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 10up. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A Difficult Boyby M. P. Barker
Riveting historical fiction from a debut novelist about the friendship that grows between two young indentured servants, one of them Irish, as they struggle to survive their harsh master in nineteenth century New England. It is 1839, Nine-year-old Ethan does not want to work for Mr. Lyman, the wealthy shopkeeper in their small Massachusetts' town. But Ethan has no choice--it is the only way to pay off his family's debt to the man. Ethan tries to befriend the Lymans' other indentured servant, but Daniel, as everyone says, is a difficult boy. Sixteen years old, Irish, and moody, Daniel brushes off Ethan as if he were a pesky gnat. Ethan resolves to ignore the brusque older boy, but is then shocked to see how cruelly Mr. Lyman's blows, and the two boys have only each other. Will Ethan be able to save his friend? And will others finally have the courage to do what is right for this not-so-difficult boy?
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)
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
"Historical detail illuminate...absorbing."
- Holiday House, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)
- Age Range:
- 10 - 13 Years
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". For nine years, M. P. Barker has been an archivist at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum. She has more than two decades of experience as a historian, archivist, and writer.
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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!
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
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.