Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Blackwater Ben

Blackwater Ben

William Durbin
HIstorical Fiction
For ages 10 to 12
University of Minnesota Press, 2014   ISBN: 978-0816691920

   For Ben being able to get out of going to school is like a dream come true. School is such was such a waste of time after all and now, at last, he can be with his father and work as a cook’s helper, a “cookee,” in a logging camp. Ben does find it hard to leave Mrs. Wilson. She has taken care of him since his mother died and they are close friends. Still, he is now almost grown up and is ready for a change.

   What Ben isn’t ready for is the work itself. It is grueling. He has to work such long hours, and his father is a hard taskmaster with exacting rules that must never be broken. After a sticky accident involving a lot of spilled molasses, Ben’s father fires the other cookee who works in the camp. So now it is just Ben and his father who have to feed the always hungry lumberjacks three times a day, seven days a week. Ben can’t help hoping that his father is going to hire someone else soon before more “jacks” arrive. If he doesn’t, Ben might not get much sleep. Soon after cleaning the last stack of dishes he is finally able to close his eyes for sleep only to be roused in the freezing dark to start cooking and preparing all over again. Surely there is more to this work than just peeling potatoes and scrubbing pots and pans?

    Ben gets to know all the characters in the camp and there are some truly peculiar types among the men who choose to spend the winter working as lumberjacks. There are those fleeing the law, and those trying to forget some great sadness in their past. There are also those who simply like the hard work and rugged life of the lumberjack.

    With humor and sensitivity the author takes us into the north woods ofMinnesotaat the end of the nineteenth century. Through Ben’s young and impressionable eyes the author shows us the very hard lumberjack camp life, while at the same time sharing Ben’s own journey from boyhood into young adulthood. Ben learns a great deal about the man who is his father, and about the young woman who was his mother, and in the process, discovers what his own strengths and weaknesses are. It is hard not to laugh at some of the outrageous behavior shown by the lumberjacks, and to marvel at their courage and determination to get the job done no matter what.