Harshman and Dooling apply a thick coating of sentimentality to a host of painful issues--mourning, poverty and alcoholism among them. The narrator, a boy, describes how hard times have visited his family since his father died. He's quit school to help Mom, and his sisters may have to follow suit--unless Uncle James, their mother's brother, keeps his promises to pitch in and send money. Uncle James writes rousing letters of his exploits out west, but when he arrives, months later, he is penniless and alcoholic, more in need of help than able to give it. Mom gently chastises her children for their inevitable anger at Uncle James, then sets about drying him out (``How Mom did it, I don't know, but she did. There have been a lot of long talks at night, about our grandparents and lots of things I don't really understand''). Dooling's faux-Rockwell paintings offer souped-up portrayals of each character--Mom anguishing over her brother, the children enraptured by Uncle James's letters; Uncle James bowing his head in shame. Overambitious and overdone. Ages 6-9. (Sept.)
School Library Journal
Gr 1-3-Times are hard, father has died, the baby is sick, and everyone is tired from trying to keep the Indiana farm going. Hope centers on Uncle James, who promises to leave his adventurous and lucrative life out West to help out. He sends exciting postcards promising much, but when he finally appears, he turns out to be a broken alcoholic, spinning tales to cover his own despair. Mother helps him begin to reclaim his life and he, in turn, becomes a useful member of the family, his stories now a source of entertainment instead of false hope. The illustrations, opaque paintings with fairly broad brush strokes, are adequately done and fit the story, although they are somewhat lackluster. The first-person narration, told by a young boy, is pedestrian and does not impart a feeling of immediacy. The hopeful ending fails to touch the heart. Stories of hardship need not be drab or drably told. For one that is lyrical and heartfelt, try Lillie Chaffin's We Be Warm till Springtime Comes (Macmillan, 1980; o.p.).-Karen James, Louisville Free Public Library, KY
The power of stories to instill hope in troubled times is one of the driving forces in this sophisticated and ambitious picture book. Told partly in retrospect by the young narrator, Jimmy, the story begins by describing the terrible circumstances that followed his father's death: "We were hungry, the baby sick, and all of us tired from trying to keep the farm going." The family's struggle for survival is brightened by letters from Uncle James, who writes of triumphant battles with raging rivers and wild animals while logging out west. Thanks to clues from Harshman, adult readers (and probably some children) won't be surprised when Uncle James shows up at the farm drunk, broke, and in desperate need of the family's support. The narrative is heavy on explanation ("His words lied, but his heart didn't"), which places the reader at an emotional distance from the action. Still, the expressive, large-scale narrative paintings establish the harsh physical setting (the Midwest of an earlier era) and the compelling emotional landscape of fallen heroes.