I stayed at the office a little later than I had planned yesterday and made it to the library 15 minutes before closing time. Thankfully, I came armed with a list and was able to quickly maneuver through the stacks. Our library is quite small, and I knew I would not be completely successful. Nevertheless, I quickly grabbed three books: The Gathering by Ann Enright, The Heat of the Moon by Sandra Parshall, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. The last one is a chunky book - as thick as the Bible. Being very short on time in the library, I did not have time to page through any of my selections until I got home. I picked up Hugo Cabret first, opened to the first page, and began. It was a little after 9:00 p.m.; I had no intention of reading more than a chapter or two. As the clock chimed 1:00 a.m., I was closing the back cover. The book is a unique blend of written word and almost cinematic drawings - all the work of the author. The artwork is more than mere illustrations. Through them the reader is actually drawn into the story, much like watching a movie, creating a communion with Hugo in a way that words alone could not deliver. Large portions of the tale are carried by Selznick's drawings, and he swings effortlessly between the visual and the spoken word to move the storyline forward.
Hugo is an orphan, who goes to live with his alcoholic uncle in the hidden recesses of a Paris train station. His uncle, the clock keeper for the station, announces that the boy would not be attending school any longer, and he brings Hugo instead on his daily rounds of oiling and winding the many clocks. Hugo is good with machines. This proficiency serves him well when his uncle disappears and Hugo is left to keep the clocks running. Knowing that he would be forced to leave the only shelter he had if it was discovered his uncle was gone, Hugo quietly assumed the job of clock keeper for the station. But, he had another reason for wanting to remain - more important than a place to live. Hugo was working on a special project. The most important project of his life.
Before his death, Hugo's father owned a clockshop and worked part-time in an old museum taking care of the clocks there. One day, he came home and told his son that up in the attic of the museum he had found a remarkable object. The most beautiful and complicated machine he had ever seen. But the machine had been allowed to sit neglected and was rusted and broken. It was an automaton. A windup figure of a man, sitting at a desk, with pen in hand. His father believed that, if the automaton could be fixed, it would write a message. An important one.
Certain that the message buried in the windup man's broken cogs and rusted gears would save his life, repairing the automaton and bringing it to life (while trying to maintain his hiding place), became Hugo Cabret's quest. In the end, he would not only save his own life, but someone else's as well.
Hugo Cabret is a story of wonder. A story of magic. It is part fairy tale, part mystery, part history of the early days of cinema. It is a story of mending broken machines and broken dreams. A story of repairing broken lives. At the end, under the heading, "Winding It Up," Selznick brings all the parts together in one magnificent denouement. This was one of the most profound reading experiences I have had in quite some time. Tonight, I will go home and start reading something new. But, I am certain that in quiet moments my thoughts will often shift to the message of Hugo Cabret.