A young girl’s pioneering trek to the American West is interrupted by danger, tragedy, and a magical quest in the first book in Schoonmaker’s Last Crystal trilogy for middle schoolers.
In mid-19th-century Missouri, the white Willis family is about to follow the Santa Fe Trail to the new state of California. Miserable over leaving home, preteen Grace Willis is distracted by the sudden arrival of Old Shep, a dog from her early childhood. Absent for 10 years, Old Shep looks remarkably fit for a canine of more than 100 dog years. It’s a mystery—or is it magic? Old Shep’s role in Grace’s life is woven into a surprise-filled, absorbing narrative, the first novel in a series that begins with this vivid depiction of life for a pioneer family heading west. The author is a former professor and elementary school teacher, but this is no textbook adventure. Nor is it Little House on the Prairie redux. The fact that wagon train scout Jim Payne, a free black man, teaches Grace tracking and track-covering skills hints that the girl will need them, and she does. Grace is kidnapped and suffers a horrific loss. Her ordeal with the brutal kidnapper and his family is genuinely unsettling; her grueling escape is downright chilling. Fleeing pursuit, aided by Old Shep, Grace is rescued by mysterious Mr. Nichols. And here the narrative slides smoothly and enjoyably into a full-fledged fantasy involving Mr. Nichols’ identity and an object hidden within an alabaster cavern. Locked away, the object has the power to heal humankind’s woes, but it is guarded by a lethal spell. If Grace can find the strength, she must retrieve and guard the object until the spell can be lifted. The eventful passage of time that follows—featuring, in part, two vicious outlaws from Grace’s past, the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of Mr. Nichols and Old Shep, and a new home for the bespelled object—will have readers eager for the next book in this series.
A well-crafted mix of fact and fantasy filled with surprises and grounded in history and real-world dilemmas.