Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Reading Through History: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick (2009)

After the death of their Dear Mother, Homer Figg and his brother, Harold were sent to live with Uncle Squint, who mistreats them and regards them as property. When Squint sells Harold into military service even though he is underage, Homer takes off after his brother, in the hopes of saving him before he faces combat, or worse.

Before I started reading historical fiction regularly, I had no idea how many "boy on a journey" books were out there! In some ways, it feels like I am reading the same story over and over again, just in different settings. This book reminded me so much of previously reviewed titles: A Single Shard, The Kite Rider, Adam of the Road, The Door in the Wall, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, Call it Courage, Boy with a Pack, and Mr. Tucket all follow a similar pattern to this story, where a boy sets off on a journey and is forever changed by the experience. Like Adam in Adam of the Road, Homer is on the hunt for a lost family member, and like Bill in Boy with a Pack, he is both helped and hindered by people he meets along the way, including a thief, a Quaker family and some escaped slaves.

In terms of writing style, this book reminds me a lot of Bud, Not Buddy and Elijah of Buxton, in that it combines a great sense of humor with the more gruesome details of living through a difficult time. Homer is a fun character, and kids will relate to the upbeat and carefree tone which belies his true fears about the fate of his brother. This book is not entirely uplifting, however. As Homer's journey begins to wind down in the last third of the story, the reader begins to hear about battle wounds, deaths, and amputations, and there isn't much to sugar-coat the information. Obviously, Civil War injuries were brutal, so it makes sense to include these descriptions, but kids who have enjoyed the humor of the first portions of the book might be caught off-guard by the dark turn the story takes.

The writing is quite good, though, in both the contemplative moments and the laugh-out-loud funny moments. There were two little moments I especially enjoyed. First is this description of riding on a train which appears at the end of Chapter 15:

It's amazing what goes by the windows on a train. Farms and fields and forests, and rows of wooden houses, and big brick mills. Like we're floating through a storybook and each turn in the track is a new page, and it's a story I never heard before so I don't know how it will end. Page after page, picture after picture, and always something new around the corner, and the chugging of the locomotive belching black smoke, making its own dark clouds against the sky, and the steam whistle sounding alive somehow, like the whole train is saying, Here-I-am, make-way-chugga-chugga-woowoo! Here-I-am, make-way-chugga-chugga-woowoo! and rocking me to sleep. (p. 88)

Second is this joke from Chapter 18. Homer's temporary guardian, a young bumbling preacher, has allowed himself to be duped into becoming engaged to a woman whom Homer clearly recognizes as a thief. Homer's insight made me laugh out loud! 

That does it. It can't be true love. Mr. Willow has eyes like a sick kitten. You might love a sick kitten, but you don't marry it, you keep it as a pet. (p. 105)

Overall, this book is a quick and entertaining read, but much of it is not really about the Civil War in general, but about the experiences of these specific characters, which are grounded mostly in imagination rather than history. Kids who enjoy reading about this time period will be pleased by Homer's story, but it won't necessarily teach them about the Civil War in the same way as a book like Bull Run.

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