Fuse #8

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Review of the Day: Worth

It took me a while to get my hands on this puppy. The only copy in the entire New York Library system was in the Donnell Central Children's Room. When I requested it (round about half a year ago) I discovered that it was then considered missing. Flash forward to now when I am actually working IN the Central Children's Room. It occurred to me belatedly that perhaps the book would be on the shelf after all. It was, of course (never trust the hold system) and I took it home for a quick read. Quick it was, but not dull in the least. I was remarkably pleased with it.

You know, you can never have too many awards for works of children's fiction. Sometimes that's the only way you're ever going to find an audience for a perfectly nice but sadly forgotten title. Take, "Worth" as an example. Until it won itself a rather prestigious Scott O'Dell Award For Historical Fiction, I hadn't heard so much as a breath upon the wind about it. It seemed nice enough, of course. But historical fiction is something I find myself unconsciously avoiding. When the O'Dell honor fell upon it, however, I picked "Worth" up for some good reading. What I found proves that no matter how great a book is, if it gets lost in the shuffle then it may remain an exceptional but forgotten title. I'm pleased to see so many kids reviewing it on their own. Hopefully that will mean that "Worth" will become a classic simply by word of mouth.

It all would have been fine if the lightning hadn't come. That was the whole reason why Nathaniel, his father, and his mother were out in the fields working like mad to get their crops in before the rain fell. In his haste to help out, Nate gets his pitchfork stuck in the ground and, in freeing it, happens to be in the way of the horses when the lightening spooks them. The wheel of the wagon and the horses themselves break the boy's leg all to pieces and though he lives he'll never walk the same again. This is a particular problem on a farm where every family member has to pull their own weight. That means Nate has to be replaced by John Worth, an orphan from New York City who's been taken in by Nate's pa. No one likes John, but as Nate slowly begins to learn this stranger's story he crawls a little bit away from his own self-pity and into liking this odd city slicker. It just so happens that Worth's appearance coincides with heightened tensions between the ranchers and the farmers and if everybody isn't careful there's going to be range war. That is, unless Nate and John can stop it.

What sets "Worth" apart from other works of historical fiction is its readability and the fact that it's a great story for kids within a wide range of ages. Standing at a mere 144 pages, it's the ideal length for those kids assigned to do a book report on a book that takes place in the nineteenth century, but who don't want to wade through "Little Women" (not that I have anything AGAINST Alcott but...). As I mentioned before, historical fiction is not my favorite genre. Imagine my surprise then when my hand kept reaching for the book on my coffee table, almost entirely of its own accord. I was even more surprised to find that I wanted to learn more. I wanted to see if and when Worth and Nathaniel would start to get along. I wanted to examine the family dynamics, for crying out loud. Not every book does so much.

I also liked that LaFaye left some questions floating in the wind. At one point Nathaniel wonders why it is that his mother dislikes John Worth so very very much. We never get a good answer to that, except perhaps in knowing that she thinks city children are all murderers and pickpockets. LaFaye is best at being entirely faithful to a historical time period, all the while making it feel rich and alive. You understand roundabouts when this story takes place, but that doesn't make anybody in it less understandable. I did wish that LaFaye had pinned it down to a single year, but as complaints go that one's fairly negligible.

All in all, "Worth" just came as a lovely surprise. The child-gravely-injured-at-the-start-of-the-book genre encompasses such big names as "Johnny Tremain". Now we've another title to bring to the table. Kids will enjoy it (even, I suspect, reluctant readers) and it talks about a historical moment (mainly the Orphan Train) that few books have discussed until now. Well worth (ho ho) discovering.


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