Blackwater Ben

Blackwater Ben

4.6 6
by William Durbin

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Thirteen-year-old Ben works at Blackwater Logging Camp as cook’s helper to his Pa. Long days of flipping pancakes and peeling potatoes with his ornery Pa make Ben long to be out in the woods with the lumberjacks. Felling logs, sawing trees, driving a team through the snowy woods . . . that’s what Ben wants to be doing.

But the long cold winter in a… See more details below


Thirteen-year-old Ben works at Blackwater Logging Camp as cook’s helper to his Pa. Long days of flipping pancakes and peeling potatoes with his ornery Pa make Ben long to be out in the woods with the lumberjacks. Felling logs, sawing trees, driving a team through the snowy woods . . . that’s what Ben wants to be doing.

But the long cold winter in a camp filled with outlandish characters teaches Ben a lot about himself. Especially when an orphan boy called Nevers arrives in camp. When Nevers signs on to work with Pa, Ben makes a friend and a rival, too.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Gr. 5-8. In the winter of 1898, 13-year-old Ben Ward drops out of the seventh grade to work as a cook's helper for his pa at the Blackwater Logging Camp in Minnesota. He soon discovers that long days of cooking flapjacks, peeling potatoes, and washing dishes under the supervision of his cranky father is not the life of adventure he wants. He would rather be out in the woods with the lumberjacks, chopping trees, sawing wood, and driving a team through the snowy forests. Ben finds himself caring more about his job after Pa hires an orphan boy to help, and a rivalry develops between the two boys. In time, Ben comes to appreciate the importance of his father's work; he also manages to learn much about himself through his interactions with the lumberjacks, who seem to have an inexhaustible supply of hilarious, outrageous tales. Lively details about logging add depth to this warm, colorful historical novel, which is a good choice for fans of Will Hobbs and Gary Paulsen. Ed Sullivan Copyright © American Library Association.
Publishers Weekly
Durbin (The Broken Blade) introduces readers to a logger's life in 1898 Minnesota, in a narrative that is alternately interesting and labored. Ben and his father, the logging camp's cook, stay at the boarding house of kind widow Mrs. Wilson, who helped raise Ben. Through slice-of-life scenes of endless hard work and routine, readers learn that Ben has dropped out of seventh grade to help his curmudgeonly father ("There ain't no man that ever done something so special that he deserved every seventh day off"), and that Ben's father wasn't the first to court his mother. One of her other suitors works in the camp and helps Ben grow closer to her memory. The episodic nature of the book, with its string of small encounters hung upon the frame of Ben's search for answers, will make for interesting reading to those with an interest in the setting, but others may grow weary of the details. Some memorable scenes include the generosity shown by the rough-and-tumble loggers to a pair of nuns on a charity mission and a genuinely touching moment in which Ben's father finally becomes willing to talk about his wife. Ages 10-up. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The year is 1898, and 13-year-old Ben drops out of school to join his father at Blackwater Logging Camp. Pa is the cook, and Ben is the hardworking cook's helper, peeling potatoes, washing dishes, and serving out mountains of beans to keep the always-hungry lumberjacks fed. When Pa hires an orphan boy called Nevers to help them, Ben acquires a friend, and over the course of the long, cold winter he learns all about the work that takes place in a logging camp and starts to learn more about his dead mother, too. While this is more a season-in-the-life story than a plot-driven novel, the colorful characters, practical jokes, and well-researched details about the life of a lumberjack provide entertaining reading and give a good picture of life a century ago in the Minnesota woods. Durbin, author of Wintering: The Broken Blade and Song of Sampo Lake, provides an afterword discussing lumberjack traditions and lists books and organizations related to forest history and logging. KLIATT Codes: J-Recommended for junior high school students. 2003, Random House, Wendy Lamb Books, 200p. bibliog., Ages 12 to 15.
— Paula Rohrlick
Children's Literature
Thirteen-year-old Ben Ward spends a winter at Blackwater Logging Camp in Minnesota. He works as a cook's helper for his father and it is not easy. His pa has strict rules and a great sense of pride in job performance. Ben has long days in helping to feed the lumberjacks. There's much work in peeling potatoes and making flapjacks, beans, and doughnuts. He washes dishes, fires the stove, cleans the kitchen and does other chores from before dawn to night. Ben also has to drive the horse food wagon to the woods in the freezing weather, snow and ice. The weather causes all kinds of problems but work has to go on or the men will not get paid if their logging quota is not done by the set date for delivery. The camp is filled with all kinds of characters so Ben becomes the brunt of many jokes and tricks. Another young man, Nethers, is assigned to work in the kitchen so Ben does gain a friend. They endure together the teasing and insults. Ben also finds a friend in Charlie, the "the dentist." Interestingly enough, he was once his mother's beau and was devastated when she married Ben's father. Despite the hard life Ben decides that he wants to return and become part of the camp. This book is a great insight into the 1898 logging camp life. It is realistic and interesting. The cover has wonderful old pictures from that time, but the inside pages don't appear all that interesting which may prevent students from even considering it. However, it will fill a need for good material on the subject and should be an addition to children's/teen collections. 2003, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, Ages 10 to 15.
—Naomi Butler
School Library Journal
Gr 4-7-Ben and his father are the cooking team at a logging camp in northern Minnesota in the winter of 1898. Pa's in charge, and Ben is the helper hoping for a chance at other duties beyond peeling spuds and setting tables. The thread that carries through the episodic narrative is Ben's longing to know more about his dead mother and to feel closer to his reserved and demanding father. The "dentist," the man who sharpens the teeth on the saws, happens to have been one of his mother's suitors before she married; this unlikely coincidence provides Ben with a chance to satisfy his need to know more about his family. Maintaining a light tone, Durbin revels in his descriptions of the amount of work required, the intensity of the cold weather, and the cantankerous eccentricities of the members of the logging crew. The arrival of Nevers, who tells of his life as an orphan, helps Ben gain perspective on his own circumstances. The letters between him and his landlady back home add to the sense of remoteness of the camp, yet connect it to the world around. The glossary and an afterword summarizing facts about logging make this a tidy package for curriculum support. Vivid and often quite funny, the book is also a lively read.-Carol A. Edwards, Sonoma County Library, Santa Rosa, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In the winter of 1898, Ben joins his father at a northern Minnesota logging camp. Unhappy at school and eager to prove himself, he would also love to hear more stories about his mother, who died when he was very young. Pa, however, is taciturn on the subject and a strict taskmaster as the camp cook. Ben thought he'd be working with the loggers, but finds his long days filled with nonstop kitchen tasks. He gets to talk with the camp dentist, so-called because he sharpens the teeth on the crosscut saws and finds out that this long-time non-bathing logger had courted his mother before she married Pa. He also listens to stories told by another boy who works in the kitchen who had a horribly hard life in the south. Readers will learn the many colorful words used at a logging camp, however, one must ask just who will find this coming-of-age story of any interest or appeal. Careful research does not automatically equal a great story, and an afterword about logging in the United States still doesn't help this make the cut. (Fiction. 10-12)
From the Publisher
"An interesting and highly enjoyable book about a little-known yet important part of American history." —Kidsreads 

"Lively details about logging add depth to this warm, colorful historical novel." 

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
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10 Years

Read an Excerpt


Daylight in the Swamp
Blackwater Logging Camp, 1898

"Daylight in the swamp!" Pa yelled. Ben groaned and turned over. Pa's voice had two volumes: loud and louder. Ben squinted in the lantern light. Pa's square shoulders filled the doorway of the bunk room. "Roll out or roll up," he said.

Ben scrambled to pull on his wool pants and socks. Before he had tied his boots, he heard Pa lift the lid of the kitchen range and chuck in a stick of wood. "Hey, cookee, our bread will never rise if we don't get it warmed up in here," Pa called.

Ben buttoned his shirt and looked at his pocket watch. It was quarter past four. His eyes burned from woodsmoke as he stepped from the bunk room into the kitchen. He hurried over and added wood to the potbellied stove. Then he filled a washbasin from the pail of water on top of the range and splashed his hands and face. But when he reached for a towel, Pa said, "Don't forget the soap."

The second cook's helper, Skip, smirked like he always did whenever Pa corrected Ben.
Ben hustled to the counter to help. "About time you got here." Pa didn't look up from the bean pot he was stirring. "Ain't you forgetting something?"

"I washed my hands."

When Ben saw Skip grin again, he remembered that he hadn't put on his apron. "Sorry, Pa," Ben said, reaching for the wooden rack where they hung the towels and aprons.

"Sorry won't cut it if these lumberjacks get sick from a dirty kitchen." Pa wouldn't let Ben or Skip near the food without scrubbing their hands and tying on their aprons, and he insisted that they wear white shirts. "I seen cookees come straight from the barn without washing. We ain't gonna have that in this camp."

"It wasn't like I was out feeding the horses," Ben said, knowing it was wrong to argue but not being able to stop himself.

"You forgot the rules."


"Everybody in this cookshack follows my rules." Pa set down his spoon. "Am I clear?" Pa had learned his cooking in the army, and he was a stickler for rules. Skip was grinning bigger now.

"Yes, sir," Ben said.

"What are the two questions a jack always asks before he signs on at a logging camp?" Pa asked. Pa was one of the few lumberjacks without a beard, and his clean-shaven jaw was tight. His hair was neatly parted down the middle and slicked back.

"Well?" Pa said.

Skip jumped in. "He asks, 'Who's the cook?'"

"And 'Who's the foreman?'" Ben added.

"Say push, stupid, not foreman," Skip said.

"That's right," Pa said, putting the lid back on the bean pot. "Nobody wants to spend a winter in the woods with a dirty hash slinger or an ornery push. There's only two things these jacks can look forward to: mealtime and springtime."

"And mealtime comes a whole lot sooner," Skip said, finishing one of Pa's favorite sayings.
"Which is what makes our job so important," Pa added, beaming.

No matter how often Pa told Ben to be proud of his cookee's duties, greasing pans, frying flapjacks, cleaning lamp chimneys, and washing dishes were not Ben's idea of important jobs. Last fall when Pa asked Ben to work at the Blackwater Logging Camp, Ben had imagined himself felling giant pines and driving a four-horse team. So far the closest he'd gotten to holding reins was tying his apron strings.

Ben started the oatmeal boiling and opened a gallon-sized can of stewed prunes. The men called prunes logging berries, and they insisted on having them at every meal. Baked beans were also served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ben set four pans of sowbelly in the oven to brown. Then he helped Pa mix up the batter for his sourdough flapjacks, known as sweat pads.
As soon as breakfast was ready, Pa said, "Fetch me the Gabriel horn." Ben took down the five-foot-long tin horn from its hook on the log wall and handed it to Pa. Steam rushed in as Pa stepped through the door and blew into the bugle-style mouthpiece.

Before the third blast had echoed over the clearing, the bunkhouse door swung open and Packy Peloquin stepped out. Tucking in his wool shirt and tying a bright red sash around his middle--the other lumberjacks wore suspenders--Packy trotted toward the cookshack. "Look who's up," Pa said, knowing that Packy was the first in line for every meal. He was barely five feet tall, but he ate so much that Pa teased him about having a hollow leg.

Unlike most of the jacks, Packy was always friendly. "Bon jour, Benjamin," he said, smiling, but the moment he stepped inside the cookshack, he was quiet. The jacks were allowed to wave an empty platter and call for more food, but table talk was forbidden. Anyone who violated Pa's rule missed the next meal.

Skip was scraping the fried spuds onto a platter, and Ben was about to scoop the last batch of doughnuts out of the big cast-iron frying pan when he heard a yell out the back door. "Was that Pa?" Ben asked.

"He just stepped outside to go to the root cellar," Skip said. "I hope he didn't hurt hisself."
Ben was used to Pa's shouting, but the only time he had heard Pa yell that loudly was when he'd plowed over a wasps' nest.

Skip pushed the back door open and ran to the root cellar.

Ben lit a lantern and followed. At the cellar, he heard Skip say, "I'm real sorry, Mr. Ward. I meant to close the syrup spigot, but--"

"But nothing!" Pa roared.

Ben noticed a sweet scent as he walked down the steps. Pa's face was flushed, and amber liquid dripped from his hands. He'd tripped and fallen into an inch-deep puddle of maple syrup.
"I'll teach you a lesson." Pa grabbed at Skip, and the cookee trampled Ben's feet as he ran up the stairs. "Come back here, you laggard pup."

"Don't, Pa," Ben called, but Pa brushed past him. Ben raced up the steps and out of the cellar, but Skip was already scooting into the cookshack with Pa only two strides behind. "Pa," Ben yelled, but he might as well have been shouting at the wall.

From the Hardcover edition.

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