Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms (known as Small Change for Stuart in the UK, where it was first released) by Lissa Evans is fantastic! This mystery with a missing magician, a trail of clues and a hidden trove of amazing mechanisms reminded me very much of a childhood favorite of mine, John Bellairs, (The House with the Clock in Its Walls, The Letter, the Witch and the Ring, The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn) a master of creating the haunting, creaky mysterious mansion with hidden clues and treasures and a little bit of magic at the center of it all. Many of Bellair's books were illustrated by the equally eerie Edward Gorey, and Evan's cover art and chapter headings echo this style as well. However, for those of you familiar with the work of Bellairs, Evan's book is a bit less intense and a lot less spooky, which makes Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms the perfect book, especially for young readers wary of stories with larger-than-life villains and ominous overtones. While the suspense and mystery of Evan's book is fast paced and chock full of vivid details and characters, her villain has only a small role in the events of the story and her most intimidating traits are being mean to her assistant and bossy.
The first thing we learn about Stuart Horten is that his parents are very tall and he is not. His parents are also very intelligent however, as the narrator tells us, "clever people aren't always sensible. A sensible person would never give a child a name that could be written down as S. Horten. A sensible person would realize that anyone called S. Horten would instantly be nicknamed 'Shorten,' even by his friends." However, it seems that Stuart has many friends, a bike with eight gears, a tree house and a "large and muddy pond" in his back yard and life is good - for now. And while it may seem like Stuart's stature will play a large part in Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms based on that set up, it does - but not in the way you might imagine.
When Stuart's mother, a doctor, "not the sort who stitches up bleeding wounds, but the sort who peers down a microscope," accepts a job in a new town, the family packs up and moves to Beeton, Mr Horten's hometown. at the start of the summer vacation. Mr Horten has a flexible job. He writes crossword puzzles and speaks like a human thesaurus, frequently leaving Stuart to decipher what he has just said. The move to Beeton begins a slow unravelling of family history that Stuart never knew. It turns out that shortness skips generations in his family and Stuart learns that he has an Uncle Tony who was a magician with the stage name, "Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten, Mini Master of Magic." He also learns that Tony, brother of his father's father, Ray, lost his fiance and magician's assistant in an air raid during World War II. Distraught over his loss, Tony retired to his workshop where he built his magical props and, after a few years, disappeared himself. Interested sorts spent years looking for his secret workshop in Beeton, but it was never found. Now, some fifty years later, his derelict house is about to be torn down. Stuart learns all this piece by piece, bit by bit. As he and his father take walks around town Stuart sees the old sign for "Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms," the pre-WWII factory where the family made locks and safes, later diversifying into all sorts of coin-operated machines. A trick money box that Uncle Tony gave to Stuart's father as a birthday gift right before he disappeared proves to hold the first clue that starts Stuart on his adventure and odyssey to find his Great-Uncle's workshop, which turns out to be a race for time when he learns that his old house will be torn down in a matter of days.
In Stuart, Evans has created a wonderful, believable main character with a genuine sense of frustration and loneliness, both in his family and his new town. Of course, the distractions of his parents also allow him the freedom to pursue the mystery at hand. Nevertheless, Stuart is still conscientious about his excursions and regretful when he finds he must tell lies. What makes Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms truly great are the other characters that Evans populates her book with. Stuart's new neighbors are triplets, his own age, named April, May and June, who crank out their own newspaper with the occasional bits of yellow journalism. Seemingly adversaries at first, April (the triplet with glasses) proves to be a willing and very helpful partner as Stuart races to figure out the mystery. Uncle Tony, his trail of clues and the miraculous mechanisms are also fascinating characters themselves. Rounding out the cast are Leonora, younger sister to Lily, Tony's fiance and assistant who disappeared in the air raid, and Jeannie, the domineering magician and business woman and owner/instructor of a magician's school, who bought the land where the Horten factory once stood and built and empire of sorts selling magic tricks. Leonora would dearly love to see her sister and Tony again and Jeannie would desperately love to find the workshop and raid it for the miraculous magical mechanisms inside. Finally, there is Clifford, Jeannie's pupil who is continually hoping to pass his grade-two requirements and become a full-fledged magician. I think my favorite part of Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms has to be the white dove, a prop from Clifford's failed magic act, that flutters into almost every vital scene in this book, a bit like Waldo popping up all over the place. A bit iconic, the dove is a gentle reminder of the wonderful world that Evans has created as well as the masterful story she tells.
The final chapter of the book is a treat with a twist and Evans pulls it off perfectly and in a most satisfying manner. And, while she offers closure to the story, the last page of the book reveals that there will be a sequel to Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms coming this fall! I, for one, am happy. I would like to get to know April, Stuart and maybe even Clifford, as well as the town of Beeton and the miraculous mechanisms both in and out of Uncle Tony's workshop, a bit better.