In 1846 fifteen year old Emily of Amherst, Massachusetts, meets a mysterious young man whom she nicknames “Mr. Nobody.” Since he refuses to tell Emily his real name, she is regrettably unable to identify him when he turns up dead in her family’s pond. However, Miss Emily Dickinson feels a responsibility not only to find out the name of the deceased but also to determine just how he died.
I was reminded of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries as I read this murder mystery featuring a fictionalized Emily Dickinson as amateur detective. Emily, as portrayed in Nobody’s Secret, is a sharp, intelligent, and very private young lady who is already scribbling down poems in a secret notebook that she keeps hidden in a very secret place. Like Flavia, Emily is not afraid of dead bodies or possible confrontations with murderers, and she is just as determined and ingenious as that other fictional girl detective.
However, in this novel we have the added flavor and pleasure of poetry, and not just any poetry but the verse of Miss Dickinson herself. The author of this YA mystery writes in a note at the end of the book, “Emily’s poems inspired this story, especially ‘I’m Nobody! Who Are You?,’ which is about how enticing anonymity might be in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog! –
Emily Dickinson’s use of “creative punctuation”–particularly all the dashes– annoyed editors and publishers in the nineteenth century and provoked them to change her punctuation marks to more acceptable ones. That kind of editing, in turn, provoked Emily Dickinson, and as a result she did not allow very many of her poems to be published, or “corrected,” during her lifetime. Her poems also often had several versions. I memorized the one above a long time ago with the words “banish us” instead of “advertise”, and that’s the way I quote it, frequently, to my children.