Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Rip-roaring historical adventure of brothers in a gold rush.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Historical and geographic detail galore (including detailed maps), plus age-appropriate accounts of the challenges of frontier life. An appendix includes lots of information about historic people and places in the story. Narrator Jasper is not such a one for book learning, but older brother Melvin is an avid reader who'd still be in school if he hadn't had to support his family.

Positive Messages

Determination, grit, and brotherly love are strong forces as the Johnson boys go in search of a better life. Along the way there are a few life lessons -- like the dangers of being unprepared, or of believing everything you hear, especially tales that get taller and taller. Also the importance of practical everyday skills, as Jasper's improvised laundry business helps keep the brothers alive.

Positive Role Models & Representations

As you might expect from a story about young runaways, Jasper in particular has numerous kids-don't-try-this moments -- stowing away on a ship, spending the night freezing in the snow, dealing with a lot of questionable characters, and landing in many dangerous situations. But he's very conscious of trying to do the right thing as he and Melvin push on into the unknown. A responsible older brother, Melvin doesn't always do what Jasper would like, but he does it for well-considered reasons, and is driven by what's good for Jasper as well as his own gold fever. Along the way they also meet some good and kind souls, from prospectors who actually live by the Miner's Code to a trio of nuns bound for an Alaskan hospital.

Violence & Scariness

Melvin and Jasper's father has become a violent drunk since their mother's death; Jasper spends most of his time trying not to provoke his dad; Melvin, five years older, runs away after one smacking around too many. Some shady types kidnap Jasper and one of them shoots him, probably by accident. Melvin punches a sleazy character who's just insulted the boys' dead mom.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine, Caroline Starr Rose's (May B.) first story featuring boys as central characters, is an old-fashioned, rip-roaring adventure set in the Klondike Gold Rush in the last years of the 19th century. As 11-year-old narrator Jasper and his 16-year-old brother, Melvin, flee their abusive father in Washington and join hordes of gold-seekers flocking north, they find many dangers, along with tall tales, colorful characters, and quite a few surprises. There are some mature elements: gun-toting scoundrels kidnap (and accidentally shoot) a character, and since their mother died some years earlier, the boys' father has been a violent drunk, drinking away all the money Melvin gives him to support the family. (On a lighter note, a traveling aristocrat -- based on a real historic person -- gets his gold by selling Champagne to the miners.) Grifters, con artists, and scammers abound, as the boys learn the hard way, but so do kind people, especially when things are most hopeless. Strong character, determination, loyalty between brothers, and paying attention when Mama taught you to do laundry all play an important, positive role.

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What's the story?

JASPER AND THE RIDDLE OF RILEY'S MINE finds its 11-year-old narrator and his 16-year-old brother fleeing an abusive home situation and heading for Alaska in 1897. Like everyone else on the quest, they've got gold fever, dreaming of incredible riches or at least enough money to buy food on a regular basis. And like just about everyone else, they hope to discover the legendary Riley's Mine, which supposedly made Riley so rich he abandoned it for the first person to decipher his odd clues. Things get off to a bad start when one lens of Jasper's glasses gets broken, leaving him with only one good eye, and soon get more perilous as bad weather and worse characters come on the scene. But quick thinking, brotherly bonds, an enterprising spirit, and Mama's washboard all serve the boys well.

Is it any good?

Caroline Starr Rose's fast-paced historical adventure finds two brothers seeking their fortune in the Klondike, with tall tales, deadly weather, gun-toting villains, and the kindness of strangers. There's lots of period detail and colorful characters, and a strong moral compass that keeps the boys from going astray. Eleven-year-old Jasper's narrative voice is heavy on what now would be considered poor grammar (especially "ain't"), but there's nothing wrong with his powers of description, as here, where he and Melvin encounter the first nuns Jasper's ever seen:

"Mel taps my head, a reminder I'm to take my cap off, too. He acts like this is the most regular thing he's ever seen, three ladies dressed up like bats, tugging at a boat frozen in the Yukon River."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the Alaskan Gold Rush is portrayed in Japer and the Riddle of Riley's Mine. What other gold rushes have you hear about? How did finding gold someplace change people's lives -- both the ones who lived there and the ones who made it their destination?

  • Jasper and Melvin often have a hard time figuring out whether people are telling them the truth, especially when they're talking about gold. What clues do you use to tell if people are telling you the truth -- and, if you think they're not, are they trying to deceive you, or do they believe the malarkey themselves?

  • Have you ever been to Alaska and the Yukon? How do you think things have changed there since the events in this story?

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For kids who love adventure and historical fiction

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