A Difficult Boy

( 5 )


Set against the exciting backdrop of early American history, this riveting novel shows what it takes to be a friend.

It is 1839. Nine-year-old Ethan does not want to be an indentured servant. But his family has no other way to pay off their debt, so Ethan must work for the wealthy shopkeeper in their Massachusetts town. Soon Ethan and the other indentured servant, Daniel, a moody Irish teenager, are suffering vicious beatings from their ...

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A Difficult Boy

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Set against the exciting backdrop of early American history, this riveting novel shows what it takes to be a friend.

It is 1839. Nine-year-old Ethan does not want to be an indentured servant. But his family has no other way to pay off their debt, so Ethan must work for the wealthy shopkeeper in their Massachusetts town. Soon Ethan and the other indentured servant, Daniel, a moody Irish teenager, are suffering vicious beatings from their master. The boys take a desperate measure to protect themselves, but will their astonishing plan only make things worse?

"A memorable tale of friendship and a fascinating glimpse into mid-19th-century Massachusetts. . . . This is an eye-opening look at indentured servitude in American history." —School Library Journal

"Readers will cheer for the two charming, perseverant protagonists." —Booklist

"Barker's gift for historical detail illuminates this absorbing first novel." —Publishers Weekly

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Barker's gift for historical detail illuminates this absorbing first novel, accurately portraying the pleasures and the harsh realities of 19th-century Massachusetts farm life. From describing exactly how to milk a treacherous cow to the precise way a servant ties and knots her shawl over a dress that is "the color of an overdone Indian pudding," the author adds authenticity to her well-constructed story. Nine-year-old Ethan Root has been "bound" to shopkeeper and farmer George Lyman as an indentured servant. Lyman appears to be generous, and Ethan will have an opportunity to learn a trade. Ethan and his fellow servant Daniel form a bond that grows as they endure beatings and humiliations at Lyman's hands. Barker uses the burgeoning friendship as background for the quickening pace of the text, as the boys discover evidence of Lyman's double-dealings. Readers will like this book for its attention to heady issues like early prejudice against the Irish (Daniel is Irish) and the treatment of indentured servants as young as themselves, and for its satisfying and hopeful conclusion. Ages 10—up. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
AGERANGE: Ages 11 to 15.

Ethan and Daniel are indentured servants, bound to George Lyman to pay off their fathers' debts. To the Lymans, Daniel is "Paddy," part of the despised Irish minority and unworthy of notice. To nine-year-old Ethan, pining for his family, Daniel is a potential friend. But does taciturn, standoffish Daniel have to be so difficult? Gradually Ethan learns to know Daniel, earn his trust, and admire his ability to survive Lyman's harsh discipline. Daniel treats Ethan's wounds after a beating and secretly teaches him to ride Ivy, the horse he loves. Working in Lyman's store, Ethan begins to suspect that their master is not completely honest and to sense the undercurrents between eldest son Silas and his father. What is in the secret ledger that the shopkeeper guards? Are the two boys' families' debts as large as Lyman says? When Ethan and Daniel find the paid-up mortgage to Daniel's family farm, Ethan knows that to bring justice, he too will have to become "a difficult boy.” In her first novel, Barker paints a vivid picture of indentured servitude, the treatment of children, and the place of Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century New England. These issues slow the narrative so that the resolution seems rushed and somewhat melodramatic. Although Daniel is sixteen, narrator Ethan is only nine, which might deter some teen readers. The book will require some hand-selling, but readers who enjoy historical fiction and who do not mind a slow pace will find it worthy reading. Reviewer: Kathleen Beck
April 2008 (Vol. 31, No. 1)

Children's Literature - Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
Ethan does not want to leave home, but his father explains that the family needs him to go live with and work for Mr. Lyman. Ethan is the only one who can help his family pay off their debt to Mr. Lyman. Ethan tries to make friends and fit in, but he feels nothing but anger from the other servant, Daniel. The more time he spends with Mr. Lyman, the more uncomfortable he feels. But one night Mr. Lyman turns on both of them and Ethan realizes he and Daniel can help each other. Mr. Lyman feels that men like him should be their own masters, but that attitude doesn't apply to men "like Daniel." Ethan becomes aware of some of Daniel's talents and abilities, and others may be noticing as well. But can the two boys survive the cruelty of Mr. Lyman? If Ethan does what he feels is right, he might jeopardize his family's survival. A fast-paced story set in 1839 but applicable to decisions young readers face today. Reviewer: Carol Ann Lloyd-Stanger
School Library Journal

Gr 5-8- When nine-year-old Ethan leaves his family to be bound out to Mr. Lyman, his father tries to make it sound like an adventure and an opportunity to learn a trade. But Ethan knows that it is a necessity: his father has no other way to pay off his debts to the wealthy shopkeeper. The Lymans' other indentured servant is a surly teenager who rebuffs Ethan's attempts at friendship. Mr. Lyman is initially affectionate and gracious to Ethan and warns him against spending too much time with Daniel, a "difficult boy" whom the Lymans call Paddy to underscore his Irish inferiority. But when Ethan accidentally breaks a plate, he witnesses how quickly the man's benevolent demeanor can transform into violent rage, and, after a vicious beating, he and Daniel begin to form a bond. But to the town, and even to Ethan's parents, the man is a shining example of virtue, teaching these boys a trade and "disciplining" them only when their misdeeds warrant it. As the boys' friendship grows stronger, Ethan learns more of Daniel's tragic past and the circumstances that have bound him to the Lymans. How Ethan and Daniel bolster each other and escape Mr. Lyman's tyranny makes for a memorable tale of friendship and a fascinating glimpse into mid-19th-century Massachusetts. Like L. M. Elliott's Give Me Liberty (HarperCollins, 2006), this is an eye-opening look at indentured servitude in American history.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA

Kirkus Reviews
Indentured to prosperous Massachusetts merchant George Lyman, nine-year-old farmboy Ethan Root initially hates working with the moody, sharp-tongued bound boy everyone calls Paddy. His feelings change, however, after he learns that "Paddy" is an ethnic slur (the teenager's name is actually Daniel) and sees Lyman viciously beat the lad. Soon Ethan himself is feeling the rod as well, but what recourse do the two have against their brutal employer? In 1839, none at all-until Ethan discovers that Lyman has been systematically cheating his customers out of their money, and Daniel out of his inheritance. Cast as the protagonist, Ethan is younger than the intended audience for this tale, but the central figures here are really Daniel and Lyman. Ultimately the former shows hidden depths of character, and the latter turns out to be, if not sympathetic, at least more than a cardboard villain. Though the resolution seems forcibly tidy, the sense that events are taking place in a different time, when people held different attitudes and expectations, comes through clearly. (Historical fiction. 11-13)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780823420865
  • Publisher: Holiday House, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/15/2008
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,223,877
  • Age range: 10 years
  • Lexile: 760L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

For nearly ten years, M. P. Barker worked as a costumed historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. She got a firsthand taste of nineteenth century New England rural life by milking cows, mucking out barns, and doing other tasks which helped her bring realism and immediacy to A Difficult Boy's setting and characters. M. P. Barker, an archivist at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, has more than two decades of experience as a historian, archivist, and writer. She lives in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Visit her online at www.mpbarker.net.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 3, 2009

    Great YA book for Adults, too!

    In just a few sentences, Barker gently lifted me into the world of Ethan and Daniel, where her vivid descriptions let me walk side by side with them, as though I was an unnamed, unmentioned character in the story she told. Her dialogue is so real that I almost became embarrassed for eavesdropping. Now, after finishing the book, I occasionally wonder about Daniel and Ethan, hoping they're both doing well, and wishing I had been a better friend and kept in touch with them. That's how good her writing is!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2008

    A Young Boy Bonded Out Alone in an Uncertain World

    M.P. Barker's story of a young boy bonded out to a farmer in 1839 is beautifully written, historically accurate, and just plain good reading! She tells so clearly what a child would feel, torn away from his family and sent to a strange and unwelcoming new place. How frightened, lonely and sad he would be. How hard to adjust to a different and cold new place, with new rules, new hardships. And what a relief he'd feel, when he finally makes friends with another lonely boy from a different place. Their adventures and experiences make great reading. A horse makes all the difference in both their lives. You'll laugh and almost cry with them both. Wonderful writing, Ms. Barker! Five Stars for me! M. Carrion

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2008

    Compelling Historical Fiction

    I found it very interesting and engaging, and I think that other adults would also find it worth their time. Having the younger of the protagonists be nine allowed for the writer to have certain facts explained to Ethan, which also introduced the reader to unfamiliar facts or concepts related to the time-period, without seeming contrived. The imagery was descriptive enough that one could immerse oneself in the story with ease. The characters were well-enough defined, and their situations compelling enough that one cares about the characters and their relationships and wants to find out how the story will unfold.

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    Posted May 8, 2011

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    Posted August 3, 2010

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