Death on the River

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Set during the last year of the American Civil War, Death on the River portrays the grim brutality of war through the eyes of a young soldier. After the older brother he worshipped is killed in battle, young Jake Clay joins the Union Army in the spring of 1864, determined to make his parents proud and honor his brother's death. His dreams of glory vanish, however, when he is wounded and taken prisoner in his first battle at Cold Harbor, Virginia, and confined to the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, where...
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Death on the River

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Set during the last year of the American Civil War, Death on the River portrays the grim brutality of war through the eyes of a young soldier. After the older brother he worshipped is killed in battle, young Jake Clay joins the Union Army in the spring of 1864, determined to make his parents proud and honor his brother's death. His dreams of glory vanish, however, when he is wounded and taken prisoner in his first battle at Cold Harbor, Virginia, and confined to the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, where 30,000 soldiers face violence, disease and starvation. Frightened and disillusioned, Jake takes up with Billy Sharp, an unscrupulous opportunist who shows him how to survive, no matter what the cost. By the war's end Jake's sleep is haunted by the ghosts of those who have died so he could live. When the camp is liberated, Jake and Billy head north on the Mississippi riverboat Sultana, overcrowded far beyond its capacity. Unknown to Jake, the fateful journey up river will come closer to killing him than Andersonville did, but it will also provide him with his one chance at redemption.
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Editorial Reviews

CCYAB Book Notes
"Illustrates very well that under circumstances like these, there are no easy, "good" choices, and it avoids casting "good" and "bad" around North/South lines...The depiction of the harsh life of a prison camp is accurate and worth a read."
"Teen fiction rarely gets so involved with notions of morality in war, and this is a thoughtful, provocative work."
The Horn Book Guide
"Wilson dramatically reveals the difficult choices Jake must make to survive."
Quill & Quire
"Wilson paints an engrossing picture of the brutal life of these soldiers...Most young readers, especially boys, will be fascinated by Jakes' adventure, and will likely find it shocking to learn that anyone could endure such hell."
Library Media Connection
"The story does a good job of illustrating the realities of war and accurate historical details. Recommended."
The Globe and Mail
"[An] engrossing, vivid and even horrifying read that cannons into the United States' bloody 1860s… Offer[s] some startlingly resonant moments for his adolescent audience."
January Magazine
"[Wilson] does a great job. In fact, sometimes in Death on the River if anything it's too good an illumination. Though he (thankfully) brings little of the actual gore, we feel the horrors of war very keenly. It's a lesson it's always good to remember: one we are not able to forget."
Tri State Young Adult Book Review Committee
"A well-written book that will provide the reader with an understanding [and] insight into the perils of war. The author did a fantastic job of relating the cruelties of war without making it gruesome for young readers...Recommended."
Resource Links
"[Wilson] has captured the struggles of young soldiers faced with making impossible choices in order to survive in war…Wilson's gripping descriptions of bloody battles, abominable prison conditions, and man's inhumanity to man will capture the imagination of readers wanting to know more about the American Civil War."
"This book does a great job of depicting the horrors of war…The accuracy of the story is amazing, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is engaging. Readers who like historical fiction, war stories, and survival books will all enjoy reading Death on the River."
Book Chase blog
"This historical coming-of-age novel is so filled with adventure that it might very well lead its young readers to search for more books on the American Civil War… Here's hoping that books like Death on the River help spawn a new generation of amateur historians."
CM Magazine
"John Wilson has crafted a compelling story that seamlessly incorporates a number of key events in American history… This sense of connection with the past that Wilson's story inspires is one of the novel's strongest features. Recommended."
Washington State YA Review
"Provides a vivid picture of the horrors of the Andersonville prison camp."
Kimberly Coyle
Death on the River is a story about a young Union soldier who is captured and placed in a Confederate prison camp at Andersonville. While there, he meets Billy Sharp, a man who teaches Jake how to survive the hardships of war life, but only at the cost of others. The end of the Civil War allows Jake to make his way home, only to discover more heartache and death. The imprisoned Union soldier is not a point-of-view typically encountered when reading about the Civil War. Death on the River is a book that forces its readers to venture beyond the vacant facts of war toward the turmoil and guilt experienced by those who are "the one who lived." Jake's retelling of his final year as a soldier is both grotesque and heart-wrenching as the reader follows Jake in a world filled with starvation, death, violence, greed, and ghosts. Reviewer: Kimberly Coyle
Children's Literature - Ellen Welty
Three years younger than his brother, Jim, Jake Clay joins the Union army after Jim is killed at Antietam. Jake is knocked out and taken to the notorious prisoner camp at Andersonville during his first battle. There he forms an alliance with Billy Sharp, a soldier whose willingness to steal, injure or even kill in order to stay alive disgusts Jake but he closes his eyes to Billy's methods so that he, too, can stay alive. At war's end, Jake and Billy board a dangerously overloaded riverboat to take them up the Mississippi River where Jake can make his way back home. When a boiler on the riverboat explodes, sinking the riverboat, Jake must prove to himself that he is capable of making the right choices. The book depicts the horrors of war and of prison camps without sentimentality but with searing detail. Readers will relate to Jake's feelings of inadequacy in his family after the death of his handsome and popular older brother and they will care about his survival both in the camp and beyond. This story will resonate with readers who have relatives or friends who have served in the US forces in the Middle East and will serve to reduce some of the romance and glamour of war as depicted in popular media including video games. Reviewer: Ellen Welty
VOYA - Sarah Cofer
Jake Clay joins the Union Army to prove he is just as good, if not better, than his revered older brother who died fighting at Antietam. His hopes of returning home a war hero with a chest full of medals are quickly extinguished when he is captured and spends nearly ten months in the Andersonville prison camp. Jake quickly aligns himself with The Raiders, a gang of prisoners, convinced that aiding in thievery and murder is the small price he must pay to ensure his survival. His emotionally agonizing journey home is plagued with haunting memories from Andersonville, but Jake is offered a chance at redemption when he saves a young girl's life after The Sultana explodes and its passengers go overboard into the freezing Mississippi river. The action moves so quickly in this short book that details and events are not fully fleshed out, causing the history aspect to function more as a setting than the main topic. For example, Lincoln's assassination is just briefly mentioned. Readers will learn about Andersonville and what it was like in a Civil War prison camp, but they will come away with few other historical facts about the Civil War. The book is violent at times—hangings, amputated toes, and scalded flesh—but the war wounds are described without gory detail. Jake is a believable protagonist who matures and gains integrity by the end of the story. Perfect for reluctant readers needing a historical fiction or a novel set in the Civil War era, it is not a good choice for historical fiction fans who like more meat in their story. Reviewer: Sarah Cofer
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Readers follow Jake Clay, a teenager serving in the Union army, as he is injured and taken to Andersonville. He encounters numerous unsavory characters and circumstances during his tenure at the camp, and by the end of his story he comes to terms with what he has seen and done. The strength of the novel is in Wilson's descriptions of both the moral and physical filth found at the prison camp. Readers feel Jake's disgust and fear. Unfortunately, the novel seems little more than situations, many graphic in nature, tacked together to illustrate the true suffering endured by soldiers during and after the war. While Jake matures in the end, the other characters lack much depth. With the wealth of Civil War literature available to teens, this one isn't a first choice.—Hilary Writt, Sullivan University, Lexington, KY
Kirkus Reviews
This riveting look at the Civil War's horrifying Andersonville prison through the eyes of an 18-year-old inmate has the power to shock and to compel young readers' interest while uncovering exciting history for them. Wilson doesn't shove the history down his readers' throats. He merely writes a tension-filled story packed with appalling events that really happened, although his protagonist, Jake, is fictional. Jake's character development takes center stage as he tries to survive in the prison's hell on earth. The young soldier finds himself burdened with guilt over things he did to survive and did not do to save others. Worse, he's tied to Billy Sharp, a murderous thief who includes Jake in his nefarious activities and intends to continue doing so. The author paints clear pictures of Jake and Billy, along with sketches of others both strong and weak, virtuous and vile. When the war ends and he tries to sever his ties to Billy, Jake gets the chance to redeem himself. This engrossing novel leaves an enduring impression. (Historical fiction. YA)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781554691111
  • Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/1/2009
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,044,764
  • Age range: 12 - 18 Years
  • Lexile: 760L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, John Wilson grew up on the Isle of Skye and outside Glasgow without the slightest idea that he would ever write books. After a degree in Geology from St. Andrews University, he worked in Zimbabwe and Alberta before taking up writing full-time and moving out to Lantzville on Vancouver Island in 1991. John spends significant portions of his year travelling across the country telling stories from his books. For more information, visit

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Read an Excerpt

The war between the States has only been over for two months, and the roads and rivers are clogged with men traveling in all directions. Most of them will make it home one way or another. That's the easy part. It's what you bring home inside your head that's the problem.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 18, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Kira M for

    When Jake's brother is killed in battle during the Civil War, he decides to join up with the Yankee Army in order to honor his brother's memory.

    Taken down in a bloody battle, he's sent off to Andersonville, Georgia, one of the worst prison camps in recorded history. When a soldier without any moral sense befriends Jake, he's flattered, and desperation drives him to turn a blind eye when the man murders, lies, and steals to survive.

    When the end of the war grants the prisoners release, Jake is boarded onto an overloaded riverboat going up the Mississippi River. When an engine blows up and everyone is pitched into the river, Jake will have to choose: morality or survival?

    Will Jake be able to survive the journey, help others, and save his soul from going down the same dangerous path as that of the Andersonville soldier?

    This book does a great job of depicting the horrors of war. There is a fair amount of language and the violence can be disturbing for younger readers. However, the accuracy of the story is amazing, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is engaging.

    Readers who like historical fiction, war stories, and survival books will all enjoy reading DEATH ON THE RIVER.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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