Clockworks of the Heart: Hugo and Isabelle



Click, click, whir…” Take a moment to stop and listen. Can you hear it? Maybe this noise comes from your wrist, perhaps from your wall, it is the sound of intricate parts moving harmoniously within a clockwork. What happens when you remove a gear from a clock? It stops.

This is how a little boy by the name of Hugo Cabret feels in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a children’s book by stellar artist and master storyteller Brian Selznick. Hugo is not an ordinary boy living in 1931 France. He doesn’t go to school bright and early, wearing warm wool socks knitted by his mother and eating a lunch packed by his father. He doesn’t have a playroom filled with glorious mechanical toys nor any friends to come over and play-act stories with him. Hugo is alone, you see. And being alone when you are a child is like removing the most important central gear from a clock: it breaks your heart.

Now envision a grand train station full of steam and the hustle and bustle of hundreds of passengers, all within the trappings of the 1930s. There’s a book shop, a café, a florist, a toymaker… and clocks running along the maze of walls, many clocks needed to tell passengers when to get on or when to catch a taxi home. This is an era before the battery clock, so who runs them? Hugo does, running through a maze of tunnels within the walls of the station, oiling, tightening bolts, and cranking gears. Alone.

Hugo’s father died in a fire at the museum where he was employed. Hugo’s uncle, who is the drunken caretaker of the train station’s clocks, adopts him as his apprentice, removes him from school, and keeps him busy inside the walls. Then Hugo’s uncle disappears. The twelve year old is left in the drafty, forgotten apartments deep in the walls tending to the clocks and working on a project left behind by his father: an automaton. The little mechanical man was at the museum, rusted and left to fall apart in the attic, but as a clockmaker Hugo’s father intended to fix it. He wrote notes on the clock works, detailing what goes where and showed his son how to clean the rust and care for the metal man. This is all Hugo has left of the father who loved him. He feels compelled to fix it but has neither gears nor money to buy them with, so he steals from the toymaker’s booth.

Day after day an old man sits in the booth, working on mechanical toys and listening to the click-clack of shoes on tile. He’s often visited by a girl, around twelve years old, who has a love of reading and the cinema. Hugo believes he can get away with his crimes but doesn’t know the man is watching, slyly, waiting for the thief. He is caught, his father’s notebook taken away from him along with everything he stole, and his life collides with a girl’s named Isabelle. The old man is her godfather, Papa Georges, a kind but gruff man with deeply hidden sorrows. He is distressed by Hugo’s notebook and seemingly angry with the world, much like Hugo feels over his father’s death and Uncle’s abandonment. Isabelle agrees to help him get his notebook back which in turn leads the pair to many adventures. Eventually, Hugo finds an element that was missing from his life: friendship.

Through this friendship the duo realizes how life can be like a giant clock: there are many parts involved that don’t always directly touch one another yet they are all essential to the function. Hugo has an automaton in his possession that was given to the museum and abandoned in an attic and has no maker’s mark on it. Isabelle has a unique heart-shaped key that she wears on a chain around her neck that fits the heart-shaped lock on the back of the clockwork man perfectly. The two children who are in no way related begin to unravel a mystery spanning decades that involves magicians, early filmmakers, daydreams, clocks, real and supposed deaths and broken hearts.

To experience this friendship firsthand, one only has to open the pages of the book or look to Hugo, a charming film adaptation of the award-winning novel. It’s very well made and realistically depicts the harshness of being alone as a child in 1931. Yet, a film is only as good as its source material and the book is beyond outstanding. You open the first black paper page and find yourself pondering a drawing of a planet. Then you turn the page, then another, and you discover a world half drawn and half written out by Brian Selznick. It’s an engulfing story, for you truly see the characters, not just in the mind’s eye but there living on the page. You know precisely how Hugo and Isabelle look and how their friendship develops through a series of drawings and words combined.

Click, click, whir…” The year is 1931 and the story is set in France. Outside a door, wearing a smart tuxedo suit with a scrubbed face and new haircut waits a boy named Hugo. A girl appears, wearing a white dress and heart-shaped key around her neck. Her name is Isabelle.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of how they got to this point and how Hugo found the missing piece to his clockwork heart through Isabelle’s perseverance and belief in him. ♥


 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Caitlin Horton is a 20-something reader, seamstress, and history buff. She lives a life blessed in the knowledge that she is God’s child, and her life has a purpose within the scope of His plan. She encourages her readers to remember, every day can be like Bilbo’s “adventure” if you’re willing to take the “ordinary” and add some “extra” in front of it! She also blogs about her crafts!


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