When Mackenzi Lee started her research on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, she did not know where the path would take her, but was soon enthralled by the life of Shelley–a woman ahead of her time: mischievous, daring, mouthy and intelligent. In her debut novel, This Monstrous Thing, Lee has created a moving tale of love lost, recreation of life and the souls that are left behind.
The Industrial Era was becoming a reality in Geneva in the 1800s, and this time and setting of our steampunk story created a writers haven for character development, plot and the overall theme of humanity. I am impressed with Lee’s ability to maintain all these literary elements throughout her story despite her manipulation of times and events in our history.
The Finch Family owns a toy store as a front to their true ability and job as Shadowboys–those who could make limbs, lungs and body parts to function with the human flesh. They are shunned for helping the war veterans maintain a human life when they are more machine than man. Moving from place to place to keep their ability a secret, Oliver and Alasdair Finch, have learned to combat societal norms.
Watching his brother fall to his death caused Alasdair Finch soul wrenching grief. He knew he could not live in a world without him so he used his knowledge of gears, machinery and the human anatomy to reconstruct his brother thus creating our reimaging of Frankenstein. When brought to life, Oliver is not the same. Alasdair has to flee Geneva leaving his newly formed brother behind. The angst caused by this decision has to be mended causing Alasdair to come back to Geneva. Upon his arrival he is met by friends of the past who have left animosity in their wake.
This depth of the characters in Alasdair’s life were stunning. I felt raw emotion upon meeting Mary Shelley–as his first innocent kiss, to the adulteress and then to the manipulating deserter she becomes. Clémence, a passionate young woman who lead a contrary life for this time period, was a character for whom I was cheering loudly as she fought for the equality of all people regardless of their mechanical parts. Oliver was the monster. He was self-centered jerk who I originally found foul, but one I could empathize with to a degree as he was no longer the good looking young man he was at death.
This Monstrous Thing is a wonderful retelling of a classic. I recommend it for the 9th-12th grade library. It offers action and mystery without difficult language. It would make a wonderful prequel to the reluctant reader who has to read Frankenstein for an assignment.
In the Classroom:
In This Monstrous Thing, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein based on the lives of the brothers and what she witnesses the night of Oliver’s death. Although this story is historical fiction, same as the original Frankenstein, the story still gives merit to the theme of humanity. Mr. Finch tells Alasdair that monsters can be within anyone. You don’t have to physically create a monster for it to already exist. Have your students write a persuasive essay with the theme of creation (or humanity) in our story. I think you will have to evaluate your students to see if you can leave the topic this broad, or if you need to give more narrow options. I love giving broad topic assignments because I abhor grading the same theme papers. I like to see where my students go with these topics and allows me diversity in reading.
Common Core Standards have persuasive writing as an 11th and 12th grade standard. Give your students time to brainstorm, revise and edit their work. Take time in class to allow for peer edits and time to conference with you as well. Set a timer on your desk to ensure all students have five minutes of your time. (CCSS: RL.11-12.1, W.11-12.1, W.11-12.5, SL.11-12.1)
This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee (Katherine Tegen Books | 9780062382771 | September 22, 2015)