On the Oregon Trail

The Water SeekerI was never allowed to play Oregon Trail, the classic game from my childhood about outfitting wagons to go west.  I’m still sort of convinced it’s because my 5th grade teacher didn’t like me that every other kid in the class seemed to get a turn on the computer to play.  Oh well, because I’m sure this book is way better than that game ever was.

Kimberly Willis Holt’s newest novel, The Water Seeker is about a lot more than the Oregon Trail.  It’s about a boy growing up in the first half of the nineteenth century with a number of special gifts, including the ability to dowse for water.  Amos Kincaid gets bounced around in life and eventually ends up heading west on a wagon train with his father where the trip is full of the sort of adventures and tragedies you would expect from a story about a wagon train adventure.  I really enjoyed this beautiful told tale about growing up.  Holt brings the feel of that time period to life without it feeling like a history lesson.  The way Amos travels from family to family brings us a lot of details about different ways of life, however the details always feel integral to understanding Amos and the story.  As Amos grows up, I really felt for him as he tried to make his own way in life and figure out what he wanted.  There are a number of vaguely supernatural elements to the story, but they remain on the periphery, almost like a historical magical realism.

One of my only lingering questions is who the book is really for.  Amos goes from a young boy to a young man in the course of the story.  Adult perspectives also get a great deal of play.  My library had it shelved with middle grades novels, but it feels more like a YA story to me, though it’s not typical teenage fare either.  The other thing I’m left wondering is what’s up with all the yellow on covers recently.  This cover looks like it’s referencing The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, another historical novel, though a very different one.

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