Book Review: The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Benjamin Franklin

secret of the sealed room

The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Benjamin Franklin (Click here to see the book on Amazon.)

I got this book to use in our homeschool and was disappointed by a subtle anti-Christian feel throughout. Normally this wouldn’t deter us from reading a book, if it has a purpose – but I just didn’t feel it was necessary or appropriate in the The Secret of the Sealed Room. Besides that issue, the main character, Patience is a much too modern feeling for the time period – enough to probably appeal to readers but not faithful to the historical period. Although there is a lot of little historical tidbits scattered throughout the text and a mystery to keep readers guessing, the whole thing fell flat for me with very little positive character traits emulated by the main characters and a very strong “girl power” message sprinkled throughout as the adult characters put down females through cutting comments all of the time and of course our “heroine” proves them all wrong. I have nothing at all wrong with a strong, historical female heroine (see my review for Madeleine Takes Command), but Patience was just too 21st century.

The novel starts out with Patience who was sold as an indentured servant at her mother’s death. During her indenture, her father dies and she’s left in the care of Mrs. Worth. Patience isn’t happy with her lot in life – Mrs. Worth isn’t very kind, has a complaining, criticizing spirit and is harsh and miserly. Expecting her first child, one evening she has Patience fetch the midwife Moll Bacon. Moll comes and administers some herbs to relieve Mrs. Worth’s discomfort. The next morning Mrs. Worth (and her unborn baby) are dead in a vomit filled room and the doctor pronounces the cause of death as poison by arsenic. When Patience finds out that Mr. Richardson, Mrs. Worth’s brother-in-law is going to sell her indenture for pennies, she runs away.

The “adventure” and mystery start at that point and it’s mainly centered around “who killed Mrs. Worth” and where did her strongbox of money disappear to? The midwife Moll Bacon is accused of poisoning the now dead woman and Patience gets accused of stealing the box of money. Patience gets wrapped up in trying to solve the mystery (and clear her name along with Moll’s) with her new, young friend Benjamin Franklin.

I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to read it, so I’ll stop here with the description of the plot. Instead, I’ll focus on the things I personally found irritating.

First: The modern girl plopped down into history issue…

Patience is a very “modern” feeling girl. She chafes against the strong religious views of the time in subtle ways as well as her “station” as a girl and as an indentured servant. There are many references in the book about her being vexed at how girls were looked at or thought about or treated at the time – an opinion I think doesn’t really fit in the way it was presented. I’ve read historical fiction about strong girls that felt real. Patience felt totally contrived with an agenda pushed by the author. So many stereotypes were thrown around by the males in the book. I got really tired of it really fast.

A few quotes: “Well, you’re only a girl, and girls love to weep, so-”

Wilkes flapped his hand. “A weak girl could never hope to break into so sturdy a box, my boy…twas foolish of the wench to steal only the box and not the key as well, but there you are! Girls are not very strong, and they certainly are not very bright.”

“Do you talk back to me, you saucy young hussy?”

There are other instances like the above. Since I was reading the hardback version (and not the Kindle) I didn’t take notes on each and every one, as I usually do when reviewing a book.

Second: The very subtle anti-christian “feel” to the book…

Throughout the book there is a very subtle (and won’t be obvious to children) anti-christian feel that is wrapped up in some of the character’s portrayals as well as Patience’s attitude.
The very first part of the book starts out with, “My name is Patience, but I have little of that with all those in Boston who keep telling me what a bad girl I am. When I learned my letters, the very first sentences I could read proved a harsh and scolding one: In Adam’s fall, we sinned all. In church of a Sunday when the parson preaches about the sins and failings of women, I would swear he gazes straight at me with a stern, disapproving look.”

A little bit later you are introduced to Mrs. Worth’s brother-in-law who is portrayed as a Christian but is nearly evil and certainly very unchristian-like. He is sour and stern and accuses the midwife of witchcraft. Then there is the mention of Cotton Mather who Mrs. Worth think is not “much inferior to an angel” and yet it’s clear he was instrumental in the Salem witch trials so he’s just another idiot, evil Christian (and yes, I think the Salem trials were a terrible tragedy, but just as some like to point to the Crusaders as evidence for Christianity’s stupidity, I believe the author is using Mather to do the same thing). Patience thinks to herself, “It seemed to me that if people like Mr. Richardson had their way, such cruelty would still be going on in Massachusetts.” (That’s in regard to her reading from Mather’s book “The Wonders of the Invisible World” which is about witchcraft.)

Patience mentions how she is reading The Pilgrim’s Progress but doesn’t like it (but hey, at least it has pictures). Anyone who knows about the Pilgrim’s Progress and how influential a (and truly wonderful classic) book it was in Christian households can see the little subtle “dig”. I say that only because of the context of the entire book and all the other “little instances” piled together – NOT because she doesn’t like a particular book. If it was the only instance I would chalk it up to the character’s personal preference. However, taken as a whole, I think it’s the author’s preference shining through, not Patience’s. Hopefully that makes sense.

Another potentially interesting comment that some Christians may take odds with is(interpret it as you will): “Though I do not believe in any kind of magic, I do think we have odd talents that we never or only rarely use. I have a gift of sensing time fairly accurately…” Again, this is just taken in the context of the whole book. There are too many little things like this that pile up and thus gain greater meaning. Another example of that type of thing is a clear stone the midwife leaves on Mrs. Worth’s hearth while she tells he she can “watch her through it”. The midwife then tells Patience it’s not really magic, but hey, if it makes Mrs. Worth feel better there’s no harm in the lie. What was the purpose of her pulling a stone out like that in the first place? How did it help the story? If you are a conservative Christian family, you’ll probably understand why I mention it.

There are plenty of other examples I could mention. Of course, if you are a secular family, this isn’t going to bother you and you can disregard all of the above. However, I wanted to mention it for Christian families who may be trying to decide if a book is appropriate for their family.

Besides all of the above, the characters have to resort to deceit throughout the book. Readers will justify it because of the circumstances, but I didn’t like how integrated into the story it was. At one point Patience chides Ben for lying, stating it’s a sin, and yet she herself resorts to it on numerous occasions.

At any rate, I really didn’t find much to redeem this book for our homeschool. There are plenty of other books that cover similar material with much better/stronger moral lessons interwoven or just plain, good old-fashioned adventure stories. I even liked The Witch of Blackbird Pond despite the “rebellious” and strong female character (with some hypocritical Christians abounding) because it felt so much more authentic and was more balanced and real for the time period. I felt that The Secret of the Sealed Room was too contrived (the convenient friendship with young Franklin) and had too many subtle agendas woven throughout.

However, having said that, for those of you who find the things I mentioned NOT an issue, young readers will probably enjoy the mystery aspect of the story and learn a lot of historical details that are sprinkled throughout the novel about Benjamin Franklin during his indenture to his brother, the Salem Witchcraft trials, books and papers circulating the colonial towns at that time, details about early Boston and so on. It just wasn’t a fit for MY family, at all.

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