Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Devil's Paintbox

A few years back, I really enjoyed Victoria McKernan's first novel for young adults, Shackleton's Stowaway. Now, she has written another gripping historical novel.

The Devil's Paintbox tells the story of Aidan and Maddy, two orphans who are on the verge of starvation out on the Kansas prairie when a wagon train comes by and "rescues" them, in return for a year of work at a logging camp near Seattle. Off on the adventure of the Oregon Trail, Aidan and Maddy actually have an easier life than they have ever known before. But, of course, the westward journey is fraught with danger, hardship, and difficult relationships, and events catch up with the kids. While attempting to ford a river, Aidan's life is saved by some young Native American men. He has to confront his prejudices and in the last third of the novel, the title earns its place. The "devil's paintbox" is another name for smallpox and it is illegal for Indians to get vaccinated. Aidan's new friends beg him to help get them the vaccine. The policies and prejudice of our past are once again shocking as this true practice is explored and Aidan weighs his sense of justice and his desire keep to himself. Aidan's life in the logging camp is vividly described and he becomes a prizefighter in the camps. There is no shortage of adventure in this tale.
Well-written and well-researched, this is the historical novel for any reader to dig into before spring lures us outside.

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