How I Found the Strong: A Civil War Story

Overview

In 1861 Frank “Shanks” Russell wishes he was old enough to fight for the South alongside his pa and big brother. But Frank is too young, skinny, and weak, and is left behind with his mother and grandparents. Life in Mississippi was simple before the war between North and South. Now Frank’s boyhood is gone forever, along with his dreams of heroic battles. The shortages and horrors of war reach his home as he scrounges for food and water, and sees both Confederate and enemy soldiers at their worst. As time goes by ...
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Overview

In 1861 Frank “Shanks” Russell wishes he was old enough to fight for the South alongside his pa and big brother. But Frank is too young, skinny, and weak, and is left behind with his mother and grandparents. Life in Mississippi was simple before the war between North and South. Now Frank’s boyhood is gone forever, along with his dreams of heroic battles. The shortages and horrors of war reach his home as he scrounges for food and water, and sees both Confederate and enemy soldiers at their worst. As time goes by and Frank’s friendship with Buck, the family slave, grows, he questions more and more who is the enemy and why the terrible war is being fought.

Frank Russell, known as Shanks, wishes he could have gone with his father and brother to fight for Mississippi and the Confederacy, but his experiences with the war and his changing relationship with the family slave, Buck, change his thinking.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"This often gripping first novel set during the Civil War adopts the perspective of a 10-year-old boy who lives on a small farm in rural Mississippi," PW said. Ages 7-up. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
VOYA
This account of life on a rural Missisippi farm during the Civil War is based on the experience of the author's grandmother's great-uncle. The first-person, present-tense narrative reads as if it were ten-year-old Frank "Shanks" Russell's personal journal. After Pa and Shanks's fourteen-year-old brother, Henry, join the Confederate Army, Shanks, his mother, her parents, and the family slave, Buck, are left to run the farm. Opposed to the fighting, Grandpa heads West on horseback, never to return. Grandma, a bitter old woman, dies, and with the help of a deserter, Ma gives birth to a girl. As Shanks and Buck struggle to provide food, Shanks notices Buck's loyalty, intelligence, and character, and he begins to question the War and slavery. When Pa returns, missing an arm, he too has a different perspective. Henry has died of pneumonia. After witnessing the lynching of a neighbor's slave, Pa and Shanks decide to escort Buck to the Strong River from which Buck can journey North to freedom. The crisply written narrative is full of regional speech and detail, creating a vivid portrait. Shanks's story is simple and straightforward, containing not a whit of self-pity. In the devastating setting, Shanks nonetheless goes through many universal experiences: fearing that he is not good enough in his father's eyes, feeling a simultaneous attraction and awkwardness with girls, developing strong loyalties to family and friends, and questioning the status quo. In the epilogue, twenty-year-old Frank is teaching schoolchildren, preparing to marry, and still pondering the War. He mentions the Ku Klux Klan and marvels over new machines called bicycles. Another era has begun, containing promises of bothhorror and wonder. VOYA Codes 4Q 4P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2004, Houghton Mifflin, 144p., Ages 11 to 15.
—Florence H. Munat
From The Critics
Eleven-year-old Shanks Russell watches in frustration as his father, Jack, and older brother, Henry, depart their tiny Mississippi farm for the battlefields of the Civil War, leaving him behind with his mother, grandparents, and their slave, Buck. Although certain that they march off to victory, Shanks isn't as certain about the cause for which they are fighting. As scant news of the war's progress trickles in, Shanks questions the justice of slavery and the South's justification for it. Circumstances become desperate for the Russells; Grandpa abandons them, and Grandma passes away. His mother gives birth to a baby girl, while their food supply dwindles away. Fortunately, Buck foregoes an opportunity to escape northward, which would have doomed the remaining Russells to starvation. Jack Russell returns from the war as hostility toward Negroes (now freed by the Emancipation Proclamation) escalates, and lynch mobs roam the countryside. Shanks risks his life to defend Buck from a lynch mob, inspiring his father to help Buck, too. How I Found the Strong is a stomach-churning look at life during the Civil War through the eyes of a boy journeying toward manhood. It is a compelling story about a trying time in American history. 2004, Houghton Mifflin Company, 136 pp., Ages young adult.
—Ann Opseth
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-Ten-year-old Shanks's father and brother march off to war, leaving him behind with his grandparents, pregnant mother, and the family slave, Buck. Eventually, the war comes closer to home, and the wounded are treated in an ill-kempt school. Shanks gradually realizes that Buck is very much a human being with the same feelings, strengths, and weaknesses as other people. When it is time for Ma to give birth, a deserter who is passing through delivers the baby, and Shanks changes his mind about what cowardice is. Each passing season draws him closer to manhood and further away from the belief that slavery is right. Finally, Pa returns home, and the boy convinces him that Buck deserves freedom. They help him escape but are caught in a nightmarish battle. Shanks manages to get his wounded father to safety; because of his courage, he is finally called by his given name, Frank. Based on a family manuscript, this novel is well researched and includes many details about life in Civil War Mississippi. There are several realistic and harrowing scenes, as men undergo amputations and a young slave is brutally hung from a tree. An epilogue tells about Frank's later years. Although this coming-of-age story contains many familiar elements, the first-person narrative lends it immediacy.-Kathryn Kosiorek, Cuyahoga County Public Library, Brooklyn, OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Spring of 1861 in Mississippi, with laurel and Indian pipe blooming in the woods, is "too pretty out for a war." But war comes and takes with it Frank Russell's father and older brother. Left home with women, children, and old men, Frank wishes he were his brother Henry. Growing up, observing the people around him, and losing his grandfather, his grandmother, and others, Frank must find the strength to do the right things-to walk a slave to freedom and to save his father's life. Rooted in family history, McMullan's first work for children is exquisitely written, its elegant prose fully up to portraying both the pastoral beauty of Mississippi and the horrors of war. The short, sometimes graphic story carries layers of meaning, evoking the complicated legacies of the South and the new world coming in the war's terrible wake. Match this with Richard Peck's The River Between Us (2003) for a pair of superb Civil War stories. Unforgettable. (author's note) (Fiction. 10+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553494921
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 4/11/2006
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 497,595
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 4.21 (w) x 6.83 (h) x 0.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret McMullan
Margaret McMullan lives in Evansville, Indiana, with her husband and son. Margaret was born in Newton County, Mississippi, near Smith County, where How I Found the Strong is set, and the main character is based on her grandmother's great-uncle.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2008

    Good story: thought provoking

    I read this book months ago and find myself mulling over the story and Addy's sense of personal responsibility, rightness and her courage. Good book for a discussion group or class.

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