Percival’s Planet centers on the 1930 discovery of the elusive “Planet X,” a planet long suspected to exist, but one very difficult to photograph using the technology of the day. “Planet X” would come to be known as Pluto, and the Kansas farm boy who discovered it would gain worldwide fame for finally locating it. Ironically, Pluto would go on to lose its status as a planet in late 2006 when the definition of “planet” was officially written and Pluto failed to meet the new standard.
In reality, however, Percival’s Planet is about much more than the discovery of Pluto. Michael Byers does center his story on young Clyde Tombaugh, the ultimate discoverer of the new planet, but he uses several interesting side plots to develop the other characters that will find themselves in Flagstaff when Clyde finds success there. These characters include Alan Barber and Dick Morrow, two young men who precede Clyde’s arrival at the Lowell Observatory, and Florence, the girl both men fall in love with; Edward Howe, a retired boxer that falls in love with his mentally ill secretary; Felix Duprie and his mother, wealthy Easterners that move to Arizona in search of dinosaur bones; and the eccentric widow of Percival Lowell, founder of the observatory, and a man who spent much of his life in search of Planet X.
Byers spends a good bit of time (and numerous pages) developing each of his subplots and supporting characters, something he can afford to do in a novel of more than 400 pages. The reader comes to know most of the main characters in their more natural habitats prior to their arrival in Flagstaff for purposes of their own. Despite their varied backgrounds, and individual pursuits, Byers builds a web in which these characters plausibly interact with each other to a degree that makes Pluto’s discovery read almost an afterthought. When, near the end of the book, the planet is finally discovered, in fact, it is somewhat a letdown because the reader’s anticipation of the event is sure to exceed the impact of the author’s description of the discovery’s aftermath.
Clyde Tombaugh’s personal story is an amazing one in itself. Clyde, son of a tenant farmer, had a keen interest in telescopes, even to manufacturing fine lenses of his own on the farm, but he could not afford to go to college after finishing high school. A chance letter would bring him to the attention of the Lowell Observatory director at precisely the moment a staff opening unexpectedly occurred and, much to his surprise, Clyde would be invited to fill that opening. And after receiving minimal on-the-job training on the observatory’s equipment, the young man barely out of high school virtually would be left on his own to search for the mysterious Planet X.
Percival’s Planet is an interesting peek at Depression era America and an assortment of characters trying to find their place in society just when times were becoming difficult - and it offers an intriguing look at the discovery of the used-to-be planet, Pluto. For all that, it does not work quite as well as it should because so many of the novel’s characters cross the line from believable into unbelievable, making it difficult for the reader to lose himself in the story being told.