Fuse #8

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Review of the Day: Desperate Journey

Like every other child born in the state of Michigan, I had the history of that fine state stuffed into my little brain from an early age. I learned about assembly lines and the state bird and what a Petoskey stone was. And what song did we sing each and every year in music class? Well, it began, “I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal.” Yup. “Erie Canal”, was a classic little ditty, but somehow the story of the canal never fastened itself firmly enough in my brain. What better place then to set a historical novel? Credit author Jim Murphy for thinking it up in the first place. He plops the reader down smack dab in the middle of what could only be described as a watery stretch of lawlessness and gives the whole book a sense of the danger that went with the territory. Surprisingly poor on a couple of his details, Murphy is sometimes wholly engaging and sometimes wholly confusing. In the end, the book is great read, but only for those kids that don’t mind stumbling through a tale that is difficult to continually imagine.

What do you do when your father, who never lost a fight a day of his life, loses one to the nastiest bully on the Erie Canal? You go on with your life and your job, that’s what. For twelve-year-old Maggie and her family, that’s just what they’re trying to do. Papa lost a lot of money to a man named Long-fingered John and now the family is going to try to make an extra bonus on the ship’s goods they’re carrying to make it up. Unfortunately it never rains but it pours. Soon Papa and Uncle Hen are arrested for the attempted murder of a man found beaten in an alley and it’s up to Mama and her children to finish the job they’re on. Mama, however, is sick and Eamon (Maggie’s little brother) is too small to do a man’s work. That leaves Maggie to make the tough decisions. Do they trust the strange straggler who keeps offering them his help? How will they get around the many bottlenecks around the locks? Is that mule limping? Things are never easy when working the Canal is your life, but Maggie’s got more strength than anyone has ever given her credit for.

Not many children’s books grab you right from the start, but “Desperate Journey” did. I picked this title up idly in a bookstore intending to give it a quick go and then move on to meatier fare. Five chapters later I was still giving it that “quick go” and finding that my hands literally did not want to put the title down. Now the only books I’d ever read that were written by Mr. Murphy were, up until this point in time, non-fiction titles. Mr. Murphy knows how to take a moment in history, be it a plague of Yellow Fever or Chicago in flames, and make it entirely accessible to his young readers. And when you think about it, the Erie Canal was kind of an event as well. As the book mentions in the historical note at the end, the 363-mile-long water route was a feat of engineering the like of which no one had ever seen before. I suppose that if he had wanted to, Mr. Murphy could have set his story during the canal’s construction, but he didn’t. He chose to follow the men and families that worked the canal day in and day out. The choice was a smart one, even if the delivery is a bit forced now and again.

I say that I picked this book up and immediately wanted to know more, and this is true. Equally true, however, is the fact that I was absolutely baffled by how a boat on a canal worked. By examining the back cover, a person may learn that mules would pull boats from the road on the side of the canal. But how do the mules get on and off the boat? How does one boat pass another on the canal if both are attached to mules? I mean, the book feels authentic. Too authentic. Mr. Murphy skims past the duties of the boat’s crew without taking the time to explain these small details to the 21st century reader. Even a map of the boat’s layout in relation to the road next to the canal could have helped, but no such map is forthcoming. The result is that I struggled to imagine how most of the scenes in this book even played out when I couldn’t determine how it looked in the first place. Mr. Murphy can always be relied upon to know his history and to know it well. I just wish he could have taken the time to explain it to us too.

It was nice to find that the people in the novel breathe with life. Maggie’s Mama is a tough woman who’ll launch herself onto another boat and punch a man in the nose if she thinks it’ll do some good. She’s too hard on Maggie and too skimpy with the compliments, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know what she’s doing most of the time. Murphy skillfully presents Maggie’s family at the start as the kind of people a tween would be just dying to get away from. Then, as that family structure is threatened by outside forces, he shows them slowly banding together to do what needs to be done. I liked the subtle switch and emphasis on how important it is to work together when times get tough. However, the character of Billy Black just made no sense at all either. I mean talk about your deus ex machina. In the book he arrives during the Haggertys’ time of need to do whatever it takes to aid them along. To wit, this man, who has never met any of the Haggertys before, appears out of nowhere and is suddenly their guardian angel. I’ll be the first to admit that he’s an engaging character and that his presence lends quite a bit of oomph to the narrative. Just the same, he felt like a guy created for the sole purpose of moving the plot along. We know only a little about his past, even less about his motivations (he says he’s doing God’s will, but that’s the extent of it), and nothing at all about his future. If he’s more than a bit of authorial convenience then why does he remain so shadowy?

Well, it’s not a perfect novel, that’s for sure. It shows great promise, though. Mr. Murphy certainly knows how to lay down the dialogue, plots, and themes. A little tightening up is all the book really needs. It’s definitely worth a read. I would just give the author a little more time before he comes up with the fictional equivalent of “An American Plague.”

Notes On the Cover: Well, to be perfectly frank with you, when I glanced at it in passing I thought the book was about a Native American boy forced to assimilate to white culture. This is a fairly unfair thing to say, though, since all in all it’s not a bad presentation. Recently I criticized the cover of “I’ll Sing You One-O” for making the girl on the cover look too old. This girl, in contrast, looks believably twelve. The back cover may prove more important than the front


At 9:58 AM , Blogger Elizabeth O Dulemba said...

I totally agree with your summation. I found the book fascinating and confusing at the same time. Above all though, I was educated about a piece of our history that I didn't know.

At 12:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another good canal book for kids is "Captain Kate" by Carolyn Reeder. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print. It's set on the C&O canal during the Civil War.

At 2:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember learning in fifth grade how the boats navigated the canal in the early days, but I have never figured out the mules. I spent eight years living just a couple of miles away; I've taken tours of the canal where it goes through Lockport, NY; I've been to an Erie Canal museum. The mules still make no sense to me.


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