The River Boy by Jessica Brown

The River Boy

Jessica Brown, Author

Finch & Fellow Publishing Home, Historical Fiction, 2016

Pages: 148

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Montana Frontier, Abuse, Friendship, Adventure, Imagination, Courage, Hope


Nine-year-old Clara is worried about spending a lonely and boring summer on her family ranch in Montana, which is two miles outside of town. It is 1909 and she lives with her parents and two older brothers on a ranch that her grandfather built after the civil war. Everyone pitches in to keep the ranch operating — weeding cornfields, planting gardens and caring for the livestock.

Feeling that “hollow” space inside her, Clara heads to her special place, the grassy banks of the river. There in the middle of her river, she spots a boy sitting on a big rock. Josiah invites her to join him and lends his hand. He asks Clara if she knows what the rock is here for?  “It’s for people who  know how be still,” says Clara. He smiles at her and at that moment, Clara knows they will be friends. Josiah is unlike anyone she has ever met before. He enjoys exploring nature,  is full of full of ideas and has a huge imagination. They decide to write a book together and hope to travel all over town and countryside to collect people stories.

As their adventure unfolds, Clara realizes that Josiah has dark secrets. He lives with his sister and father, who is an abusive alcoholic. Clara hopes that if Josiah can publish his book, he will be able to move to somewhere safe. They run an advertisement in the town newspaper and invite people to submit their stories. But they butt heads with the publisher, Dr. Lowell, who is furious and prints a retraction. It will take much gumption for Clara and Josiah to fight for their book. And there is a town full of people who each have a story to tell. The town’s folk come together and send their stories to Clara and Josiah and stand up to the arrogant Dr. Lowell. Ultimately Clara realizes that sometimes assumptions about people may not be correct and it may take time to look deeper to truly get to know what drives behavior.

Jessica Brown has penned an original novel about the power of a story to connect people despite all their differences. It is a heartwarming tale full of hope with believable characters you will love, rich dialogue, and vivid imagery appropriate to Montana in 1909.  The pacing is perfect with short chapters. Brown creates a satisfying and story about friendship and courage for young readers. It reminds you a bit of Sarah, Plain and Tall, one the author’s favorite childhood books.

Jessica Brown  loves to cook, hike, read, and go on road trips with her husband and son. She grew up in Texas and has since lived in Indiana, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, England, Ireland and New Zealand. Her graduate studies include English, creative writing and spiritual formation. She has written a memoir, The Grace to Be Human, which will be released this year. Visit Jessica at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the permanent host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson

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Kirby Larson, Author

Random House Children’s Books, Fiction, 2008

Awards: Newbery Honor Books

Suitable for Ages: 12-17

Themes: Homesteading, Prairie, Montana, Prejudice, Friendship

Publisher Synopsis: Alone in the world, teen-aged Hattie is driven to prove up on her uncle’s homesteading claim. For years, sixteen-year-old Hattie’s been shuttled between relatives. Tired of being Hattie Here-and-There, she courageously leaves Iowa to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim near Vida, Montana. With a stubborn stick-to-itiveness, Hattie faces frost, drought and blizzards. Despite many hardships, Hattie forges ahead, sharing her adventures with her friends–especially Charlie, fighting in France–through letters and articles for her hometown paper.

Her backbreaking quest for a home is lightened by her neighbors, the Muellers. But she feels threatened by pressure to be a “Loyal” American, forbidding friendships with folks of German descent. Despite everything, Hattie’s determined to stay until a tragedy causes her to discover the true meaning of home.

Why I liked this book:

  • It is based on Kirby Larson’s great-grandmother successful attempt to homestead in Montana in  1918. She heard the story long after her great-grandmother passed and began researching and reading diaries of people in the area.
  • Larson writes a powerful and authentic story about the harsh realities of life and work for any homesteader, let alone 16-year-old Hattie Inez Brooks. The setting is so realistic that readers will feel like they are there with Hattie digging and placing every fence post in the frozen earth to stake out her claim, plowing the fields and sharing in her adventure every step of the way.
  • The narrative is rich and visual. The story is packed with details of Hattie’s care for her livestock (a cow, horse and chicken) planting, harvesting, extreme weather, worry over paying bills and saving enough money to pay off her uncle’s claim, experiencing prejudices and making true friendships.
  • Great characters make a book and Larson has succeeded with Hattie, a brave, intelligent and independent character from the start. Her credibility grows as she learns to draw deep within herself to deal with raw reality of the hardships she faces, including the loss of her claim at the end. Even that doesn’t defeat her because what she may have lost she gained in deep friendships, values and knowing she gave homesteading her very best effort.
  • The plot is filled with suspense, tension and action, which will keep readers quickly turning pages.
  • Hattie is a hero and a great role model for teenage girls.  This books belongs in every middle grade and high school library.
  • Larson wrote a sequel, Hattie Ever After, in 2013. Readers can follow Hattie to see where her dreams lead her and if she finds her place in the world. I will soon review the sequel.

Kirby Larson is the author of Hattie Ever After, Duke, Dash, The Fences Between Us and The Friendship Doll.  Check out Kirby Larson’s website and my review of Dash.