A series of illustrated fictional monologues introduces the history of the Oregon Trail.
It’s a good idea, and the beginning is great: Readers meet 13-year-old Carl Hawks, who is helping his father lead a wagon train from Independence, Mo., to Oregon City. Carl sets up the tale as he lists possible hardships along the trail and asks, “WHAT WILL HAPPEN THIS TIME?” In the next spread, Patience Mills bids a poignant farewell to her baby’s grave as her family joins the wagon train. Now the text makes its fatal mistake: Hereafter, there is a dizzying parade of new names and relationships until the end, when Carl reappears to summarize the journey’s calamities and declare the trip “not bad.” The single-page monologues are attractively and appropriately set in Caslon Antique against a faded, faux burlap background. Unfortunately, the generic pen-and-ink-plus-watercolor illustrations are reminiscent of 1960s TV Westerns. The folksy free verse, although more informative than the art, fails in its too-ambitious attempt to delineate 16 different characters.
Despite some good adventures, such as the fun of tossing buffalo chips and the thrill of climbing Laurel Hill, the combination of a one-voice-fits-all twang with too many names and characters is numbing rather than inspiring. (maps, historical notes, author’s note, further reading) (Picture book. 7-10)