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Review of the Day: The Boneshaker by Kate Milford

The Boneshaker
By Kate Milford
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
ISBN: 978-0-547-24187-6
Ages 10 and up
On shelves May 24th

It seems that no successful book is an island. Or, to put it another way, no successful genre of book. In the children’s book world Harry Potter does well and suddenly the market is flooded with wizard tales. Twilight stars vampires, so now you can’t walk down the teen aisle in a bookstore without fifty different kind of knock-offs.  The Hunger Games sells relatively well and now dystopian fiction is the buzzword of the day. That’s all well and good, but to the victor go the spoils of establishing a new genre. There have been varied attempts at this. There was some brief thought that maybe zombies would supplant vampires in teens minds, until it became clear that no matter how you slice it, zombies ain’t sexy. What about angels then? No go. Immortals? Pass. Which brings us to the strangest attempt at luring in the middle reader and teen readers of all: Steampunk. Now I don’t know how much you know about the Steampunk genre. Think of it this way: A man in Victorian garb wearing a brass plated jet pack. It’s a combination of historical settings meeting science fiction concepts. Lots of gears. Steampunk is entirely an adult genre, but recently folks in the publishing industry have been trying to push it on teens and kids with mixed results. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan is the closest we’ve come to a Steampunk hit with kids, and even that was only a mild success. Now first time middle grade novelist Kate Milford debuts with The Boneshaker. And finally, kids are about to understand what all the fuss is about.

You wouldn’t expect all that much to happen on a summer’s day in 1913 Arcane, Missouri. Aside from its close proximity to a crossroads and the dilapidated remains of a long dead town, the people of Arcane aren’t privy to a lot of excitement. But that’s before Doc Fitzwater takes off for a couple days to visit a distant town. It’s before thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks has mastered riding her beautiful and temperamental boneshaker (also known as a bicycle). And it’s before Doctor Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show comes to town by accident. Natalie knows that there’s something she doesn’t trust about Limberleg and his amazing if creepy cadre of fellow experts. It’s hard to put her finger on. But when she finds herself researching the past of her region and the stories that have been told there, Natalie realizes that she alone can save her town from a destruction brought about by powers of the darkest sort.

This book is inspired, sayeth the author, by three things. #1: Her research into archaic medicines of the past. #2: Ray Bradbury. #3: The Jake Leg or Jake Walk scandal of the Prohibition Era. Both #1 and #3 are pretty much one and the same. The nice thing about this book is that it doesn’t require kids to have a historical knowledge of this era in American history. Even if they do know about it, though, they’ll only find its incorporation into the text to be delightfully creepy. You see, back during Prohibition some folks produced something called Jamaican ginger. To cover up the alcohol content (alcohol was illegal, after all) they added a phosphate ester with TOCP in it to mislead tests done on the liquid. Folks thought that it was harmless, but then the symptoms began. The concoction caused serious neurological damage, affecting some 50,000 folks. What happened to them? In this book, the sentence describing some similar folks is particularly memorable. “The ones who could still move . . . flung themselves about like the clumsiest of machines.” Fun Fact: In the real world the disease was sometimes also known as Limberleg. Sound familiar?

That kind of horror is only partly what reminded me of the work of Ray Bradbury. If you’ve ever read and enjoyed Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine or (much closer to this book) Something Wicked This Way Comes, Milford acts like a natural successor to the man. Her characters are believable and sympathetic, even some of the villains. And I’ve never read prose that traipsed so effortlessly along the path of Bradbury’s storytelling as this author’s. Milford’s great at bringing together disparate elements into a tale so that they fit together beautifully with one another. Bicycles with personalities, bee sellers, Jack tales, crossroads, music, automatons, perpetual motion machines . . . this book is a veritable curiosity closet of ephemera.

The writing itself is worth examining. There are riddles in common speech in this book. Sentences that will have some young readers poring over those words again and again. Lines like, “Most things cost something you can give up, but they aren’t worth anything – not really, not in the end. But some things . . . some have to be given free, because if you had to put a price on them, their true value would be too great for any one person to afford.” Puzzle over that one a spell. As for the story itself, a lot of exposition comes in the form of someone telling you a story, or the heroine having magical flashbacks. It’s not the cleanest device, but it also doesn’t feel forced upon the narrative. I might have wished for a little less story to flashback to story to flashbacking, but you can’t say that those stories and visions aren’t gripping.

The sheer Americana of the book is yet another one of its charms. In some ways the book feels like the middle grade equivalent to the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. In both cases, the music of the American South plays a part, and in both you’ve a Robert Johnsonlike guitar player who had to battle the devil himself in a musical contest. There’s no other nation on earth where this could take place. Even the names feel like they could only have been birthed in the U.S. Monikers like Pulvermacher, Addison, Abrams, Sanche, and Bellinspire.

I’m reviewing off of a galley, so it’s difficult for me to give the illustrations in this book proper consideration. One Andrea Offermann, an American transplanted to Germany, is the artist here and her pictures consist of perfectly thin lines filled in with meticulous little details. Precisely the kind of thing you’d want for this book. My only real gripe, then, is that sometimes Milford will describe a person or an object and you’ll wish that Offermann had made it understandable. For example, at one point we hear about a man riding a high-wheeler that has had a piano mounted on it. Kids may not understand what a high-wheeler is, even with the description about the size of its wheels, so that’s at least one moment a picture would have been apropos. Still and all, generally speaking Offermann pinpoints just the right moments to bring to life.

The Boneshaker is without a doubt Steampunk’s best bet at making headway into the juvenile reader genre. However, above and beyond this rote category, the book’s just a damn good bit of writing. Once you pick it up you’ll be hard pressed to set it down again. Keep your vampires, angels, and dystopian worlds for yourself. I’m a fan of the girl on the bike going head to head with the master of hell himself.

On shelves May 24th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher.

Notes on the Title: Reportedly the original title of this book was Gingerfoot.  Didn’t sound quite peppy enough to HCH, however, so they suggested The Boneshaker instead.  Cool name, eh?  Sticks in the brain.  Unfortunately it is the SECOND book to sport that name this year.  No lie.  Boneshaker #1 is actually an adult novel, so hopefully the confusion will be minimal, but it’s still an awful pity that the book has to share its moniker.  An awful pity indeed.  Kate Milford blogs about the name problem here.  Cherie Priest, author of the other Boneshaker, does the same here.  Isn’t it nice to see folks acting like civilized grown-ups about such things?  These ladies have class.

Other Blog Reviews:

Other Reviews: Book Illuminations

Interviews: STEAMED!

Twitter Chats: Kate Milford and her agent Ann Behar answer questions about the book here.


  • My husband had his own plan for this book.  Can you say “directed by Guillermo Del Toro”?  Darn right you can.
  • The book already has its own signature cocktail too.  Meet The Velocipede.
About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Love, love, love this book. I’ve got a formal review in my May column and I pretty much went all gushy over it. For all the reasons you mention here I thought it was grand – PLUS including the Robert/Tommy Johnson crossroads myth which is about as Americana as it gets. It’s just superb storytelling and I hope it gets some major awards love.

    (PS. Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” is a fantastic steampunk novel as well – I reviewed it last October. It’s perfect for teens.)

    (PSS. Priest has a companion novella, “Clementine” due out shortly. Coincidentally, I’m reviewing that in my May column as well. Steampunk awesomeness abounds!)

  2. For my own part, I’ll agree that both ladies have class and add that it was the coincidence of name that put Millford’s book on my radar. I loved Priest’s book and am really looking forward to this one.

  3. Interesting – I just finished Priest’s “Boneshaker” (which also has zombies!).

    If any adults want to read more fascinating and horrific details about ginger jake, Deborah Blum’s new book – “The Poisoner’s Handbook” – is a hugely entertaining and educational read.

  4. Well, I do. Thanks, Sandy.

  5. Kate Coombs says

    I liked this one, too! It was very atmospheric, to the point of qualifying as horror. As for steampunk, I tend to think of Philip Reeve’s MGs, Larklight and sequels, tongue-in-cheek Victorian sci-fi.

  6. Jenny Schwartzberg says

    I love The Boneshaker so much! I got an ARC in January and I really love how it intertwines American history, myth and culture. It’s at the top of my list for this year’s Newbery Medal.

    Thanks for the links to Cherie Priest’s and Kate Milford’s posts about the title. Really interesting and yes both are very classy ladies!

  7. The Larklight series is very popular with everyone at our house.

  8. children''s librarian says

    What about The “Airborn” trilogy by Kenneth Oppel? Those are also kinda steampunk with the technological advances– particularly in the 3rd book– and the Victorian/Edwardian mores. They’re also absolutely fantastic!

    Great review, Betsy! I recently realized that I love steampunk, so this is going on my to read list!

  9. I love Natalie!

  10. Another one with a steampunk-ish feel (in addition to Larklight, which was the first thing that came to mind) is Arthur Slade’s The Hunchback Assignments. We did Larklight at my 10 & up bookgroup a few months back and I’ve had a few 7th graders toss around the term “steampunk” since then.

  11. Santiago says

    Now that someone mentioned Oppel, the title that came to my mind was his non-series book, Airman.

  12. Fuse #8 says

    I think Airman was Eoin Colfer. Great great book just the same.

  13. Santiago says

    I sit corrected.

  14. Another recent “Steampunk for Kids” is The Nine Pound Hammer. It’s got Americana, gears, kids against the bad guy, with a really interesting nod to American Folk Legends…what if you are the offspring of an American mythical/magical folk legend…instead of a Greek God?


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