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August 3rd, 2011:

Dipping Into Books: Conjuror’s Journal

Conjuror's Journal Cover 300 Wide.jpgOne of the most obscure of the best books I’ve read in the last 30 years is Conjuror’s Journal, by Frances L. Shine. As best I can tell Miss Shine published just three novels, all with Dodd, Mead, between 1968 and 1978. There is almost nothing about her online, and given that she seemed to be 60-something in her 1978 jacket photo, I’m guessing that she’s passed on.

The novel is a Pepys-style diary from a mulatto conjuror (parlor magician; nothing paranormal about it) traveling around Boston in the 1790s with his dog Socrates, giving magic shows while trying to unravel the mystery of his parentage. The story is by turns insightful, funny, and sweet, with just a touch of melancholy here and there, mostly in Joshua’s recognition of the pain he sees in the people he entertains. It ends well (nay, triumphantly) in a way that few stories do anymore, and a lot of what I like about it is simply that. Perhaps the best way to persuade you to hunt up a copy (there are plenty on the used book sites for a dollar) is to give you a quick sample here. I hope to do this now and then with obscure books that I think deserve more attention than they’ve gotten.

February 15, 1794.

Man is a hapless creature, after all, upon this earth; all his vaunted powers as nothing in the face of Loss. This have I tried and proven more than once.

This day I was met in the Lane by a small lass in a sore way of crying; who called out my name and seized my coat in her little hand. She had hung about the door waiting for me; and, 0, Sir, look! Could I not make it to be alive again? Wrapped tenderly within her apron was a dead canary.

I was stricken by her simplicity. Having marvelled at such wonders as her childish eyes found in my sleight-of-hand, she thought on me as a kind of miracle worker who could, an’ he would, make all well again. There was in her utter trust an innocent blasphemy that made me shudder.

Most tenderly, I spoke to her; explaining how far my poor gifts at conjuring fell short of what she asked. My words brought forth a fresh burst of tears. Then my bird’s dead! Charlie’s dead! My heart welled with pity. How can one speak to Six Years of the bending of man’s stubborn will to the Divine purpose? All I could find to do was to palm a coin, fumble in her hair with a “What have we here?” and proffer the coin to purchase another bird.

Child-like, she made pause at the bright money. But then she shook her head mournfully. She wanted no other bird–she wanted only Charlie. Off she went a-weeping, the dead bird cradled in her apron.

Poor little maid! Perhaps till this day her heart has known naught but joys. My bird is dead. Be it youthful dreams, or first love; be it the sense of infinite possibility contained in one land, one idea; we all, soon or late, must utter that same cry.