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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 9 months ago

28 August 2007 THE BLACK BOOK OF SECRETS by F.E. Higgins, Feiwel and Friends, October 2007, ISBN: 0-312-36844-5


"When I opened my eyes I knew that nothing in my miserable life prior to that moment could possibly be as bad as what was about to happen. I was lying on the cold earthen floor of a basement room lit by a single candle, no more than an hour's burning left. Instruments of a medical nature hung from hooks in the beams. Dark stains on the floor suggested blood. But it was the chair against the opposite wall that fully confirmed my suspicions. Thick leather straps attached to the arms and the legs were there for one purpose only: to hold down an unwilling patient. Ma and Pa were standing over me.

" 'E's awake,' crowed Ma excitedly.

"Pa dragged me to my feet. He had me in an iron grip, my arm wrenched up behind my back. Ma held me by the hair. I looked from one to the other. Their grinning faces were only inches away from mine. I knew I should not look to them to save me.

"Another man, concealed until now in the shadows, stepped forward and took me by the chin. He forced open my mouth and ran a blackened, foul-tasting finger around my gums.

" 'How much?' asked Pa, drooling with anticipation.

" 'Not bad,' said the man. 'Thrupence apiece. Maybe twelve in all.'

" 'It's a deal,' said Pa. 'Who needs teeth anyway?'

" 'Someone, I hope,' replied the man dryly. 'I sell 'em for a living.'

"And they laughed, all three, Ma and Pa and Barton Gumbroot, the notorious tooth surgeon of Old Goat's Alley.

"Once the money for my teeth was agreed with Barton, they moved quickly. Together they dragged me over to the surgeon's chair. I kicked and shouted and spat and bit; I wasn't going to make it easy for them. I knew how Barton Gumbroot made his living, preying on the poor, pulling their teeth, paying them pennies and selling them for ten times as much. I was racked with fear. I had no protection. I was going to feel it all. Every nerve-stabbing twinge."


Oh man! I shiver as I read that opening scene and realize how, four decades later, I am still so traumatized by my own childhood experiences in the world of dentistry.


In contrast to the struggling Ludlow Fitch -- who is about to escape that basement room with most (but not all) of his teeth still intact -- I was more like the lamb being led to slaughter. Every six months I would obediently enter the little shop of horrors that constituted the office of my childhood dentist, Dr. Arthur Roberts, where he would constantly discover new places to drill into my teeth. I would sit there and quietly endure the agony of every nerve-stabbing twinge.


It was not until I was in middle school, when my mother found a new dentist closer to where we then lived, that I learned that other dentists first administered Novocain to eliminate the pain of the drilling. I am still unclear whether Dr. Robert's lack of pain management was a strategy to get me to do a better job of brushing my teeth, was a byproduct of my parent's dental plan, or whether Dr. Roberts really was a nineteenth century kind of dentist and I was just too young to be administered the proverbial shot of whiskey -- like in a cowboy movie -- before his getting down to business.


In any case, young Ludlow Fitch escapes his parents, the despicable tooth surgeon, and the City by clinging precariously to the back of a departing carriage "like an organ-grinder's monkey," and ends up in the mountain village of Pagus Parvus, where he is taken in by Joe Zabbidou, a mysterious character who has arrived in the village at the very same moment. During the day, Joe runs a pawnshop he's established where he pays handsomely for worthless junk. And, after midnight, Joe is a pawnbroker of secrets, paying handsomely for those secrets that the villagers want to get off their chests in order to attain some peace of mind. Ludlow becomes his scribe, carefully getting every word written into the Black Book of Secrets.


Ludlow, who over the course of his entire childhood in the City was forced by his parents to be a thief, cannot fathom what Joe's angle is:


" 'What exactly are you doing, Joe? Who are you? Why did you come here?'

"He leaned back on the counter and stretched his long legs out in front of him. 'I am just an old man, Ludlow, trying to help those in need.'

" 'But the book, the money. You give all the time. What do you get back?'

" 'It doesn't have to be about taking. Don't you think it's enough to give? Why should I expect anything in return?'

"I was beginning to understand, but it was not easy. I suppose I was still a thief at heart. My whole life in the City had been about taking for myself and taking care of myself."


THE BLACK BOOK OF SECRETS offers readers an intriguing view of the human psyche as the equilibrium of this isolated village, located in the distant past, is set off-kilter by the arrival of Joe and Ludlow:


" 'Why must it be human nature to hear one thing but believe it is another?'

" 'Because we want things to get better,' I said. 'Otherwise we would all give up.'

"Joe closed his eyes. 'Dum spiro, spiro,' he said. 'While I breath, I hope.' "


It is an exceptionally well-crafted and mysterious tale.


Now, the question is: what is YOUR darkest secret?


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/




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