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It’s 1853, on Boston Harbor, where young Finn O’Neill is learning the trade of a boatman. It’s a new era, when steam is threatening sail, factories are displacing workers, and the immigrants are Irish – unwanted and under threat, but determined to make their place here. Finn and his father row for a young clock mender, Peter Jenkins, ferrying him out every day though the ship channels in Boston Harbor to offer inbound shipmasters his services for their marine chronometers. One morning, a sea-going Chinese junk appears out of a thick fog and sets Finn’s life on its ear.
The junk carries Matthew Lawson, a Boston merchant who disappeared in China over 50 years ago but looks hardly a day older. Come with him is his half-Chinese daughter, An-Ming – smart, commanding, and head-strong as a Malay pirate. Mr. Lawson hires Peter to repair his fantastic Chinese clock and to build a new one as precise and sturdy as a chronometer. Through Peter, Finn learns that the clock is somehow the key to Mr. Lawson’s amazingly long life.
Finn’s own life isn’t so easy. He’s Irish, poor, and his da is Mike O’Neill, a moody man with a fondness for drink, a penchant for brawling, and a worsening cough that rattles deeper in his chest every day.
An-Ming becomes Finn’s friend and confidant, only to become the focus of violent attempts at abduction. In the final incident – played out within the city-wide excitement surrounding the launch of the world’s largest clipper ship – Da O’Neill and Peter are shanghaied, and Finn himself barely escapes with the unconscious An-Ming.
Using his knowledge of the channels and tides in the harbor, Finn is able to save Peter from a long trip to Africa. Rescuing his father proves much more difficult, and even then Finn must face losing him again to disease. Desperate, he steals the amazing new clock Peter has just finished, hoping he can keep himself free from the thugs chasing An-Ming long enough to figure out how to make the clock work for Da.
Finn’s Clock was a delight to write. The research entailed several trips to the Dartmouth College Library and also to Boston, to visit the Boston Public Library and to search the streets around the harbor for buildings that had been there in 1853. There aren’t many, but they are a treat to find and study. Just as fun were several hours spent scanning the 1853 microfilms of the Herald newspaper. Nothing to do with Finn’s Clock, I found a report of what has to be the first recorded instance of bungee jumping, from a hot air balloon (a Montgolfier) in Paris, France. More to my purpose, I found events that I was able to fit into my story. One of them happens at the end of Chapter 7. Click here to download the chapter and get a preview of Finn’s Clock, as well as a glimpse of minor excitement in the life of 1853 Boston.