Boston (along with the first baseball cap Ted Williams ever owned). The house comes with two conditions--not only must Tony and his family live there, but that Tony must sleep in the attic room. Though the family are thrilled at first to have a home of their own, the house turns out to be in an awful state of repair. Tony's annoying older twin brothers get two of the more decent rooms, but Tony's stuck up in the dump of the attic.
But in the attic is a stone with a spiral carved into it...and that stone marks a portal through time. One by one, each of the five boys, all just turned 13, like Tony, who lived in that room before Tony are called together. Each one shares his own story of how, despite poverty and prejudice, they were able to pass the house on to the next boy in the chain, keeping it from falling into the hands of the mysteriously rapacious Hagmann family next door. These boys-- the children of Italian, Jewish, and Irish immigrants, a boy who escaped slavery and is being sheltered in this house by the Underground railroad, and finally, last in the chain, Paul Revere's apprentice-- all tell their other stories up in Tony's attic room.
And in the meantime, Tony is frantically trying to put all the clues in these stories together, to solve the mystery of what is hidden at 13 Hangmen Court, why the Hagmann family are so desperate to get the house, and how he can save the house itself from being condemned. Even more pressingly, the current Mr. Hagmann has accused Tony's father of murdering Great Uncle Angelo....but it's clear to Tony that Mr. Hagmann himself is much more likely to have done so.
And even more in the meantime, Tony is struggling to lose weight (a small side plot that I found a bit distracting), struggling with his brothers, and working on finding his own place in the world.
The various historical narratives are fascinating, and quite boy friendly. Though this is certainly an educational book, the pacing is fast enough, and the stories (both the past adventures of the boys, and the murder mystery of the present) are exciting enough, to keep the reader's interest. I especially enjoyed how the various boys can only see what's in the attic room from times current with, and prior, to their own--this adds a nice dose of humor.
The author includes notes at the end that describes small
liberties he took with the historical record, and I have no objection to authors of historical fiction adding details and motives and small events that aren't actually part of recorded history. However, as a reader who knows something about the Native peoples of New England (because of being an archaeologist in New England), I was distressed by the liberties Corriveau took in appropriating and reshaping Native American culture to provide the mechanism for the time travel--to wit, using spiral petroglyphs, called "pawcorances", apparently (in this fictional world) quite commonly found in the Boston area, as portals to the past
Corriveau credits Myles Standish (as explained in the notes at the end of the book) with Captain John Smith's description of the concept of the "pawcorance"--which Smith translates as alter stones--transporting this mid-Atlantic word to New England. To these stones Corriveau added on his own carvings of spiral petroglphys, and says that they marked "where the tribe's thirteen-year-old-braves held their vision quests" (page 87). Although there are certainly many extensive and varied sacred stone landscapes in New England, some of which include petroglyphs, I have never seen any spirals up here (New York state, and further south, there are spirals). And please, can we just all agree to stop using the word "braves" like this?
On a smaller scale of irksomeness, the word "pawcornce" might well mean some type of small bird, but Corriveau's decision to translate it as "mocking-bird" was troublesome. Mocking-birds have been extending their range north in the past decades, and were very uncommon hereabouts in the past, and they didn't play any documented role in any of the stories I know of from this region.
Corriveau then falls into a distressing anthropological stereotype, that of the Timeless Native -- "Nor did [the Native peoples of the region] have any concept of past or future. For them, everything happened--birth, manhood, marriage, death--in one long, never ending now." (page 89) Although there may well be no word for "time" in the various Algonquin languages, it doesn't mean that there was no concept of past or future.
I've detailed my unhappiness with this aspect of the book because it carried through the whole thing, and colored my reading experience--I wasn't able to trust the accounts of the later centuries I was given. If it hadn't been for that, I'd recommend it highly as a fun and fascinating, historically rich, mystery, with specific appeal to boys who are Red Sox fans.
Other blog reviews at Hippies, Beauty, and Books...Oh My!, Semicolon, In Bed With Books, and books4yourkids.