Sunday, August 16, 2015

Reading Through History: Boy with a Pack by Stephen W. Meader (1939)

On an April morning in 1837, seventeen-year-old New Hampshire native Bill Crawford picks up his peddler's pack and sets off for Ohio, hoping to see some new sights and to earn more than the two dollars he could make working at the local mill. Along the way, he acquires a few animal friends, encounters unpleasant enemies in the form of a crooked horse trader and a slave owner searching for runaways, and finds a series of allies to help him reach his destination.

Though there is some hardship in the story, Boy with a Pack is mostly a feel-good adventure tale of traveling the open road, which provides the reader with insight into the way people lived in the United States prior to the Civil War. Much of the story focuses on the adventure rather than historical context, but references to factory work and involvement with escaped slaves ground the action in the specific time period and make it possible to connect the story to a history lesson. It is not quite as complete a history lesson as  Adam of the Road's portrayal of medieval England, but I actually think I enjoyed this book more, because I liked its main character better. While Adam of the Road makes better assigned reading, Boy with a Pack is the more entertaining of the two novels.

Kids who complain of having to read historical novels where nothing happens will not have that objection to this book. Every chapter introduces a new and exciting episode in Bill's story, and even his down time is filled with thrilling moments, such as the birth of a new foal, and the sighting of a circus elephant. It is a bit frustrating that the story ends where it does, without a neatly tied up resolution, as I could happily have followed Bill all the way back home again, but kids will appreciate the author's decision to end the story before the action has a chance to die down.

Though the character is an older teenager, this book suits the same audience as many of Gary Paulsen's books: grades 4 to 8. It would also make a fabulous read-aloud, provided the reader is prepared to grapple with several dialects.

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