Although Laird's first novel features a dry and awkward narrative from the disheartening perspective of a downtrodden, crippled orphan, the atmospheric detail of 18th-century Delaware and an action-packed plot make it worthwhile. Matt, 14, lives with and works long hours for the town's evil tavern owner, Eli, who is violent when he drinks. After one beating too many, Matt runs away, ending up with the well-to-do Campbell family and working on their farm. Even with a roof over his head and food on the table, Matt still must grapple with false accusations of robbery, the mysterious death of a friend, and rowdy pirates who terrorize the colony. Matt's knowledge of the waterways earned him the nickname of ""Water Rat"" by jeering boys, but it is his skills in the river that expose the pirates' secret hiding place, allowing the colonists to drive them out. As he becomes a hero, Matt finally has hope for his future. The dialogue is full of crammed-in history lessons, and Matt's characterization doesn't elicit much sympathy. But the short, vignette-like chapters highlighting his adventures will appeal to adventure-seeking readers. With black-and-white spot illustrations and page decorations.