Edition 11: Book Review: Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell
Reviewed by Mysti Parker
How do you beat the devil and live to tell about it?
Craig Russell explores this mythical question in Black Bottle Man. Though targeted to the teen/YA audience, this metaphorically rich fable is a pleasure for any word-a-holic to read.
The story follows the life of a man named Rembrandt (not the famous artist) as a very old, homeless person in a shelter. You realize something is off-kilter when he mentions the 12-day limit of his stay approaching. As the pages turn, we discover that Rembrandt cannot remain in any one place for more than 12 days at a time. The reason lies in one of the most convenient excuses of all time: The devil made him do it. In this case, however, it’s true.
We quickly shift back in time to 10-year-old Rembrandt, living in the Midwest with his mom, dad, and two sets of aunts and uncles. They share a rather idyllic existence living close to one another with their convergent properties—a place they call “Three Farms”. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy. Rembrandt’s aunts have remained childless and long for children of their own. When a mysterious package arrives containing a black bottle and some cryptic instructions, they decide to ignore the warnings and do whatever it takes to make themselves mothers. Their actions—quite shocking, but told beautifully in Rembrandt’s young POV—tear their families apart.
To save the souls of the two sinning aunts, Rembrandt’s father and uncle call out the devil and make a deal. He arrives by wagon, dressed in black, smiling like a snake oil salesman. This “Black Bottle Man” has but one demand. They are to find a champion, someone who can beat the devil himself, but the three of them must keep traveling, staying no more than 12 days at a time in any one place. The trio sets off, naively believing that their righteous work would be completed soon and they could return to Three Farms and resume life as normal.
Rembrandt and his uncles assume the life of the American hobo, quickly learning how to adapt to a nomadic existence. The most useful thing they learn are “hobo signs”, symbols scratched here and there to alert their fellow nomads when there’s good fishing, friendly (or not so friendly) townsfolk, cops nearby, etc. I really enjoyed this aspect. It’s clear that Mr. Russell did extensive research to bring authenticity to the hobo culture of this story. Not only did the facts ring true, but the author truly went above and beyond to develop rich metaphors and a magical spin on what most would call an unsavory existence.
Throughout the rest of the book, the chapters shift forward and back in time, exposing new aspects of Rembrandt’s life. We are also introduced to another homeless woman named Gail in the present time, who has survived a truly horrific experience. The shifts in time were sometimes jarring and some of the scenes felt unnecessary. The eventual convergence of Gail’s and Rembrandt’s stories worked very well, though the final conflict could have been more dramatic.
I wish I could tell you whether the devil was truly beaten after all, but I can’t. You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out. I highly recommend this book to YA readers and beyond for the touching story, the classic fable feel, and rich metaphors that provide a truly pleasurable reading experience.
Black Bottle Man, by Craig Russell
Publisher: Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2010
Mysti Parker is a full time wife, mother of three, and a writer. Her first novel, A Ranger’s Tale was published in January, 2011 by Melange Books, and the second in the fantasy romance series, Serenya’s Song, was published in April 2012. She is also the proud writer of Unwritten, a blog recently voted #3 for eCollegeFinder’s Top Writing Blogs award.