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Three Stars for Jakob Wegelius’s The Murderer’s Ape

March 01, 2017

★ “When her friend and partner, the sailor Henry Koskela, is wrongfully imprisoned for murder, Sally Jones works for years to free him. The ape Sally Jones, who can understand speech, respond with nods, write slowly, and play chess, tells her tale by typing on an old Underwood typewriter. It’s the tale of the murder of Alphonse Morro, but it’s far from simple. When Koskela goes to prison for killing Morro (whose body’s not found) after Morro lied to Koskela about the cargo he and Sally Jones were to transport (guns—not roofing tiles), Sally Jones eventually finds a safe place to stay with singer Ana Molina and her musical-instrument-repairing landlord, Luigi Fidardo. Thus begins a continent-spanning quest filled with betrayal and intrigue and engineering and music. Set in the very early years of the 20th century, Wegelius’ award-winning novel won Sweden’s August Prize for best novel for youth, as did his first book about Sally Jones, not yet published in the United States and features a complex mystery, an intricately constructed narrative, and deep characters. It has enough adventures for a trilogy at least, but the pacing is slower than modern American adventure novels. Sally Jones is a compelling narrator, and the detailed illustrations by the author add much (and depict a largely white human cast). Short attention spans need not apply, but committed, careful readers will be richly rewarded.” —Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

★“Sally Jones is a top-notch engineer, excels at chess, and exceeds expectations at every turn—that she is a gorilla may be the least interesting thing about her. Working aboard a cargo ship, the Hudson Queen, with her dear friend Chief, Sally Jones is content and safe, but when a job goes awry, Chief lands in prison for murder and only Sally Jones knows he is innocent. Determined to clear his name, the indomitable gorilla forges unexpected friendships, travels countless miles, and barely survives death on numerous occasions. Meticulous black-and-white character illustrations introduce key players at the novel’s start, and spot illustrations adorn the heading of each chapter, offer tempting glimpses of what awaits. Originally published in Sweden and ostensibly typed out by the gorilla on a typewriter, Wegelius’s story is a thrilling adventure, but it’s Sally Jones’s devotion to her friends and poignant observations that set it apart (‘Poor Chief,’ she thinks after his arrest. ‘The accident wasn’t his fault, but he would never forgive himself, I knew that’). Prepare to meet the remarkable Sally Jones; you won’t soon forget her.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

★ “Sally Jones is an engineer, a shipmate, a friend, and a gorilla. Though she understands English, she doesn’t speak it, and many people assume she is just another animal. Sally Jones and her constant companion, Captain Henry Koskela (called the Chief), made many sea voyages until a stop in Lisbon results in the Chief being imprisoned for the murder of a man named Alphonse Morro. Alone and devastated by his loss, Sally Jones is taken in by Ana Molina, a young singer, and begins to piece together the events that led to the Chief’s imprisonment. Determined to prove his innocence, Sally Jones begins a journey that will last several years and span multiple countries: from Lisbon, she travels as far as India in search of clues about the mysterious Alphonse Morro, who may not be dead after all. Though she meets many unsavory characters and is often threatened with zoos, her talent with machinery, resourcefulness, and enduring goodwill see her through. This story was originally published in Sweden to great critical acclaim, and numerous black-and-white drawings throughout add to its unusual appeal. For American readers, this will have a distinctly old-fashioned feel. While the sheer length and thoughtful pace of Sally Jones’ journey might discourage some, those who persevere will have a richly imagined and thoroughly unique adventure in store.” —Booklist, Starred Review