Monday, November 21, 2011

Water, Water, Anywhere?

Except for times of drought when we’re asked to water our lawns before and after 10 o’clock on set days of the week, we take water for granted.

In the mid-1800’s our ancestors didn’t have that luxury. They couldn’t pretend they were opera stars singing in daily hot showers or gulp a glass of cool water from the kitchen sink. If they wanted water to keep their cattle, crops, and themselves alive, they had to hire a dowser, a person with the gift of finding water.

Not everyone had this gift. It seems to me that a dowser must have been as necessary to his community as a doctor. A dowser would have his future planned and his security assured. Wouldn’t he? But what if the dowser was determined to escape the reach of his gift and do something else?

THE WATER SEEKER by Kimberly Willis Holt, Christy Ottaviano Books, 2010

Dowser and trapper Jake Kinkaid uses a forked branch to make his living. He’s saving his money so he can stop dowsing and do what he wants. The plan is simple. Jake’s life gets complicated.

A wild, red-headed woman named Delilah runs to Jake’s cabin to escape her abusive father. In very short order, they marry, produce a son, and Delilah dies, leaving Jake to raise his son, Amos, alone. Amos inherits his mother’s artistic talents and his father’s gift of dowsing, but, as the reader learns, Amos is not entirely alone. Other women who love and care for Delilah’s boy, sometimes see a wild, red-haired apparition who seems more approving than threatening.

Jake’s gift of dowsing doesn’t make him happy. He longs to spend all his time hunting and trapping. As a scout for a wagon train going west, he is injured trying to rescue another man on a treacherous river crossing and his leg must be amputated. By now Amos is 14. He knows that he, too, has the gift of dowsing, but he keeps it to himself because he knows how unhappy his father is about his own gift. Instead, he tries to help his disabled father dowse and struggles to keep him from falling into a deep depression.

Amos’s life parallels the expansion of our country during the middle part of the 18th century. This is historical fiction at its best. As the author follows Amos from his birth in 1833 to the birth of Amos’s son in 1859, the reader absorbs how the early pioneers learned to work together, take care of each other, share, grow, settle, and branch out with their own families.

Author Holt won the National Book Award for When Zachary Beaver Came To Town, and her book My Louisiana Sky was made into a movie. She was launched on her quest for information for The Water Seeker when her own husband mentioned that his father was a dowser. Mentioned? What a happy discovery! There is more on her website:

This book should travel well in the days ahead. Tuck it into your tween’s carry-on. A book can stay open after the captain orders all electronic devices shut down.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Today’s tweens and teens might think the word firestorm refers to political rhetoric. No one who is of interest to the media can say much or tweet much without drawing a barrage of withering comments—a firestorm. When I looked up the word in a dictionary, it wasn’t there. Another dictionary, same year as the first, defined it as a fire driven by a violent wind. Yes, lots of hot air. I like the middle grade novel by the same name much better than the storms raging on radio and tv talk shows.

FIRESTORM! by Joan Hiatt Harlow, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010

Poppy’s mother leaves her in a Chicago alley where the little girl is picked up by Ma Brennan, a female Fagin, who teaches girls to steal. Ma has 2 biological daughters whom she favors, but Poppy becomes a skilled pick pocket, and this is what keeps her alive and gives her a place to sleep.

Justin Butterworth is 13 and privileged. His father is Chicago’s most important jeweler. Poppy and Justin meet, and thanks to a pet goat named Tick Tock, they begin to see each other as people, not stereotypes. They become friends. Poppy meets Justin’s sister Claire who tells her she is like a geode. Inside is a sparkly crystal of goodness. This reaches deep inside Poppy, getting underneath all the hurt she has suffered. Poppy doesn’t want to steal anymore. She wants to belong to a real family.

Ma is not willing to give up her star thief, however. She manipulates Poppy by threatening to turn Tick Tock into goat stew, and the plot thickens.

The characters interact, grow, and deepen against the historical background of the Chicago fire which was NOT started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Only the Butterworth family, Poppy, and the girls and Ma Brennan are fictional, although there was a Mary Brennan who taught girls to steal. Other famous people are mentioned but they are in place historically and accurately portrayed. Author Harlow skillfully weaves in bits of history to enlarge the reader’s knowledge of this tragic event. Publication of this novel was timely, during the 150th year observation of the fire.

This is definitely a middle grade novel which girls especially will enjoy. Sensory details are so engaging one can taste the smoke, hear the fire alarms and trucks rushing to respond, feel grit in eyes and nose. A dramatic arc swings wide from tangled relationships to a frantic escape from the raging fire to the resolution of the characters’ complicated problems. In spite of a burned and blackened landscape, this ends well.

Kudos to the author. She’s written other books for this age group and you can find them at her website.

Hillview School Library