Mister Boots, by Carol Emshwiller (Viking, 2005)

In the middle of the Depression, out in the California desert, there are plenty of secrets to go around. While exploring the desert around her, ten-year-old Bobby Lassiter stumbles across a wounded man, who goes by the name Mister Boots. Sometimes a horse, sometimes a man, Boots is a true oddity, but Bobby’s family takes him in, nursing him back to health and taking care of him. However, tragedy soon strikes, leaving Bobby and her sister alone … that is, until their wandering stage-magician father shows up out of the blue to take what he can from their meager possessions. A chance incident changes everything, and pretty soon, Bobby, Jocelyn, and Boots join Robert Lassiter on the road, wandering from town to town performing for the masses. Secrets still abound within the loose-knit group, secrets which will ultimately explode into an open confrontation, one which will alter the direction of Bobbie’s life forever.

Mister Boots is a strangely haunting story, a dreamlike excursion through a hazy past where nothing is exactly what it seems. Just as Bobby is a girl who’s often mistaken for a boy (to the point of occasionally doubting her own identity), and Boots is a horse who’s sometimes a man, so is there magic which is capricious and unexplained. It’s an intriguing narrative that builds to a sudden and tragic conclusion, leaving just enough to the imagination. Bobby is a sympathetic viewpoint who guides us through the malleable past, and Mister Boots is properly alien for his nature. All in all, an enjoyable book, worth taking a look at.

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