I love authors who are not afraid to mix things up and take chances. That’s the heart and soul of discovery and creativity, whether or not it works. Explore those edges. Expand those boundaries. Push the borders. Even if the result is failure, the attempt is noble and encourages others to do the same. But Shannon Yarbrough’s mashup of Frankenstein and Emily Dickinson is no failure. It’s not even close. Dickinstein is a wholly sucessful hybrid that gives some new insights and context to her poetry yet provides thrills as familiar (and philosophy as deep) as Mary Shelley‘s original.
Given Frankenstein to read by her friend, Benjamin Newton, Emily Dickinson is inspired to attempt her own experiments into regifting life to creatures of nature. She even establishes a code of behavior for this experimentation and finds that it informs not only her poetry, but her outlook on life itself. But, like many discoveries, it soon grows out of her control, aided by one of her professors who wants to see the principles applied to men. She reluctantly shows him how it works, and he sets about building a larger scale model. They are unable to find a human subject in accordance with Dickinson’s code, however. But when her friend, Newton, dies suddenly…
Dickinson’s reclusiveness and eccentricity lends Dickinstein an all-important air of possibility and makes the suspension of disbelief that much easier. Dickinson herself is not portrayed as an eccentric, however. She merely has other things on her mind. Her curiosity and powers of observation are keen, stimulating her mind so much she cares not whether she misses a meal. Yarbrough does an admirable job in bringing her to life and must have read her work closely indeed in order to construct a character who the reader believes could have written the poems which begin each chapter. And this reader firmly bought it. The poetry and the prose merge until one is another iteration of the other.
Leonard Humphrey, the professor who expands the scope of Dickinson’s experiments, plays the only other major part here–but he too is well-rounded. Intellectual, but with a touch of malevolence. All the other characters, including Newton, seem to be minor and fade into the background. This is clearly Dickinson’s show, which is as it should be.
As with John Schuyler Bishop’s recent Thoreau in Love, there is a marvelous sense of wonder and excitement in Dickinstein, and it’s not confined to the title characters. Creative joy seeps from the pages of both books, Bishop and Yarbrough running over their fields holding their soaring kites in their hands, giddy and giggling as their inventions fly marvelously high. And that sense of joy is infectious. Whenever I had to put Dickinstein down, I couldn’t wait to get back to it to see how her experiments would proceed, how the storyline would resolve itself.
So, Dickinstein is a great mashup and a rousing read full of intellect and creativity. Highly recommended.
© 2013 Jerry L. Wheeler
Don’t miss our exclusive interview with Shannon Yarbrough on Thursday. You’ll learn all about Dickinstein and so much more – that’s Thursday at Out in Print. We’re all you need to read about all you need to read.