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Joshua's Song
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Joshua's Song

4.6 10
by Joan Hiatt Harlow

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Boston, 1919. It’s been a terrible year for thirteen-year-old Joshua Harper. The influenza pandemic that’s sweeping the world has claimed his father’s life; his voice has changed, so he can’t sing in the Boston Boys’ Choir anymore; and now money is tight, so he must quit school to get a job. It’s not fair!

Joshua begins


Boston, 1919. It’s been a terrible year for thirteen-year-old Joshua Harper. The influenza pandemic that’s sweeping the world has claimed his father’s life; his voice has changed, so he can’t sing in the Boston Boys’ Choir anymore; and now money is tight, so he must quit school to get a job. It’s not fair!

Joshua begins working as a newspaper boy, hawking papers on the street, but he soon finds himself competing with Charlestown Charlie, a tough, streetwise boy who does not make things easier for Joshua. It seems that fitting in is not as easy as it once was. Then disaster strikes the city of Boston. Joshua must do what he can to help, and in doing so he finds the place—and the voice—that he thought he’d lost.

This remarkable novel is fast-paced, suspenseful, and based on true incidents in Boston history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Harlow's (Star in the Storm) novel, set in 1919 Boston, touches on some tough issues, including child labor, death and the Great Molasses Flood (due to the explosion of a molasses tank). After the death of 13-year-old Joshua's father, his Boston Brahmin mother takes in boarders (whom Josh has to call aunt and uncle to throw off the neighbors), and the boy must quit school to help earn money. Newsboy kingpin Charlestown Charlie (a tough Irish immigrant) presses Josh into service as a "newsie," and Josh is also hired to sneak story leads to their boarder, "uncle" Marc Muggeridge, an editor for the Boston Traveler. Though the author stacks the odds against Josh, the conflicts tend to fizzle. For example, Mr. Muggeridge feeds Josh the idea that he should buy his own papers rather than work for Charlie and then offers to fight Josh's battle for him. Likewise the picture of rough-and-tumble street life seems fairly tame. The titular song refers to the loss of the hero's famous soprano voice (a talent that makes him known even to the mayor) and his refusal to sing even at his father's funeral until he shares his gift to help a victim of the molasses flood. Despite colorful details based on actual events, the novel's ending wraps everything up a bit too neatly. Ages 9-12. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Joshua's father has died of the 1919 influenza in Boston, and thirteen-year-old Joshua finds himself sent off to work to support the family. Equally sad, Joshua is outgrowing his famous voice, known to many through the Boston Boy's Choir, and he will no longer even try to sing. Living in wealthy Beacon Hill where his father was a banker poses a dilemma¾what work will he do to avoid bringing shame to his mother, who is already secretly taking in roomers? Coincidence brings Joshua face to face with Charlestown Charlie, the scrappy, self-appointed boss of newspaper boys. Joshua secretly begins to sell for Charlie, and is quickly known as Gentleman Josh for his ability to skillfully call out the news and sell like a pro, receiving generous tips from customers. A roomer at his house turns out to be a reporter for the same paper, who secretly gives Joshua advice, while "Aunt" Caroline, another roomer, secretly gives him moral support. When Angel, a fellow "papes" seller, drops out to care for her sick mother, both Joshua and Charlie, adversaries still, try to help. Together they witness the historic (true) explosion of a molasses tank in Boston's North End, a disaster that kills and injures many. And together they get Joshua to the side of Angel's dying mother in time to sing a last prayer, where his voice is heard again by many. A fast-paced, touching story covering many realms of life in 1919, especially children of poverty, this well-told story brings history to life. Boys will be particularly interested in the life of newsboys. Joan Harlow's first novel, Star in the Storm, was an ABA Kid's Pick of 2000. 2001, Margaret K. McElderry, $16.00. Ages 9 to 12. Reviewer: Elaine Wick
School Library Journal
Gr 4-6-A fast-paced novel with a likable main character. World War I has ended and the influenza epidemic has taken Joshua's father. His mother, formerly one of Boston's elite, is struggling to make ends meet because of her husband's debts. She takes in boarders whom her son must call "uncle" and "aunt" so the neighbors don't know she's running a boarding house, and Joshua must give up his private school and find work. Harlow quickly sets up this background, then begins the boy's adventures the day he becomes a newsboy. The plot moves swiftly as he falls in with Charlestown Charlie, who oversees the newsboys in downtown Boston; meets a reporter who will pay for the stories Joshua can bring him; and learns about the darker side of city life when he meets a girl who sells papers to help her sick mother. The climax of the story is based on the Molasses Flood of 1919, when a huge tanker full of molasses exploded in Boston's North End, killing 21 people. The conclusion is somewhat pat; Joshua's mother sells property and is no longer poor. One hopes that the boy won't forget his friends or the lessons he's learned. Harlow skillfully integrates historical fact to make a colorful setting believable. An afterword gives other interesting details. A worthwhile title for historical-fiction collections.-Sally Bates Goodroe, formerly at Harris County Public Library, Houston, TX Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date:
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520L (what's this?)
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Job Jitters

The sound of creaking wagon wheels and clinking bottles broke through Joshua's dreams. Was it dawn already? The milkman's horse neighed softly in the alley beneath the window.

Joshua yawned and stretched in the small brass bed. His room wasn't heated, and the January morning was cold. His mother was already clattering pans in the kitchen. Before the Spanish Influenza struck the family several months ago, things had been different. Every morning his mother used to sleep late while Annie, the housekeeper, brought coffee and toast up to the big bedroom. Dad would be shaving and humming in the bathroom. Joshua's morning had been full of his father's singing, his mother's soft laughter when Dad teased her from her sleep, and the smell of coffee.

That was before that awful day -- the day Joshua's father died from the virulent pneumonia that was part of the influenza. Just when it seemed that the whole family would recover, Joshua's dad lost his fight. The flu epidemic had taken another victim.

Mom didn't laugh anymore. Instead, she cried late at night and banged the pots and pans early in the morning.

Two weeks ago, Christmas had been a disaster. Just one long, dreary time of sadness and memories.

Things were even worse now. Instead of heading back to school after the Christmas and New Year holidays, Joshua had to look for a job. "We don't have much money, Josh," Mom had said. "We have to tighten our belts and find ways to get along. I've had to let poor Annie go, and now you'll need to pitch in and find work."

Joshua punched his pillow. Surely he would wake up from this nightmare and everything would be the way it used to be. But it was no dream.

"What about me?" Joshua said out loud, hating the guttural sound of his voice. His dad was gone. He'd been dismissed from the boys' choir because his voice changed. Now he couldn't go to school. The rugby team had a good chance of winning the pennant, too! What else could go wrong?

Joshua pushed his comforter away and sat up. He'd put off looking for a job all week. It was Friday. He'd have to go job hunting today.

The old gas lights had been sealed when the house was electrified ten years ago. Joshua tugged the long string attached to a bulb. The light glared in his eyes.

He looked out the window at the dismal day. The milkman had deposited bottles of milk and cream on their back stoop, and the horse pulling the carriage was clomping down the cobblestone alley. Next door, the neighbor had opened his carriage house and was cranking up his brand-new Model T Ford.

Joshua washed quietly in the bathroom. Then he tiptoed back to his room to dress -- careful not to wake Mrs. Fryor, who snored loudly down the hall in the room that used to be his.

Pushing aside the knickers that hung neatly in the closet, Joshua grabbed his blue suit and tossed it on the bed. He didn't want to go to work. He didn't know the first thing about job hunting.

But he had to go.

After dressing he brushed his blond hair with some pomade, then headed to the kitchen.

"Good morning, Josh," his mother greeted him. She put a pot of coffee on the gas stove, then looked her son up and down. "Good! You're wearing your best suit. It makes you look older."

"Do you think I can go back to school someday?" Joshua asked.

Mom turned her attention to a pot of bubbling oatmeal. "I'm sorry. I can't afford to send you back to the academy this year. Even public school is out of the question. We really need money, Josh. Your father made some poor investments, and...well, you don't need to worry about all the details. Once things settle down and we get all the rooms rented, maybe..." She turned a switch on the stove, and the burner flame went out with a loud POP! "Maybe I'll even get the electric stove I've always wanted."

Joshua recalled what Mr. Williams, the family lawyer, had told them right after Dad's death. His father had left only a small insurance policy and an even smaller bank account, along with large, outstanding debts.

"You finished eighth grade early, and with high marks, too," Mom continued. "Your father had great hopes for you, Joshua." She looked sad as she spooned oatmeal into a bowl and sprinkled brown sugar over it. "It will be hard to find decent work now that the war is over. You're only thirteen, and I don't want you working in a sweat shop."

"I'm going to Dad's bank to see if they need a messenger."

"No!" Mom said quickly. "Not there! Can't you try another bank? Or perhaps a department store? C. Crawford Hollidge is a nice store. Of course I wouldn't want anyone to see you there, but if you could work in the office..."

"You don't want anyone to know I'm working, do you." It wasn't a question.

"It will be better that way. After all, we have our pride. Perhaps you could find work with one of the music publishers. They would probably remember you from the Boston Boys' Choir."

"No!" Joshua snapped. "I told you I'm finished with music."

Mom shook her head and pulled the pot onto the side of the stove. "Don't eat any more of this oatmeal, Joshua. Aunt Caroline always has a big breakfast."

"Mrs. Fryor is not my aunt," Joshua grumbled.

Mom sat at the table. "I told you, our neighbors would never tolerate a rooming house on their street. I don't want them to know we have a paying boarder. So, she is now your Aunt Caroline."

"She's so cranky and mean. It's no wonder her family put her out."

"Hush! It's a shame when someone gets old, to think their family doesn't want them," Mom whispered. "Besides, they didn't put her out. They're paying a nice monthly fee for us to keep her here."

"She's got my bedroom," Joshua reminded her. He opened a bottle of cream and drizzled it on his oatmeal.

"Things have to be different now." Mom touched his shoulder. "Be careful where you go today. Stay away from the tenements. And please don't go to your father's bank."

When Joshua finished his oatmeal, he pulled on his bulky overcoat. Mom handed him some coins. "Take the El, Josh. Remember, you don't want just any job." She kissed him on the forehead. "I'll worry if you're not back before dark."

Joshua had only taken the elevated train twice by himself and then he went directly to State Street to Dad's bank. He felt queasy. Mom was treating him as if he were suddenly all grown up -- like she was expecting him to find work and take Dad's place or something. It wasn't fair!

Joshua headed out the front door. Nightshade Lane was awake now. A couple of automobiles rattled down the street, steering around a horse and carriage. Joshua remembered how excited and proud they were when Dad bought their new Peerless automobile. But the first thing Mom did after Dad died, was to sell it to Mr. Williams. Since then, when it was too far to walk, they had to take a cab or the El.

They lived in a nice neighborhood not far from downtown Boston, on a street of brick-front houses with bay windows and wrought-iron gates. How long would they be able to live here? Joshua wondered as he headed toward the elevated station on the next block. And where on earth would he ever find work?

Joshua paid his fare and found a seat next to the window. Well-dressed patrons got on at his stop, but he noticed poorer people coming aboard as the train continued into town. There were men in overalls and women in faded coats. Even children, carrying lunch pails, were on their way to work. Joshua almost asked one boy where he was employed, thinking there might be a job for him in the same place. The boy's eyes seemed far away, though, and Joshua changed his mind remembering what his father had told him: "Don't talk to strangers in town. Some of them are from different worlds, Josh."

Several passengers wore gauze masks. The influenza epidemic had everyone afraid. Joshua turned his face to the window -- away from the man who was coughing next to him. Even though Joshua had already had the flu, he wasn't taking any chances.

The sun was shining brightly and streaming through the grimy windows. The train stopped again, and the sweet aroma of chocolate from the nearby candy factory drifted into the car. The slender, gray Custom House Tower piercing the skyline caught Joshua's attention.

Dad never did get to take him to the top of the tower like they had planned. Dad said the city was beautiful from up there, but Josh would never see it now.

The warmth and the constant rattle of the train made Joshua sleepy. He closed his eyes.

His thoughts drifted back to Dad's funeral.

The sweet smell of flowers and fresh earth of the new graves permeated the cemetery. There were many other families weeping over new graves, too. Thousands had perished in the influenza outbreak.

Mom asked, "Josh, won't you sing one hymn for us? 'A Prayer to the Good Shepherd' was your father's favorite."

"No!" Joshua's voice rang out over the soft murmurs of relatives and friends. "Don't ask me to sing. I can't. Not at Dad's funeral!"

"Hey, boy!" Someone shook Joshua's arm. The man in the next seat. "Wake up."

Joshua awoke with a start. "Where are we?" he asked.

"This is Atlantic Avenue."

Joshua had missed his stop. He got off the El and looked around, bewildered. The icy air smelled of sea and fish. Where was he? He blocked his eyes from the sun and saw the Custom House Tower. State Street must be nearby.

Horses and carriages crowded the streets. The blaring honks of automobile horns added to the commotion. On the opposite sidewalk a man with a brightly colored wheelbarrow called out, "Fresh haddock and halibut!"

A newsboy, who looked to be about sixteen, darted around the traffic, hollering out the headlines. His brown woolen knickers were held up by bright red suspenders. Plaid shirttails hung below his open jacket. Strands of unruly carrot-colored hair had slipped out from under his soft gray cap. Joshua watched the boy in awe as he wove in and out between the cars and the carriages, yelling in a high-pitched voice, "Extra! Robbery in Revere." He'd stop at each vehicle, slide the latest copy of the newspaper into the driver's window, and grab the coins with the same hand.

Suddenly the traffic unsnarled and started moving again. The newsboy hopped onto the sidewalk, bumping into Joshua.

"Hey, you! Watch where you're going!" the boy exclaimed, scowling at Joshua. "Get outta my way."

Joshua struggled to retain his balance. "You bumped into me!"

The newsboy stepped closer. "Don't argue with me, pip-squeak."

"I wasn't arguing," Joshua snapped. "Get away from me."

At this moment two more boys, who also carried newspaper bags over their shoulders, appeared. One -- a tall, skinny fellow -- shook his finger at Joshua. "Don't you know you're askin' for trouble?" he warned. "This is Charlestown Charlie himself!"

"Did you hear what Shawn said?" The redheaded newsboy put his face close to Joshua's -- so close, Joshua could almost count the freckles that dotted his nose. "Everyone in Boston -- except you -- knows it don't pay to argue with me." And Charlestown Charlie gave Joshua a shove that knocked him to the ground.

Text copyright © 2001 by Joan Hiatt Harlow

Meet the Author

Joan Hiatt Harlow is the author of several popular historical novels including Secret of the Night Ponies, Shadows on the Sea, Midnight Rider, Star in the Storm, Joshua’s Song, and Thunder from the Sea. Ms. Harlow lives in Venice, Florida. For more information, visit her at JoanHiattHarlow.com.

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Joshua's Song 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonemous1 More than 1 year ago
My book Joshua song was a ok book. It is about a boy that needs to find a job. He father recently passed away so he has to take responsibility. Josh goes through some tough times but when a shocking accident happens what will Joshua do. You will have to read on to find out what happens to Joshua and what he does. This book was interesting at one point but when it got to the end it got a little confusing. The beginning started out boring but as you got into the book it got a little better. I think overall this book was ok.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this author's famous STAR IN THE STORM so much that when I read JOSHUA'S SONG had been chosen as a 'best children's book of the year' by Bank Street College of Education, I borrowed a copy from the public library. JOSHUA'S SONG touched my emotions powerfully. It's obvious how it came to win such prestigious acclaim. I bought a hardcover copy for myself and several others for my nieces and nephews. It is beautifully written and a page-turner. It covers death, ethnic differences, life changes, responsibility, historical events, and has a nice touch of humor as well. I found myself caught up with empathy for Joshua, his trials and his strength of character. The tough and tumble Charlestown Charlie won me over, too. The scene on the Custom House Tower in Boston brought the story full circle and filled my eyes with tears. This is a book that should become a classic. I will be watching for other books by this author.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I think this book is a great book about the aftermath of the war and how it effected families in America and especially Boston. There money was cut short and even the rich became poor and the healthy became sick! Influenza struck many people and people couldn't work anymore so they eventually ran out of money. The kids had to start to work and they became sick then too. This was a great book, but if you want to know the ending you better buy it from Barnes and Noble and read it for yourself! :) Kelsey
Guest More than 1 year ago
Joshua's Song has been one of favorite books. It is very well written and a book you just can't put down! If you are young, I would say this book would appeal mostly to teens and preteens, and you like realistic hostorical fiction, I highly suggest this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think Joshua's Song is the best book I have ever read. I can't wait to read Star in the Storm and Shadows on the Sea. Joshua's Song was exciting. I couldn't wait for school to be over so I could read some more.