Friday, January 26, 2018

Black Bottle Man

I was provided with a review copy of Black Bottle Man, by Craig Russell (2010, Great Plains Teen Fiction.)

Perhaps you're familiar with the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Bottle Imp, about a devilish bottle that gives the owner whatsoever his heart desires, at the forfeit of his soul. The catch -- there's always a catch! -- is that if the owner dies without selling the bottle for less than he bought it for, he goes straight to hell. Those who take on the bottle for greed or for a joke end up spending most of their time trying to find someone who will take on the burden and release their soul from bondage.

"What profits it a man," the Gospels ask, "to gain the whole world and lose his soul?"  The fool who thinks that the ends justify the means soon realizes that in this case, the means are the ends. The devil, in an extravagant parody of generosity, gives anything a bargainer asks for, as long as a soul is on the line. Once the deal is struck, the poor fool soon realizes that nothing is worth the price he's already agreed to pay. Any champion who might confront the devil on his behalf must be willing to stake his soul on the outcome, but who can defeat the devil at his own game?

Stevenson gave his tale the flavor of the Hawaiian islands he loved. In his novel Black Bottle Man, Craig Russell transposes the story to the northern plains of Canada and America. On the eve of the Great Depression, three families are torn apart when two of the wives use a mysterious black bottle in a desperate attempt to have children. The resulting deal with the devil drives their ten-year-old nephew Rembrandt, his Pa, and his Uncle Thompson to lead a hobo existence, condemned to pull up stakes every twelve days as they travel the West seeking a champion who will fight the Black Bottle Man for all their souls. And in the course of their traveling, they discover a folk magic that seems drawn straight from a Tim Powers fantasy -- hobo signs that effect what they signify, a sacrament of the road.

Both the signs and the narrative voice serve the deeper qualities of the novel, a book which is unstinting in its moral landscape. Good and evil, selfishness and sacrifice, matter in this story. Choices have serious consequences -- and complicated consequences, in the case of the innocent children bought by twisted magic. The story is told in a wonderfully plainspoken Midwestern voice, rich in the sounds and smells and the feel of the land that Rembrandt wanders throughout his lifetime. And there is love too -- the love of husbands for their wives, the love of the old for the young, and the new, electric love of a teenage boy who knows he can never stay near his girl long enough to form a family of his own.

A few quibbles: the story jumps back and forth in a time in a way that paces the narrative, but I do wish that the present-day arc had been allowed more development. The backstory of a character who becomes important was rushed to the point of obliqueness, and surely the easy length of the book could have stood the weight of a few pages more devoted to the climactic battle the reader has been waiting for.

Still, these are minor points that shouldn't deter anyone from seeking out Black Bottle Man, especially since it's received some high praise from Julie D. of Happy Catholic. It's marketed as teen fiction, and this is where categories serve readers poorly; it's good fiction that involves a character who is a teenager at one point.

Amazon sells the Kindle version; the paperback can be bought from the publisher.


  1. This sounds like something I'd like to read.

  2. Dear Catholic Bibliophagist,
    Due to your interest in quilts you also might enjoy seeing the "hobo sign" quilt that was inspired by Black Bottle Man. You can see it on either my web page:
    Or on my face book page.
    Best wishes, Craig Russell