Mary E. Lyons’ The Poison Place (1997)
Aladdin, 1999

I’ve now read more than half of the book recommended in Shireen Dodson’s Books for Girls to Grow On and have good reason to read on (as useful as I find the list itself, it’s her discussions that have influenced my choices). Nonetheless, this isn’t one of my favourite discoveries. This is one of those which I’m glad I’ve read because I learned something, one of those that I would probably have enjoyed more if I’d come upon it first as a younger reader: one of those.

For readers with a particular interest in American history, this might have been an even more positive reading experience. The Poison Place is told from the perspective of Moses Williams, former slave of Charles Willson Peale. Peale was known as a painter but even more widely known for having started his own museum which showcased his interest in natural history and taxidermy, with a remarkable number of birds stuffed and displayed and the first to display mastodon bones found in North America.

The narrative is staged, the narrator and his listener (a young girl named Maggie) move progressively through the Peale Museum. The chapters are named for the rooms and areas toured and the narrative is primarily structured as a long series of shared memories, punctuated by short dialogues with his (seemingly sassy) listener. These portions interfered with my feeling involved in the story, but they might have been more effective for me as a younger reader; I might have taken Maggie’s place perhaps.

Nonetheless the story itself is interesting. Peale has a strained relationship with one of his sons, Raphael, (and spoils the other, Rembrandt) and a nasty habit of changing his tune on the question of slavery/abolition question, depending whether he’s got work to do that he doesn’t want to do himself and doesn’t want to pay someone to do either, or whether he feels secure in acting according to the liberal ideals he spouts the rest of the time.

These conflicts keep the narrative moving…even if you don’t have an interest in taxidermy.

“First he stripped off every inch of skin with a sharp knife, going right over the top. Gouged the eyeballs out and pulled all flesh, fat, and bones away. Dragged the brains out through a hole in the fish’s head. The flies loved the innards that piled up round our feet, but Rafe turned dead-white. Then Peale put us to work.” (59)

It’s also clear that Moses has a motive for telling his story. What isn’t clear is what it is exactly. Although you’re aware that he has spent a lifetime trying to reconcile his legally subservient position in Peale’s household with his sense that serving the man would do a disservice to another; Moses finds a way to “make things right” without betraying Peale’s trust outwardly. But you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is, because that’s the interesting part.

“And I know who really killed him. Don’t ever clasp a secret too close to your heart, Mag. It clings like a moth at first, quiet and still, then flails about every whichaways. A secret will devil you to death, so I’m letting mine fly free.” (161)

Well, some of the best stories are built on secrets, aren’t they?! Some of your favourites too?

Companion reads:
E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Alissa York’s Effigy (the best novel, for adults, about taxidermy, that you could ever ask for)