In honor of Independence Day, I decided to read Bailey MacDonald’s The Secret of the Sealed Room: A Mystery of Young Benjamin Franklin (which just so happens to be nominated for the 2012-2013 South Carolina Children’s Book Award). Those of you who follow this blog at all know that historical fiction is not my favorite genre, but I had to read this book anyway, so I decided to read it on a day that had at least some connection with one of the story’s characters–Benjamin Franklin. The events in this book, as far as I know, are completely fictional, but the story gives readers a glimpse of what life was like in the early eighteenth century (especially for poor young people) and a look at what one of America’s founding fathers may have been like in his younger days. Even I have to admit that’s kind of cool.
In The Secret of the Sealed Room, readers are introduced to Patience Martin, a fourteen-year-old girl who is an indentured servant in the household of a rather horrible woman, Mrs. Worth. When Mrs. Worth is found dead–and it is determined that she was poisoned–people begin to wonder just who had the opportunity to kill the wealthy woman. There’s also a valuable box missing from Mrs. Worth’s room–which was locked from the inside until the woman’s body was found–and all fingers point to Patience as the thief. Patience knows she didn’t steal anything, but she sees no way to prove her innocence…until she runs away and forms an unlikely friendship with a printer’s apprentice, a young man named Benjamin Franklin.
Benjamin helps Patience to disguise herself, and he provides her with food, clothing, shelter, and even a paying job. Patience and Benjamin also begin to investigate the mysterious circumstances around the death of Mrs. Worth. Benjamin is rather brilliant (and Patience is no slouch in the intelligence department), and the two young people combine their considerable brain power to uncover what really happened to Mrs. Worth. But time is running out. Patience is sure to be caught soon, so she and Benjamin must work quickly to clear her name before she and another innocent bystander pay for a crime that someone else committed.
Can Patience and Benjamin discover the truth…before one or both of them end up in even more trouble than they thought possible? Find out for yourself when you read The Secret of the Sealed Room by Bailey MacDonald!
To my great surprise, I did enjoy this book, but I do have a couple of complaints. First, there is no author’s note at the end of the book detailing how much of the story is fact–or at least based on fact–and how much is fiction. I would have loved to see a bibliography of resources and a narrative of the author’s research process during the creation of this book. If this information was readily available on the author’s website (http://www.baileymacdonald.com/), that may have satisfied me somewhat, but I can’t find any information about this book’s historical background on the site.
My second complaint is that this book is on the Children’s Book Award nominee list at all. (Of course, this is not the fault of the author.) It’s a great book, but I think it’s more appropriate for middle school (and some very high level elementary readers). The language is a bit difficult, even if it is true to the time period. Even I didn’t know what some of the words in the book meant, and I pride myself on having a very large vocabulary. I think the difficulty in understanding many words will turn a lot of readers off, especially if they pick this book up as part of their recreational reading. It’s going to be hard for me to push this book as an SCCBA nominee. I’ll try my best, but it definitely won’t be easy.
Despite the issues I had with The Secret of the Sealed Room, I think this is an enjoyable book for any readers who would like to see what Benjamin Franklin may have been like as a young person. We all know him as an inventor, statesman, and revolutionary, but his experiences as a younger man made him one of the central figures in American history. Even though this story is fictional, it’s fairly easy to imagine a young Ben Franklin being inquisitive enough to get himself involved in a murder investigation!