December 19, 2002

By The Great Horn Spoon!, by Sid Fleischman

Now this is an outstanding book.

I first read this, very reluctantly, when I was in third or fourth grade, at my teacher's suggestion. I went on to read it over and over, and then eventually I forgot about it. And then the other day, when I was at the bookstore looking for good books to read aloud to David at bedtime I happened upon it. Renewing my acquaintance with it has been one of the most pleasant aspects of the past couple of weeks.

Oh, and Dave liked it, too.

It's January, 1849. Young Jack's parents are dead; he and his two sisters have been living in the old family home in Boston with Aunt Arabella, and the butler, whose name is Praiseworthy. The family money has run out, and in less than a year Aunt Arabella will have to sell the house. Gold has been discovered in California, and Jack resolves to run away to the gold fields, strike it rich, and return with his fortune to save the family home. Praiseworthy discovers the scheme, of course--and thinks it an excellent plan. As the book opens, Praiseworthy and Jack are stowaways on the good ship Lady Wilma, en route to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn.

That's the premise; how they get to California and the gold fields, and what happens after, is the story. I won't spoil it by telling it all here. I'll just say that Fleischman is an outstanding story teller, and his prose is a joy to read aloud. More than that, without any lecturing he manages not only to tell Jack and Praiseworthy's story, but also to let us in on quite of bit of historical information about the Gold Rush, and the gold camps, and how gold mining was done. I learned a lot of what I know about the Gold Rush from this book, and while I've added to that information in the years since, the book is still striking in its accuracy. (For example--I've been to several of the gold towns Jack and Praiseworthy visit.)

This is a kid's book, sure. But if you're planning a trip to California's Gold Country you could pick a worse introduction. And even if you're not, it makes a heck of a good yarn no matter how old you are.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 19, 2002 07:17 PM