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Children’s Historical Fiction Review – Blackwater Ben

Backwater Ben by William Dorbin


Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)


About twenty years ago, when I was working in a public library back in Michigan, a mother and daughter came in and began looking for books to check out.  The daughter was probably in second grade, and she chose some “easy readers” that she could read herself.  But she was also gazing at some of the other, harder to read books.  Peter Pan caught her eye, and she pulled it off the shelf and took it to her mother.  Her mother’s response was, “Oh no!  You know how to read now, so you get books that you can read yourself.”  The daughter was disappointed and I was secretly horrified.

Reading aloud to your children, even after they themselves know how to read, is a wonderful way for the two of you (or three or four of you!) to bond!  Reading aloud is also a great way of introducing more difficult books to younger readers.  Unfamiliar words and situations can be explained on the spot.  And what better way to open a discussion about whatever it is that might be a factor in your child’s life?  Are they afraid of the dark?  Is it harder being a big brother or big sister than expected?  Is sibling rivalry a problem?  How about peer pressure?  Is your twelve-year-old acting more like she’s going on 25?  Believe me, every parent has been there, and one good way of keeping those important lines of communication open is by reading…aloud…together.

So, I’ve decided to recommend a few great children’s books that would be fun for the whole family to listen to.    William Durbin has written a wonderful historical novel called “Blackwater Ben.”  It’s the story of Benjamin Wade, who drops out of the 7th grade to help his father in a logging camp in Blackwater, Minnesota in the year 1898.   Ben’s father is the cook for the lumberjacks in the camp, and Ben is his kitchen assistant.  But, it doesn’t start out as exciting as Ben expected:  “Though working in the woods had been Ben’s dream, he soon discovered that cooking, dish washing, carrying water and wood, and doing laundry occupied him from before dawn until after dark.  In the slack moments, Pa had him mop the floors, fill and clean the kerosene lamps, and organize the supplies in the storeroom.  At times Ben got so tired of his chores that he almost wished he’d stayed in school.”

Ben wants to be away from his cranky father and out in the forest with the jacks, cutting down huge trees, sawing them into logs, driving the teams of horses through the snowy landscape.  But as time goes by, Ben gets new responsibilities, and even has a few adventures along the way!  When an orphan boy nicknamed Nevers shows up and is hired to help Ben and Pa in the kitchen, Ben finds that he has a companion his own age…and a rival!

We learn about life in a logging camp at the turn of the last century through Ben’s eyes:  how hard the work was, how dangerous, how the men coped with the work, the cold, and life in the forest.  Throughout the story, we also learn about Ben’s childhood before the camp and his beautiful mother, who died when he was only two and who remains a mystery to Ben, since his Pa won’t talk about her.   The author also includes a glossary in the front of the book, so the logging terms are easier to understand.  I mean, you don’t want to ask for swamp water when you really want blackjack!

I would say this would be a great story to read aloud to children 8 and up.  I thoroughly enjoyed Blackwater Ben.  Now, go find a child and read!!




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