Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell
Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2010; 176 pages
Gold Medal, Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, Young Adult Fantasy/ Sci-Fi, 2011
What do you do when your two childless aunts sell their souls to become pregnant? According to Black Bottle Man, you cut a deal with the devil and spend the next eighty years trying to find a champion who can beat him at his own game.
In 1927, Rembrandt is only ten years old when his loving Canadian farm family tears itself apart over his aunts’ dabbling in black magic. Determined to save the two women’s souls, Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson cut a deal with the Black Bottle Man, Satan’s rather uninspiring earthly persona. The deal requires them to never spend more than twelve days in any one place until they either find a champion to defeat him, or die. Pa and Uncle Thompson only make it for a few years on the road. The rest is up to Rembrandt and the magic he’s learned to do using hobo signs.
If that description doesn’t tempt you, well, it didn’t really tempt me, either. Craig Russell contacted me last year, wanting to send me a review copy, and at first I think I didn’t answer. (Sorry!) He tried again a few months later, sending along an outstanding review from a blogger I usually agree with, so I cautiously agreed to give it a read.
Thank you, Craig, for persisting. This story is wild, ridiculous, serious fun.
Black Bottle Man’s structure easily draws the reader into the culture of hobo freighthopping. It moves with the speed of a train, jumping between Rembrandt’s Dust Bowl-era travels and a “present” time in 2007, while throwing in the points of view of other characters along the way. Russell’s prose is crisp and effective. He has a knack for finding just the right image to quickly wrap a reader into a scene. His characters are a blend of ordinary and outlandish, and the balance between the two is just right.
Best of all, Russell has given us a story that works at every level. Black Bottle Man is a romp, and if you want to leave it at that, it will let you. But scratch the surface just a little, and layers of new meaning begin to emerge. Rembrandt’s two aunts literally sell their souls for a magic bottle that will give them babies; it’s hard not to read that as a metaphor for modern technologies like IVF. It’s also hard to resist the unrepentant Aunt Annie’s claim that her sin was worth it, to have her strong, good daughter. But the aunts’ souls are still worth saving, and it is only through the intercession and sacrifice of others that such a feat is possible. Rembrandt’s hobo signs are part of a very incarnational magic. Each word, or sign, brings its meaning into being; for example, the sign for fish makes actual fish appear. These signs are a kind of sacrament, a visible sign of grace. The story drips with symbolism, some explicit and some more subtle, and I suspect there is even more that I will uncover in subsequent readings. Black Bottle Man is the very best kind of Catholic fiction: it weaves a Catholic worldview into the fabric of its being, creating a story that is resplendent with grace without ever needing to preach.
Black Bottle Man is marketed as “teen fiction,” and it is a book I would happily give to a teenager. But I think that moniker might also be holding it back from reaching an adult audience, who can enjoy it just as much.