The year is 1887 and Dr. Elijah Kingsbury has pulled into Oakdale, a fictional town in Ohio, with a wagon-load of his cure-all elixir.
Dr. Kingsbury asks the Oakdale mayor to give him a chance to meet the town’s needs.
“Every town is touched by calamity,” Dr. Kingsbury says. “Heartache. Earache. Rheumatism. Wind colic disrupting the bowels. Sore throats, weak knees, or hens that have stopped laying. … My tonic relieves every malady.”
The mayor is skeptical of the boasting of this stranger and authority figure. Until he hears Jack, Kingsbury’s 13-year-old assistant, describe how the tonic helped his little sister Lucy. Drinking several drops somehow pulled her out of a lingering fever and she’s been herself ever since.
Jack spoke about the occurrence as if it was nothing short of a miracle. “Miraculous” is the title of the stimulating new novel by prize-winning Albuquerque author Caroline Starr Rose.
The longer Jack works for Kingsbury, the more questions he asks.
Why did Isaac, his friend and fellow assistant, suddenly disappear?
Kingsbury is not concerned, saying he’s probably run off somewhere with the cash from the wagon.
Jack disagrees. Isaac would have said goodbye and wouldn’t have taken the money.
Soon Jack and Cora, an Oakdale girl, snoop on their own for answers about Isaac and Kingsbury’s identity.
Rose said in an interview that Jack and Cora, as with other children she’s written about, they find their voice, their way forward.
The author knew she wanted “to write about a doctor’s boy and see the slow change in realizing this man is not who he thought he was.” And she also wanted multiple points of view. “I wanted the response of the people in the town to see their illnesses, their faith, their doubt,” Rose said.
Oakdale residents give Dr. Kingsbury and his tonic mixed reviews.
Mr. Kennedy, a sawmill owner, says the tonic restored his hearing after Kingsbury poured a few drops in his ear. Someone in the crowd pooh-poohed the improvement: “A good show. … That’s all it was.”
Mr. Ogden, a revered school teacher, is buying a bunch of bottles of the tonic in hopes it will diminish the trembling in his hand and the stiffness in his foot. Ogden secretly fears that if his ills don’t go away, he’ll soon be out of a job.
Then there’s Miss Ogden, the shy owner of a millinery shop. She suspects she’s seen Kingsbury before. If only she can remember where and when.
Metaphors, similes and other skillfully placed literary devices enrich the novel, painting Kingsbury with foreboding:
• “He wore a coat as deep as death.”
• “Dr. Kingsbury was like a fortune teller who spun beguiling stories, a performer who changed those stories to suit his listener’s needs.”
• “Dr. Kingsbury’s eyes were deep set, his limbs long and thin. Hair as dark as his eyes skimmed his shoulders.”
• “Mr. Brewster’s forehead had wrinkled in an intricate map of rivers and roads, ditches and paths.”
“Miraculous” is aimed at readers age 10 and older, but adults will easily enjoy this historical mystery and its varied characters. Rose said she writes books for children because she wants to present the childhood experience.
“Their experiences are valid,” she said. “I can’t imagine writing for anybody else.”
The author’s website, carolinestarrrose.com, features a helpful discussion guide to the novel.
Dr. Kingsbury is loosely based on the real-life John A. Hamlin,,whose patent medicine was promoted as Hamlin’s Wizard Oil.
Rose has received numerous awards for her middle-grade and picture books. Prizes include the 2016 Jefferson Cup Award for Historical Fiction for “Blue Birds,” a novel in verse, and an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book of 2013 for “May B.,” a survival story set on the Kansas frontier.