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Mister Boots
Carol Emshwiller
Viking, 192 pages

Mister Boots
Carol Emshwiller
Carol Emshwiller was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She grew up in both Ann Arbor and in France, moving back and forth almost annually. She attended the University of Michigan which was where she met her husband, Ed Emshwiller, the famed SF illustrator. She alternates living in New York City (winter) where she teaches at New York University Adult Education and in California in the summer.

Carol Emshwiller Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: "Boys"
SF Site Review: Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories and The Mount
SF Site Review: The Mount

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Cheney

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. Emshwiller's prose is simple, appropriate to the narrator's age and experience, but this doesn't mean the book itself is simple. The characters are complex and surprising, each on a quest for who and what they are, trying to negotiate the bargains of the past with the debts of the future. Mister Boots isn't sure how to be both a human and a horse, just as Bobby isn't sure how to be both a boy and a girl, and her father isn't sure how to be anything other than what he is, which isn't good. Bobby is stunned by the transformation of her father when he is on stage -- suddenly he seems like the most loveable, most remarkable man in the world. And sometimes he really is. It is one of Emshwiller's triumphs that there are moments when we like him, too, and when we want to believe he will figure out how to be a father and a man -- how to be anything other than a bitter illusion, his humanity swallowed up in smoke and mirrors. Generosity and even love hide beneath the false bottom of the father's brutality, so when Bobby agrees to travel with him, we understand why and sympathize. Even though we know it must end in horror, we hope for a miracle, the kind that lets horses become men and boys become girls.

Mister Boots is a tough book in the way the original Grimm stories are tough. Pain and death fill the fictional world as much as they do the real world. The story and characters don't moralize, but the effect is not amoral, and there is no sadism here, no revelling in the nightmares. The characters' struggles all lead them to a greater understanding of each other and the world they struggle through, to a kind of peace achieved by perseverance, an earned ability to live with contradictions. The characters who make it all the way to the end learn to embrace the complexities of the world, the messiness of living, the way happiness and pain so often accompany each other.

"We're on the same team, you know," Bobby's father tells her. "The magic makers against everybody else." The wonder of Mister Boots is that Carol Emshwiller shows us what a terrible lie such a dichotomy is, and then makes us all want to be magicians.

Copyright © 2005 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal,, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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