A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this book has straightforward writing and good storytelling, with an original approach that uses a gun as the main character. Simple but effective prose conveys a powerful message, and the Revolutionary War setting provides a historical backdrop for a contemporary issue.
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What's the story?
With his usual economy of words, Gary Paulsen spins a trenchant historical yarn around one gun, a flintlock that dates back to the Revolutionary War. This one-in-a-million "sweet" shooting rifle threads its way across 200 years. Tucked away in an attic, it resurfaces in contemporary times with devastating impact. Gunsmith Cornish McManus lovingly crafts a once-in-a lifetime flintlock muzzle-loader, but is sadly forced to part with it when Clare, the love of his life, wants to begin a family. John Byam, a mountain man, must have the rifle. "Sweet," Byam says, nodding. "Like honey from a tree after a long, dead winter. I'll buy it." With his deal, Byam gets swept up in the Revolutionary War, where death results from use of the rifle.
After the Revolution, the rifle falls into the hands of Sarah, who tucks it away between the timbers in her attic, where it stays until 1993. The rifle, discovered by two children, exchanges hands many times until its fatal act on Christmas Eve, when the spark of a Christmas candle uncannily ignites, setting off the charge that kills.
Is it any good?
The first quarter of the book is devoted to the making of the weapon, and contains so much detail that some readers will find it tedious. It does, however, have the effect of creating a romantic, nostalgic reverence for the heft and warmth of a finely crafted weapon, which makes its final act all the more poignant. The author gives a logical foundation to an unlikely, unlucky turn of events, when the rifle explodes without so much as a finger on the trigger. This tragic outcome is all the more haunting when the full weight of loss is enumerated in moments of a life not lived.
Gary Paulsen invites readers to trouble over the idea "as Tim Harrow believed, as millions believed, that guns didn't kill people, people kill people." His unsentimental, matter-of-fact retelling of horrific events gives them all them more power, and he uses pointed characterizations to devastating effect. He clearly has a case to make, and makes it powerfully, but he avoids seeming too preachy.
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