Matthew Cheney on Mister Boots

Get yourself to the children's aisle, because Mister Boots is one of Carol Emshwiller's most satisfying books, which is to say it is a novel of skill and beauty and sadness and love, which is to say it is the sort of book that brings depth to our lives. It is being marketed as something for kids, and that is a good thing, because kids need this book, but so do those of us who are busily trying to digest our inner children into post-industrial waste.

The title character is a man who is also a horse. He escapes from his fellow horses and is found, naked and human, by the novel's narrator, a ten-year-old girl named Bobby who lives as a boy. Bobby's father was a stage magician who took his frustrations out on the backs of his wife and children with a whip, but who ran away from the family after growing horrified at all he had done. He returns when Bobby's mother dies, shortly after Mister Boots and Bobby's older sister Jocelyn have fallen in love, and they all head off for adventures on the road, until the dust storms of unfettered capitalism blow into the Great Depression, and the stage magician can't make his angers disappear.

The plot's rivets make the book a quick read, but the themes beneath the actions transform it into art.


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