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.

*If my review was helpful, please vote “yes” for it on Amazon. 🙂

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Get the first book in the Redwall series free!

Redwall (Book 1, Redwall)

I’m not sure how long this will be free, so you might want to grab it now. Redwall (Book 1, Redwall) is the first in a series of well-known and loved books for children by Brian Jacques. I was excited to see it listed for free today on Amazon (for the Kindle and/or Kindle reading apps) because I have a comprehension guide on hand that I plan to use with Otter this semester! Now I don’t have to check it out from the library. 😉

Happy downloading!

Book Review: Stick Dog

Stick Dog

Stick Dog by Tom Watson is a newly upgraded version (the screenshot above is from my free review copy) of what used to be a freebie on Amazon that looked like this:

Stick Dog

 

Apparently the story was picked up by HarperCollins and repackaged as a hardcover and a newly illustrated Kindle version (with some edits and additions to the original text). The original was illustrated by Tom. The new version has illustrations by Ethan Long based on Tom’s original sketches. There are still a couple of Tom Watson books on Amazon that are free such as:

When Cows Fly and Garbage! Monster! Burp!

Stick Dog is a cute book.  It’s plain silly and I think it will appeal to kids on many levels. First, it’s about dogs. Second, the author has little conversation asides that add a bit of personalization and humor. He starts out with explaining that he can’t draw and likens a tree he draws to a “big thingy of broccoli”. All throughout the text he interrupts the story to talk to the reader. It really adds to the narrative and makes the entire thing  really appealing, friendly and fun.

In the original version of Stick Dog it’s clear that a grown-up is sharing this but in the new version of the story the author appears to be repackaged as a student because he talks about his English teacher in the present tense and states, “While I have a feeling I’m not going to get very good grades for my Stick Dog stories, that doesn’t matter when it comes to you me and our agreement. So the final thing we need to agree on is that this Stick Dog story (with the bad pictures that my art teacher doesn’t like) will also be told in a way that I like (but my English teacher doesn’t).”

I think it’s a shame they (HarperCollins??) had to turn the narrator into a child because throughout the book Tom Watson keeps shining through as what he is, a grown-up. I think it would appeal to kids even more to have a grown up admitting he’s not so good at something. At any rate, I wasn’t convinced by the tone of the “new” narrator. It’s so obvious that the author is an adult and yet, for the purpose of “reaching out to the kids who are going to read the book” he must be transformed into a child. It doesn’t fit. No matter, Stick Dog is still an entertaining book and I don’t think most children will even notice this detail at all, especially if they’ve not read the first version, before it was picked up by a publisher.

So, once the author introduces his abilities (or rather, lack thereof), we get introduced to Stick Dog and  his doggie friends: Poo Poo, (where it says: “There’s a poodle named Poo-Poo. Now, it’s important to know that Poo-Poo is not named after, you know, going to the bathroom. He’s named after his own name. Get it? POO-dle.”), Stripes, Karen and Mutt.

The entire story revolves around how these stray dogs want to steal hamburgers from a family picnicking at the park. Don’t worry, they don’t end up stealing them after all, but that IS what the entire story is about – doing something wrong…but, I guess, stray dogs don’t really have moral standards, do they? Still, if you are a conservative family, this may not appeal to you. I know it would give me pause, with a young child.

On the way to the park the dogs run into a distraction: Poo-Poo sees her nemesis – a squirrel. Never fear though, Stick Dog, who is the brightest of the pack, manages to get Poo-Poo  to get back on track with a little old fashioned manipulation and reverse psychology.

Then the dogs concoct really silly and impractical methods of obtaining the hamburgers like driving a car as a distraction (not stealing it – just driving it a few blocks – in the words of one of the dogs), jumping off a cliff (and then the humans will feel sorry for them and give them the hamburgers) and so on. As each dog comes up with an idea that is just outrageous and Stick Dog gently moves them along to the next idea – sometimes with a bit of dishonesty like saying something is a terrific plan when he clearly knows it’s not – as he takes the blame for why the plan won’t work so that he can get to the hamburgers sooner. Then, when one of the dogs feels bad about his plan not being chosen, Stick Dog cheers him up with a big of flattery mentioning how great his friend’s fur looks and asks, “Did you have a bath recently?” “Yes, I did, as a matter of fact,” said Stripes, “Just a few months ago.”

Stick Dog ends on a happy note and I can see the series continuing, even though this ending is solid and satisfying. The humans not only give them hamburgers of their own volition, they end up showering the dogs with affection as well.

As for inappropriateness, there is a lot of silliness but nothing especially distressing. The book doesn’t take itself seriously and I’d put it in the Captain Underpants category. You aren’t going to find anything especially redeeming here but there isn’t any evil, either. “Dang it” and “Heck” are used, but there are no other words of that nature. There is the whole issue of the dogs wanting to steal, but it’s in the context of them being dogs. They are kind to one another as friends. If I was handing this over to a very young reader, I’d have to take into account some of Stick Dog’s methods for getting to his ultimate goal: the hamburgers. As mentioned above, he employs flattery and dishonesty but not in an obnoxious way as with some current children’s humorous books or with the intent to hurt anyone.  Compared to a lot of books nowadays, it’s extremely tame and certainly not “in your face”. I mention it though, because some families may not think these things appropriate and wouldn’t want wrong ideas put into tender minds. I have mixed feeling about it and would say it would depend on the child.

Stick Dog is definitely entertaining. As a child I would have totally connected to the story and enjoyed it immensely. Even as an adult I was amused. I think it would appeal to reluctant readers especially because of the humor and simple story line. There are some “big” words though that might be beyond a NEW reader. Children who are solid readers though will probably enjoy the silliness. It reminded me of the crazy stories my dad would make up for me when I was little. 🙂

If you are a conservative family, as I mentioned before, you may not like Stick Dog because of how the entire story is centered around stealing (and the other minor issues I pointed out). My 14 year old son (who is way out of the intended age range) read it and commented on how it was OK and some parts were funny but immediately picked up on the fact that the entire thing was about stealing and didn’t really like that.

I give Stick Dog 3 stars because of the minor issues I have with it. It’s really cute and funny (kids are going to really enjoy it) but there are a few small things that would make me pause in recommending it to just anyone.  Hopefully my review will better help you make a decision if it’s appropriate for your family and your family’s values.

Final verdict: 3 stars 3star

*I received a free copy of Stick Dog in exchange for my honest review.

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