From the Publisher
"Inspired by Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, Helgerson’s folksy and chatty tale is also reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn in Zeb’s struggles with his conscience and its themes of slavery and freedom."--Kirkus
"Helgerson surrounds Zeb with a lively cast of scruffy no-goodniks, a determined slave, and a mystical Indian father-daughter duo, and lets the boy work out for himself whom to trust and how to act. A glossary at the end will help kids navigate Zeb’s folksy-funny narration, separating simple “blimblam” from a full-on case of the “fantods.” A solid choice for fans of high-spun yarns and not-too-tall tales."--Booklist
". . . the enormous cast of characters, all of whom open the door wide for a sequel to this rousing tale. A full house of appended author’s notes, including information about apprenticeships, vision quests, and traveling medicine shows, provides rich historical background, while a glossary covers vivid colloquialisms and potentially unfamiliar words and terms."--Horn Book
"Zeb has a strong voice and personality . . . the supporting characters—including the chief's daughter and a slave named Ho-John—are well-defined. A thorough afterword and glossary nicely supplement the novel, but the quick resolution will leave readers wanting."--Publishers Weekly
"Helgerson has given us a notable and engaging piece of historical fiction that poses some of the biggest questions with which a young person must come to terms."-Richie's Picks
Returning to the banks of the Mississippi in his second novel, Helgerson (Horns and Wrinkles) creates an enjoyable yarn, albeit one that feels a little rushed. Twelve-year-old Zebulon "Zeb" Crabtree is sent down the river to St. Louis to become an apprentice tanner, much to his dismay ("when I tried to point out that working with hides might rip my nose apart, Pa claimed that us Crabtrees were made of sterner stuff"). On the riverboat, a gambler named Chilly persuades him to be his apprentice instead, and Zeb is quickly inaugurated into the gambling underworld, hiding behind the wall of a poker room to signal other players' hands to Chilly and getting mixed up in Chilly's attempt to cheat a blind Native American chief. Eventually, Zeb has doubts about the life he's chosen and is forced to make some hard choices. Zeb has a strong voice and personality (though his cluelessness strains believability), and the supporting characters-including the chief's daughter and a slave named Ho-John-are well-defined. A thorough afterword and glossary nicely supplement the novel, but the quick resolution will leave readers wanting. Ages 8-12. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
VOYA - Angela Carstensen
In 1849, Zebulon Crabtree turns twelve and his father decides to find him a trade. Scrawny as he is, Zeb has never been one for hard work and resists with a string of hilarious excuses and phobias. They settle on an apprenticeship with Uncle Seth, a tanner down in St. Louis. On this his first trip down the Mississippi, however, Zeb meets Chilly Larpenteur who dazzles him into handing over his entire apprenticeship fee to join the glamorous life of a riverboat gambler. Chilly talks of cheating the rich cheaters and giving away half their winnings to the poor orphans, a tale that Zeb swallows whole. He lands in a seedy world of con artists, not nearly as grand as he imagined. Although it takes him some time to figure out the true intentions of the colorful characters he encounters in St. Louis, once he does, his good upbringing serves him surprisingly well. The plot moves right along, and the climatic poker showdown is not to be missed. What makes this book special is Zeb's narration in period language, which lends a unique perspective to the many comical misunderstandings afforded by his sheltered inexperience. Any words that might be unfamiliar to young readers are defined in a highly entertaining glossary (titled Dictionarium Americannicum) in this engaging, vivid portrait of life during the young days of the American West. An afterword of age-appropriate explanations of the historical period and an annotated list of further reading complete the package. Reviewer: Angela Carstensen
Children's Literature - Anita Barnes Lowen
When Zeb turned twelve, his pa decided it was time he learned a trade, but what? A barrel maker? Zeb hates slivers and it is likely someone working with wood will get a handful. A blacksmith? Nope. Zeb is too scrawny. A stable boy? Unfortunately, horsehair gives his nose the dithers. A cabin boy on a river boat? Zeb is deathly afraid of drowning. Finally, his pa has had his fill of Zeb's excuses. "Here's what's happening. You've got a great-uncle...down in Saint Louis...best tanner there is ...We're going to put you on a steamer and see if he'll take you on." Aboard the Rose Melinda and not quite as sophisticated as he imagines himself to be, Zeb is quickly parted from the money that was to pay for his apprenticeship and has naively agreed to work with Chilly Larpenteur , a smooth-talking genuine riverboat gambler with more than aces up his sleeve. It takes some time, but Zeb begins to realize that Chilly is not all that he says he isa gentleman, a philanthropist and a man who cares about poor orphans. When Zeb's conscience begins to nag him about the role he is playing in Chilly's scams, he needs to come up with a way to get out. The author has included an afterword with brief discussions of apprenticeships, Native Americans, slavery, and traveling medicine shows, as well as a bibliography for further reading. There is also an extensive glossary, the Dictionarium Americannicum, with definitions of old fashioned words that might not be familiar to today's young readers in this recommended book. Reviewer: Anita Barnes Lowen
School Library Journal
Gr 4–8—Twelve-year-old Zebulon "Zeb" Crabtree lives the simple life with his brothers and sisters on a farm in 1849. Then his father gets the notion that Zeb should be sent to St. Louis to learn to be a tanner by apprenticing with his great-uncle Seth. Shipped off on a riverboat, Zeb falls under the charms of Charles "Chilly" Larpenteur, a smooth-talking gambler whom he befriends on the ride down the Mississippi. Trapped inside a ruthless world of gambling, Zeb crosses paths with a slave and a blind Indian who has visions. He becomes mesmerized by a medicine man and charmed by a beautiful woman collecting funds for the orphanage. A modern day Mark Twain, Joseph Helgersen spins an engrossing coming-of-age story (Houghton Mifflin, 2009). The charm of the tale lies in the witty storytelling, fascinating characters, and a spot-on theatrical performance by narrator MacLeod Andrews. The author's tongue-in-cheek humor sizzles under MacLeod's lively presentation, especially Chilly's slick talking ways. Fans of the author's Horns and Wrinkles (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) will revel in this latest installment of this Mississippi River tale.—Robyn Gioia, Bolles School, Ponte Vedra, FL
It's 1849, and "twelve-year-olds don't have much bargaining power," so Zebulon Crabtree finds himself shipped off to his great-uncle Seth in St. Louis to be a tanner's apprentice. He doesn't quite get there, however, and ends up a gambler's apprentice instead, practicing fake shuffles, false cuts and dealing seconds, and even using a peephole and telegraph wire to signal his mentor, Chilly Larpenteur. Trouble is, Zeb has a conscience and knows he must extricate himself from his apprenticeship and give up the idea of becoming a riverboat gambler. Inspired by Twain's Life on the Mississippi, Helgerson's folksy and chatty tale is also reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn in Zeb's struggles with his conscience and its themes of slavery and freedom. Fifty-plus pages of backmatter seem excessive, though the afterword is interesting in its discussion of apprenticeships, Native Americans, slavery and traveling medicine shows. An enjoyable romp in the spirit of Twain. (bibliography, glossary) (Historical fiction. 8-12)
Read an Excerpt
When I turned twelve, my pa guessed it was time I learned a trade. Not wanting to disappoint, I told a stretcher and said I was all for it. That?¦s when the bargaining started.
?§How about apprenticing with a cooper??¨ he suggested. The thought of making wood barrels all the rest of my born days left me kind of squirmy. True, there?¦s nothing so handsome as a well-made butter churn or molasses barrel or milk bucket, but I hated slivers. Having Ma take a needle to one stuck in the meaty part of my hand made me carry on worse than a colicky baby. And since coopers are forever working in wood, well . . . So after pretending to build up some steam thinking about it, I shook my head no, all regretful-like.
?§Wouldn?¦t seem to be much of a future in it,?¨ I reckoned. Telling Pa I was scared to death of slivers would never have worked, but bringing up the future nearly always bought me some breathing room.
?§All right,?¨ Pa allowed, still sounding fresh about our talk. ?§How about blacksmithing??¨ ?§Wouldn?¦t you think I?¦m kind of scrawny for it??¨ ?§It?¦d put some meat on your bones,?¨ he pointed out. On goes my thinking hat again as I ground away, real serious-like, on the prospects of being a blacksmith. Of course, I already knew that blacksmithing wouldn?¦t do either. Aside from my being a runt, which would make it hard to handle the bellows and pound the horseshoes and such, I?¦m awful jittery about getting burnt. And what blacksmith can do his job without a ripping hot fire? ?§Wouldn?¦t there be some dark days ahead for blacksmiths??¨ I asked. ?§What with the coming of railroads and all??¨ The year was already 1849, after all, and the railroads had big plans, though I hadn?¦t heard any talk about their doing away with blacksmithing. Lucky for me, Pa considered the smithy in the nearest town?X that?¦d be Stavely?¦s Landing, on the Mississippi?Xto be a rude and balky brute, which made it one possibility he was willing to let slip away without a fight. ?§Hmm,?¨ Pa said, turning thoughtful and sizing me up with one eye, kind of squinty-like. ?§What would you say to working in a livery stable? There?¦s steady work there.?¨ Well, taking care of horses and fancy carriages and such would be pretty quality, all right, but I figure Pa?¦s up to something with this one. Everybody knows how bad horsehair gives my nose the dithers.
?§?¦Fraid they wouldn?¦t have me,?¨ I sighed. ?§Not the way I?¦d always be sneezing and spooking the livestock.?¨ ?§Couldn?¦t have that,?¨ Pa agreed, smiling despite himself. ?§Say, maybe you?¦d like to set your sights on becoming a preacher? Your Uncle Clayton went that route, you know.?¨ We were talking about Pa?¦s favorite brother, the one where my middle name sprang from and who?¦d baptized me in the river. I?¦d heard the story of my dunking many a time, ?¦cause my uncle got carried away with his preachifying and held me under a might long, till I was blue. ?¦Course, they got me working again, but my near miss of heaven left my family feeling I had a leg up when it came to talking with higher powers. So real careful-like, I asked, ?§Didn?¦t he get swallowed up by the wilderness??¨ ?§We don?¦t know any such thing at all,?¨ Pa snorted. ?§He could show anytime.?¨ ?§Sorry, Pa,?¨ I said, doing my level best to sound overlooked and dejected, ?§but I?¦m afraid I ain?¦t heard no trumpets calling. Not yet, anyway.?¨ ?§Now listen here,?¨ Pa grumbled, bearing down. ?§Is there anything you?¦d be willing to try??¨ ?§Oh, most everything,?¨ I volunteered, hoping I sounded helpful.
?§Could have fooled me.?¨ ?§Wouldn?¦t want me to jump into something without considering it real careful, would you??¨ ?§I?¦m beginning to think maybe I wouldn?¦t mind that at all.?¨ Pa wagged his head in wonder. ?§You?¦re twelve now, ain?¦t ya??¨ Then a knowing smile ruffled his mustache and I braced myself for the worst. ?§Say, how about this: maybe we could get you work as a cabin boy on a steamer.?¨ Well, there weren?¦t many boys along the Mississippi, Ohio, or Missouri rivers who wouldn?¦t have given all his marbles along with a first-rate mumblety-peg?x knife for such a chance as that. So I had to take her slow. First off, I grinned at Pa, on account of it was expected.
?§Yes sir,?¨ Pa pressed on, probably thinking he was on the trail of something promising at last. ?§You?¦d start out low, but it wouldn?¦t be long before you moved up to mud clerking or maybe cubbing for a pilot. After that, who knows??¨ I nodded at the grandeur of it all, but pretty soon I frowned a tiny bit, as if a troublesome thought had crept up on me. As of yet, I didn?¦t know what thatt thought might be, but I hoped it would come to me quick. I was deathly afraid of drowning in the Mississippi, though it goes without saying that I couldn?¦t tell PPPPPa such a thing; squawking never got me anywhere with that man. Obstacles only made him more set in his ways. He didn?¦t have a mean bone in him, but he didn?¦t have any that were known to bend either. To change his mind, I had to come at him sort of sideways. So while Pa went on about how he hadn?¦t been selling wood to steamboats for going on ten years without knowing himself the names of some captains, I got busy sweating over how to tackle this one. You see, my pa?¦s own pa had spent all his years yanking out tree stumps and starting up farms clear across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, which didn?¦t leave time nor money for setting his sons up in a trade. Naturally, that meant my own pa was bound and determined to see things turn out different for me. Finally, I couldn?¦t bear his enthusiasms a minute longer and called out real desperate, ?§Wouldn?¦t be much of a future, would there??¨ ?§No future??¨ he cried, digging a finger in his ear like he couldn?¦t believe what he was hearing. ?§Why, not even the railroads can put a dent in the future of this river and the steamers it carries. The whole West?¦s being settled, and it?¦s the rivers getting it done. Without ?¦em there wouldn?¦t be no civilization beyond the Alleghenies. There wouldn?¦t be nothing out here but a few smelly trappers and warbling Indians and . . . ?¨ He began to wind down about then, maybe noticing how I looked sort of glum. Finally he stopped talking altogether and took a minute off to gaze up at the sky before muttering to himself, the way he does when our mule won?¦t haul nothing. ?§You seem to think the future?¦s a mighty dark place,?¨ he concluded. ?§Why is that, son? Most anybody else you talk to is usually pretty high on her.?¨ ?§Just a feeling that slides over me,?¨ I mumbled.
?§Let me remind you of one little thing,?¨ Pa went on. ?§You?¦re going to be living the rest of your life in the future, so you better get on speaking terms with it.?¨ ?§Yes sir.?¨ ?§So what troubles you about steamboating??¨ ?§Well,?¨ I wheezed, taking the plunge without knowing what was going to pop out of my mouth, ?§the way this river changes its course so often, who?¦s to say it?¦ll keep going where we need it to??¨ That pretty much did it?Xsealed my fate, so to speak. Pa smoldered for most of a minute, looking like he was about to blow cinders out his top any second. Finally he did, speaking up loud enough for our neighbors a half-mile distant to catch what was on his mind. ?§Here?¦s what?¦s happening: You?¦ve got a great-uncle, name of Seth, who?¦s down in St. Louis. He used to be a trapper on the Missouri but has turned to tanning in his dotage. Fact is, I hear tell he?¦s the best tanner there is west of the Mississippi. When it comes to treating furs, he knows himself some secrets. Picked ?¦em up from the Indians, I shouldn?¦t be surprised. We?¦re going to put you on a steamer with a letter of introduction and see if he?¦ll take you on.?¨ Hearing that left me feeling buried alive, with Pa?¦s every word landing like another shovelful of dirt atop me. When it comes right down to it, twelve-year-olds didn?¦t have much bargaining power, not with the likes of my pa. So it looked like I was doomed to learn a trade that didn?¦t have any future at all. What with beaver hats going out of fashion, the fur business was keeling over as we spoke. Beavers themselves were getting trapped out, as was pretty much every other living thing with the misfortune to wear fur and have four legs. Most all the river men said it. What?¦s more, it wasn?¦t just horsehair that made me sneeze?Xmost any kind of fur would do. But when I tried to point out that working with hides might rip my nose apart, Pa claimed that us Crabtrees were made of sterner stuff than I knew. And on top of that, getting from Stavely?¦s Landing to St. Louis would require riding one hundred and sixty-odd miles down the Mississippi on a steamer, which meant I could fall overboard and drown any second. I imagined I?¦d be turning a hundred and sixty-plus shades of green by the time I got there, if I got there. The only good thing about the whole undertaking was a chance to see St. Louis. The bad part of that was this: if St. Louis was only half as amazing as everyone claimed, I?¦d still probably be knocked blind by the sights.