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An Emigrant on the Oregon Trail

by Ellen Levine

Age Range: 10 - 14

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-439-06310-8
Publisher: Scholastic

Thirteen-year-old Jedediah Barstow has just been orphaned during a crossing of the Kaw River. Without a family, he is forced to depend on the generosity of the other pioneers and on his own substantial inner resources. Writing in journal format, Levine (Darkness over Denmark, 1999, etc.) has resolved some of the constraints of the form to tell a gripping, funny, and memorable story of one boy’s adventure to Oregon. Readers who are unfamiliar with the details of life on the road will be fascinated by Jedediah’s observations: how butter was made, the many uses of buffalo chips, how to divert stampeding buffalo, burial techniques, the myriad decisions the travelers had to make every day, and the various dangers posed by rivers, wildlife, and mountains. Levine, through Jed’s well-defined voice, tells a memorable story, filled with the humor, sorrow, and excitement. The journal feels real because Levine leaves in some mistakes in grammar and has Jed comment on his difficulty with language. Poignant “mistakes” remind the reader that Jed is a boy who is slowly recovering from a trauma. (When Jed meets a little girl who is the age of his deceased sister, he accidentally calls the girl “Sally,” then crosses out his sister’s name to write “Bekka.”) But this fictional journal is much more than a vehicle for Levine’s research. Underlying the details of daily life on the trail is the story of Jed, the grieving orphan. Thrust into adulthood by unspeakable loss, Jed learns what it means to be a grown-up as he observes the various men and women on the Trail. Cruel Mr. Henshaw, with his worsening temper and alcoholism, allows young Jed to join his family as a servant. Jacob Fenster, an intelligent and thoughtful Jewish man, comes to Jed’s rescue many times and forces the young man to reflect on his own religious prejudices. Fix-it man Mr. Littleton hires Jed and teaches him how to fix the many things that break each day, from wagon wheels to personal relationships to false teeth. Jedediah Barstow is an unforgettable character in this fine story of bravery, grief, friendship, and community. (historical note) (Fiction. 10-14)