13 Hangmen, by Art Corriveau, 342 pp, RL 4
I hope that I can to justice to 13 Hangmen by Art Corriveau in this review. Not only is is a layered, complex story that spirals back in time like the image on the cover, but I enjoyed it so much that I tore through it, even sneaking off to read behind the shelves while I was at work and might get a bit over-enthusaistic while writing about it. Also, being a complex story, the plot takes a bit of setting up before I can launch into everything else that is so great about this book.
After fantasy, historical fiction is my favorite genre and 13 Hangmen has both! On top of that, 13 Hangmen is also a well thought out mystery. Corriveau has crafted a fast paced story that takes readers from June 19, 2009 and the thirteenth birthday of main character Tony DiMarco spinning back through time to to July, 24, 1779, all events and characters linked by one thing - the house at 13 Hangmen Court. When we first meet Tony, he is a chubby seventh grader wrapping up the school year and trying to stay out of the way of older twin brothers, Angey and Mikey, super popular eighth grade sports stars and tormentors of their little brother. A surprise gift from Tony's great-uncle Angelo in Boston reveals a vintage Boston Red Sox cap that might have been Angelo's when he was a water boy for the team in the 1930s or it might have belonged to Ted Williams. Along with the cap is a birthday card with the mysterious message, "Give this a place of honor in your new room." Another surprise comes when Tony learns that Angelo has died and left his ancient Boston town house to him along with the stipulations that his family move into it before his thirteenth birthday on July, 10, that he live in the attic room and that he never sell the house to Benedict Hagmann, the neighbor. Strange, but also fortuitous since Mr DiMarco, a pHd candidate finishing up his thesis on Paul Revere at the University of Michigan, has been asked to move out of campus housing. The family packs up and moves into the crumbling brick house the day before Tony's birthday.
Down about the decrepit state of the house at 13 Hangmen Court and the grief Mikey and Angey have been heaping on him for making them move, Tony is even more upset by the fact that he has to sleep in a creepy attic room in the brass bed his great uncle died in. As he begins to unpack and notices a slate shelf with a spiraling shape carved into the center, just like the shelf he'd seen in a curiosity shop on the Freedom Trail while walking through the North End earlier in the day. Tony traces his finger along the dusty groove of the spiral and feels a static prickle then hears a voice echoing, "Give it the place of honor." Tony puts Zio Angelo's Sox cap on the shelf and, hearing the voice say, "Finally, your thirteenth birthday!" freaks out and jumps into bed. When he wakes up in the morning, there is a strange boy in the bed next to him wearing embarrassing flannel cowboy pajamas insisting that the day before, May 5, 1939, was his thirteenth birthday and that Ted Williams gave him that cap on the shelf as a birthday present. As thirteen-year-old Angelo begins to tell Tony the events of his birthday, Corriveau takes over with a chapter in third-person narrative that is printed on grey pages. This helps distinguish the protagonists as they shift throughout the story and also helps if you want to go back and reread these chapters for clues. With Angelo's story, Corriveau begins unwinding the history of 13 Hangmen Court, its owners and its neighbors, the Hagmanns. With the help of Sarah Pickles, daughter of the owner of Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, colonial-goth-teenager and history buff, Tony learns about the strange slate shelf in his room is actually a pawcorance, a sacred Algonquin marker for places where they encountered ancestral spirits. 13 Hangman Court, it seems, was built on top of the spot where Algonquin boys, on their thirteenth winter, would place an object on the carved altar and wait for a guide from the spirit world to appear to him.
When Tony's father, a vegetarian Buddhist, is arrested for the murder of Uncle Angelo the day after his birthday, the pawcorance turns out to be the key to freeing him. An amateur sleuth, Tony begins to investigate. Already suspicious of Old Man Hagmann, Angelo's story of the events of his thirteenth birthday lead to Solly Weinberg, teammate of Ted Williams, both of whom are dinner guests at Aneglo's birthday celebration, and son of the former owner of 13 Hangman Court. When Tony discovers that a personal artifact that belonged to the previous inhabitants of this room and also incorporates the number nine are all that is needed to call forth the spirit of the thirteen year old boy, Tony begins traveling back through time to unravel the mystery of why the owners of 13 Hangman Court hate the Hagmanns and why generations of Hagmanns have been trying to get their hand on the house. Corriveau features four more fictional characters from various historical periods in Boston, incorporating actual figures from history such as Mayor John F. "Honey" Fitzgerald, father of JFK, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and Paul Revere as well as events such as the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 (which Corriveau assures readers was an actual event in the excellent section at the end of the book titled, "What's Story, What's History) and the Penobscot Expedition. The heart of the story, the reason that the owners of 13 Hangman Court have been sworn, owner after owner, generation after generation, to never let a Hagmann own the house, is fantastic and felt like it could be a book in and of itself. The links that Corriveau creates for his characters over time is wonderful as well. I genuinely liked every owner of the house, most of whom we meet as thirteen-year-olds and adults, flawed as they were, and loved reading through the pages to see who did what and how things unfolded. In fact, the passages that made me most impatient were those set in the present day with Tony's family. While it was great to see Tony struggle with his weight and learn from his thirteen-year-old-great-uncle Angelo how to lose weight since he had done it himself, and it was also great to see how Angey began to take notice of Tony in a new way and separate enough from his twin to befriend his own brother, I couldn't wait to dive back into the past and the history of a city filled with so many stories.
The plot may sound a bit hard to keep track of, especially young readers, but Corriveau's writing is so solid and the links from character to character and time period to time period so well forged that I doubt readers, especially when the get hooked by the story, will struggle to keep up at all. Also, as an adult reader, I sometimes find myself overly aware of holes in plots that involve time travel. They very well may exist in 13 Hangmen, but I didn't catch them. The workings of the pawcorance and the importance of the number nine were explained and enacted so well in the story that I never found myself stopping to scratch my head or take notice of overly-coincidental coincidences, another thing I do when reading mysteries. 13 Hangmen has so much going for it, from the historical aspects, the string of fascinating thirteen year olds, the mystery of the house itself (I forgot to mention that this fictional street in Boston's North End has an enormous oak tree in the center of the court which served as a hanging tree, thus the name - among other things...) and the creepy, crotchety Hagmanns that you can't help but be swept up by the magic of 13 Hangmen.