Murphy, Jim. 2006. Desperate Journey.
The mark of a good book--particuarly a nonfiction or historical fiction book--is if it makes a subject that you have little or no interest in as a whole so remarkably fascinating and interesting that the book becomes not a dull lesson in the past but a genuine page-turner. Take for example, DESPERATE JOURNEY by Jim Murphy. I have never shown any interest whatsoever in the history of the Erie Canal or any other canal for that matter. (In fact other than knowing that the canal had something to do with rivers, I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what it was or where it was.) I never would have gone out looking for a book about this subject. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Desperate Journey. Having been familiar with some of the author’s previous works (An American Plague and The Great Fire), I noticed his most recent publication. Jim Murphy is known for writing nonfiction, but Desperate Journey is a historical novel. Set in the early nineteenth century, Maggie Haggerty, our heroine narrator, is unforgettable. Twelve years old, she bears a large burden. Her family has just days--literally four or five days--to sail their boat and its heavy cargo to Buffalo. It will be a long and difficult journey. With two sets of mules pulling their way, there is always something to be done either driving the mules, steering the boat, or cooking, cleaning, and mending for the family. What makes a difficult journey even worse is when their father and uncle are arrested by a sheriff and accused of assaulting a man in a bar along one of their stops. Now it is up to her, her brother, and her mother (who is pregnant) to try to make it to Buffalo on time and unload its cargo or else their boat and everything they own will be lost. Is any amount of determination and hard work enough? And how can they deal with bullies up and down the canals?
It is an interesting journey. Well-written. Well-developed. A surprisingly enjoyable read about an often neglected subject.