The Grave Robber’s Secret, by Anna Myers;
Walker & Company: New York, 2011;
The main character in The Grave Robber’s Secret, Robby, is a twelve-year-old boy who lives in a poor section of Philadelphia at the beginning of the 1800s. Robby’s father thinks he has found a get-rich-quick scheme—grave robbing! In those days medical schools would buy dead bodies for their students to dissect. Robby and his mother are terrified of the idea, but Robbie’s father will not hear of any disagreement. In his mind this will be an easy way to support his family, and so he begins making Robby come with him. Then William Burke comes to live in the boarding house Robby’s mother runs. He is an intimidating figure who thinks he is of a higher class than everyone else because of his fancy clothes and gold cane. But Robby soon becomes friends with Burke’s terribly shy daughter, Martha.
Real trouble begins when Robby finds a woman’s shoe that does not belong to his mother in the hall. He had heard a woman’s laugh the night before, and he begins to wonder if Burke is even worse than he thought. One night a strange man comes in to play cards with Burke and Robby’s father. Martha peeks and sees something horrible. Imagine Robby’s horror at finding out that Burke and his father are murdering people off the street and selling them to the medical school!
This is a book about feeling trapped. If Robby goes straight to the police his father might be hanged. He is also terrified that, without proof, they will not believe him and will let Burke go. Burke might kill him or his mother. He tells his mother what has happened, but he knows she will do nothing because she always feels powerless compared to his father. He thinks about doing nothing himself, but he cannot live with the knowledge that others are being killed when he could have stopped them. Reading it, I thought about how hard it is even now for children who are abused by the adults in their lives. I used to think, “Just turn them in!” But I now I see it’s hard to turn in someone you love and are terrified of at the same time.
Robby decides he needs more proof before he decides, and he follows the men to the graveyard one night. He sees that they are planning to kill an old homeless lady. To save her, Robby cries out for them to stop and then runs deeper into the graveyard. Robby is about to be caught by the raging men when the police come. Martha, realizing the danger he would be in, had gone to get them.
Robby is not the only one who has been feeling trapped. Martha’s mother has died and so she is dependent in all ways on a man who lies and cheats and even kills people. Yet now she is able to begin to find some strength in herself because Robby has reached out to her and she is not completely alone. I will always remember when Martha walked into the boarding house, how she came in, looking down, with a big brown shawl wrapped around her. Robby thought she looked fragile and I thought she looked like she was trying to hide or disappear. But now she has a friend to save, and so she does.
I loved this story because it is a very fast-paced, exciting mystery and yet understandable and not confusing. It also helped me understand a real-life mystery—why people in bad situations sometimes can’t just get out of them. But making friends with someone always helps.