Death on the River

Death on the River

Before reading this YA book, the only historical novel I could recall that was about the Confederacy's notorious prisoner of war camp, Andersonville, was MacKinlay Kantor's 1955 Pulitzer Prize classic, Andersonville.

Jake Clay, an eighteen-year-old New York volunteer, is wounded and captured at the Cold Harbor battle in 1864. In Andersonville prison, he struggles for not only survival but to keep his humanity instead of resorting to dog-eat-dog or survival of the fittest behavior. He fails; staying alive trumps morality. Befriended and taken under his wing by a selfish, sociopath, knife welding fellow prisoner, Billy Sharp, the longer he stays in the camp, the more he becomes a product of his environment. Reluctantly, Jake suspends and compromises his civilized upbringing and values. However, unlike Billy, his conscience haunts him. The reader hopes the moral lapse is only temporary. Can Jake redeem himself?

Once the war ends, Jake and Billy are released. They travel west to Vicksburg hoping to catch a riverboat going North. There, Billy involves himself in a military corruption scheme extorting riverboat passengers. The overloaded riverboat blows a boiler, is engulfed in flames, and sinks with the survivors in the water. For Billy, it is Andersonville redux--tooth and claw and every man for himself. For Jake, circumstances provide an opportunity to atone for his past behavior. Although injured in the riverboat explosion, he courageously takes the initiative by unselfishly rescuing a girl from drowning.

The authentic, rounded character of Jake will resonate with boys and they all know a kid like Billy. The traumatic effects of the brutality and horrors of war on individuals are clear and direct. There are no hidden themes in the novel. This award winning Canadian author never disappoints. Any kid who refers to a John Wilson historical adventure as "boring", check for a pulse! If you want to beef up your "age 11 and up" and YA historical fiction area, take a look at his extensive title list from Germania (Rome) and and In The Morning (WWI) to his timely crusade books: Heretics Secret and Grail. Obviously, the author is determined to both entertain with fiction and educate the reader in history.

A famous historian called the Civil War our Iliad and the West our Odyssey. At the end, unsure and insecure of what the future may hold, Jake, like Ulysses, heads for home. He recollects at what has happened to him, "...Maybe the miles ...will wear off the past...make me forget...the ghosts who haunt my dreams. I can never go back to being the naive kid I was before then, but with luck I can move forward." 193 pages.
Recommended by Robert L. Hicks, Librarian

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