A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the depiction of Cairo, Illinois, and its army camp and hospital is not for the faint-hearted. Be prepared for some powerful discussions with your children about war. A boy loses an arm in battle, a man is killed, a woman commits suicide. Officers drink and smoke cigars, and soldiers get drunk.
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What's the story?
After a brief but delightful framing device involving a 100-mile car trip in 1916, the story jumps back even further, to the beginning of the Civil War and a little one-horse town on the banks of the Mississippi, Grand Tower. The first half of the story introduces the Pruitt family and their strange new boarders. Tilly Pruitt tells the story of her 16-year-old twin Noah, itching to join the war, her mother, who doesn't know how to prevent it, and her younger sister Cass, whose psychic visions have made her sickly. Into their parochial lives come two mysterious refugees from New Orleans -- the glamorous and ethereal Delphine, and Calinda, who may or may not be her slave. As the war cranks up in the background, and the town is split by partisan feelings, the Pruitt's lives are turned upside down by their fascinating visitors. But when Noah runs off to join the war, Mama, nearly mad with fear and grief, sends Tilly and Delphine after him. Upon their arrival at Cairo, Illinois, where Noah's regiment is quartered, Peck opens up two windows for his readers. One looks out into the multiracial culture of New Orleans in the first half of the 19th century, the other into the war. The first is fascinating, the second, horrific.
Is it any good?
Rarely has war in general, and the Civil War in particular, been portrayed so clearly and realistically for young readers. Perhaps only in Gary Paulsen's Soldier's Heart, which spanned the war and many battles. Peck offers not a sweeping view, but rather a sliver -- the hospital and camp in Cairo just before the Battle of Belmont. It's an ugly sight, and not one that will leave any reader in doubt about the glory of war. When they arrive, Noah is sick with dysentery, but getting him well may be a mistake -- health is a ticket into hell.
All of this is done with Peck's trademark razor-edged prose. Few modern authors, for adults or children, wield a pen with the surgical precision Peck brings to every sentence. There's a cadence to his paragraphs that speaks of long experience and attention to detail, and that carries his passions in succinct and poignant rhythms.
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