The Devil's Paintbox

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Overview

It is April 1865. Aiden and Maddy Lynch have barely survived a brutal winter alone on the remains of their family’s drought-ravaged Kansas farm when an unlikely savior appears one morning. Jefferson J. Jackson is looking for strong men to work in the Seattle lumber camps, not a half-starved teenager with a useless girl in tow, but somehow the pair convinces him to let them join his wagon train.

It is a chance at a new life for Aiden and Maddy, but one that is two thousand rough ...

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Devil's Paintbox

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Overview

It is April 1865. Aiden and Maddy Lynch have barely survived a brutal winter alone on the remains of their family’s drought-ravaged Kansas farm when an unlikely savior appears one morning. Jefferson J. Jackson is looking for strong men to work in the Seattle lumber camps, not a half-starved teenager with a useless girl in tow, but somehow the pair convinces him to let them join his wagon train.

It is a chance at a new life for Aiden and Maddy, but one that is two thousand rough and perilous miles away. "It's said there’s a grave a mile on the Oregon Trail," Jackson tells them bluntly. And Aiden soon learns that the greatest dangers go beyond storms, stampedes, and rattlesnakes. When smallpox, "the devil’s paint," threatens an Indian community Aiden has befriended, his loyalties, wits, and courage are severely tested.

Adventure-filled and historically accurate, Victoria McKernan’s novel captures both the peril and stunning beauty of the frontier West in an epic American story at once sweeping and intimate, heartbreaking and hopeful.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Set in 1865, McKernan's (Shackleton's Stowaway) gripping novel follows the westward journey of 16-year-old Aiden, with his younger sister, Maddie, from their late parents' farm in Kansas. Harsh conditions and a devastating fire have prompted the exodus of most of the townsfolk, and the siblings have nearly starved to death when the story begins. New opportunity comes in the form of a wagon train and its guide, who offers Aiden a chance to pay off the cost of his and Maddie's trip with labor at a logging camp. Traveling across the country and deep into Aiden's experiences of despair and hope reborn, McKernan's supple prose (a bowl of jam "shimmers in the sun like a pot of melted rubies") immerses readers in a sometimes brutal history; a story line about the threat to Indians from smallpox ("the devil's paintbox") and the policy of denying them vaccines, builds to a powerful conclusion. Flawless attention to detail and steady pacing keep readers fully engaged. While the Indians Aiden meets may come off idealized, the other characters are fully fledged. Readers will be riveted. Ages 12-up. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Children's Literature - Cynthia Levinson
McKernan's discovery of an 1862 newspaper article about whether or not Indians should receive smallpox vaccine inspired this beautifully written, dramatic, and informative historical novel. McKernan's previous novel was nominated for a number of awards; this book deserves to receive them. Having barely survived starvation and prairie fires, orphaned Aiden Lynch and his little sister, Maddy, join a wagon team traveling the Oregon Trail to Seattle. The journey is rugged, and the other members of the party are colorful but the story really leaps into action when, shortly before reaching their destination, Maddy is swept away in a river, and Aiden is posted to a logging camp to pay off his debt. McKernan's extensive, detailed research subtly informs the wilderness settings and gripping action as well as the complex relationships among vivid and believable characters. Similarly, wise lessons about remaining centered, about handling guilt and responsibility, and about risking oneself to help others infuse the story without being didactic. At the end of this suspenseful, complex story Aiden risks his life to help an Indian he befriended to obtain vaccine for smallpox, "the devil's paintbrush." The denouement is both hopeful and wistful—an emotional conclusion to a serious, adult but riveting novel. Reviewer: Cynthia Levinson
School Library Journal

Gr 6-9

Orphans Aiden and Maddy, 15 and 13, are starving on what's left of their parents' drought-devastated ranch in Kansas, 1866. When a gruff yet likable trail guide, Jefferson J. Jackson, shows up, Aiden indentures himself as a logger in exchange for their passage to a new life in the Pacific Northwest via wagon train. What ensues is a harrowing journey across the continent during which Aiden is not only physically challenged but also beset by personal tragedy and moral conflict involving a group of Nez Perce Indians. The plot ultimately revolves around his interaction with his Native friend, Tupic, and the tribe's quest to get the vaccine for the smallpox virus, or "the devil's paintbox." This carefully researched novel describes actual historical events, such as the Sand Creek massacre, and includes an author's note about the controversy over whether or not Native Americans were deliberately infected with the virus. References to abortion, alcohol, and drug use (such as opium and laudanum), and a brief encounter with a prostitute, make this a vivid yet still teen-friendly read depicting the harsh realities of frontier life. The interactions between Aiden and Tupic, though somewhat unlikely, are fascinating as are the descriptions of life in an early lumber camp. This action-packed novel has all the elements of a good Western, including lively fight scenes and a main character who becomes a rugged individualist, risking life and limb for a cause he believes in. Fans of wilderness survival stories or adventure sagas will appreciate it most.-Madeline J. Bryant, Los Angeles Public Library

Kirkus Reviews
A wagon train west looks good to the Lynch kids, who have been eating dirt after the death of the rest of their family at their Kansas soddy home. Aiden, at 15 barely a man, feels the overwhelming burden of responsibility for 13-year-old Maddy. The trip west brings no immediate release from peril, but in a restful moment a group of Nez Perce, who are so comfortable in the environment that he finally relaxes, befriends Aiden. As tragedy continues to strike and Aiden begins to function as an adult, the cumulative pain and sorrow reveal their toll. Aiden becomes a paid fighter at a logging camp in the Northwest, where Tupic, his Nez Perce friend, comes to him; Tupic's intent on obtaining smallpox vaccine for his tribe, leaving this unlikely duo struggling against immense odds. Nothing is pretty, not even the prostitutes plying their trade, and nothing easy, as the hatred and racism of the day are revealed. Viscerally painted, in this narrative smallpox is never as frightening as the greed and hatred, nor are the love and dignity of a few so admirable. (Historical fiction. YA)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, December 8, 2008:
“Flawless attention to detail and steady pacing keep readers fully engaged . . . Readers will be riveted.”

Starred Review, School Library Journal, February 2009:
“This action-packed novel has all the elements of a good Western. . . Fans of wilderness survival stories or adventure sagas will appreciate it most.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375837500
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 1/13/2009
  • Pages: 368
  • Age range: 14 years
  • Lexile: 740L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Victoria McKernan is the author of the acclaimed Shackleton's Stowaway, a historical novel for young adults about the eighteen-year-old stowaway on Ernest Shackleton's 1914 expedition to the South Pole. She has also written four novels for adults. She is currently at work on her next novel for young readers.

Victoria McKernan lives in Washington, D.C., with a dog, two cats, and one boa constrictor.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2014

    Wow

    I love it this book is amazing its so gripping, i ciuldnt put it down

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2012

    AMAZING!!!!!!

    This book is definatly one of the best books i have evrr read! The author realy painted a picture in my head with every word! If you like historical, suspenseful, exciting, and emotional books you will LOVE this book!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 25, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A suspense, thriller, orphans get a 2nd chance, potboiler of an adventure

    It's April 1865, the Lynch farm has been devastated by fire and drought, the last survivors of the family are Aiden,15, and sister Maddy, 13 and even though they made it through the winter who knows how much longer they'll last.

    When Aiden meets Mr. Jackson and indentures himself as a logger in return for ferrying them across country in his wagon train the orphans see a chance at a new life. But that chance is 2,000 perilous miles away.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 11, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Allison Fraclose for TeensReadToo.com

    As the only surviving members of their family, 15-year-old Aiden Lynch and his sister, Maddy, have barely made it through the harsh winter alone. Not much remains in their part of Kansas after the flood and the fires, and the two are reduced to living off clay from the river and the occasional grasshopper.

    It's been five months since they've seen another human being, so when Jefferson J. Jackson arrives on their land, looking for leftover sodbusters to work in the lumber camps of Seattle, Aiden can hardly believe it. With the news that the Civil War has ended, along with Aiden's only hope of joining the army to provide for himself and his sister, their lack of choice is clear, and the two manage to convince Jackson to take them along.

    Brother and sister thrive and even make a few friends during their journey with Jackson's wagon train - Aiden with the Nez Pearce Indian, Tupic, and Maddy with the haunted doctor, Carlos. The two dare to dream of the lives they will create for themselves once Aiden's term of indenture is over, but there are many ways to die on the Oregon Trail, and hardship strikes the Jackson train many times over.

    Once the train trail splits off and everyone goes their respective ways, Aiden loses himself in the mindless work of the lumber camps, cutting himself off from all emotion. When Tupic tells him of the horrible plague of small pox that has invaded the Indian community, Aiden must decide whether he will continue to hide from all responsibility, or if he will bother to fight for a cause that may already be lost.

    This achingly emotional story explores some of the hardships that surrounded the travels of pioneers on the Oregon Trail and the myths that remain of the American government's approach toward Native Americans and small pox. Bittersweet and raw, this is one historical tale that will stay with the reader for a long time afterward.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted January 17, 2011

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