Illustration by Andrea Offerman.
Place: the small Missouri town of Arcane. Time: 1913. Just outside town is a crossroads where very strange things happen, but strange things are coming to Arcane as well: a traveling show run by Jake Limberleg and his four Paragons of Medicine. Natalie Minks has her own problems including a bicycle she can’t seem to master, but her mother’s illness has her worried, too. When the Medicine Show limps into town with a missing wagon wheel, Jake Limberleg turns to Natalie’s father, Ted, the best woodworker in town, to replace it. Soon Natalie and her friends and family are deeply involved with the sinister goings-on at the show, and around town. There’s a worrying plague in the town where the show came from. Could there be some connection? Why do Jake and others seem to know more about Natalie’s own family history than she does? What’s really in all those improbable medicines and medical machines everyone is turning to for help? Is the Devil involved, as some say, or are they truly miracle cures that are happening? Midnight expeditions into the heart of the maze-like carnival show bring truly frightening moments, and soon Natalie is faced with a race to get help for her mother and the whole town, but she can only do that if her ornery bicycle can be conquered at last.
This book is a gem of a first novel for younger readers. The characters are fascinating, many with unusual origins and histories that play out through the story. The plot is creative and original, full of thrills and magic, revelations and horrors. At times it reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” but there are plenty of unique ideas here. I will definitely seek out the other books by Milford, including a prequel to this one.