I recently listened to Crows and Cards, a middle-grade novel by Joseph Helgerson, on audio. I enjoyed this historical adventure of a young boy in 1849.
Twelve-year old Zebulon Crabtree comes from a small town in Missouri, but his parents send him off to St. Louis to live with his uncle and become a tanner’s apprentice. Zeb isn’t too excited about this idea since he’s allergic to fur and doesn’t really want to leave home. So when he finds himself on a riverboat headed to St. Louis, he is easily convinced to change his plans by a riverboat gambler in fancy clothes named Charles Larpenteur, who is known as Chilly.
He tells Zeb that he has a much brighter future ahead of him assisting Chilly. From what he sees on the riverboat, Zeb figures that gambling pays a whole lot more than being a tanner’s apprentice (which doesn’t pay anything for several years) and that maybe, if he can save up the money he makes for his Ma and Pa, he can go back home. Besides, Chilly tells Zeb that he donates a large portion of his winnings to orphans, so it seems like meaningful work to Zeb.
When they reach St. Louis, Zeb begins his “apprenticeship” with Chilly at the hotel where he plays cards and gambles. There, Zeb meets Ho-John, the slave cook at the hotel, and Dr. Buffalo Hilly, a snake oil salesman in town who makes use of the prognosticating powers of Chief Standing Tenbears, a native American with a beautiful daughter. Before long, though, Zeb realizes that Chilly is really in the business of cheating honest men, including the Chief, and his conscience begins to bother him.
How Zeb finds his way out of this mess makes for an exciting adventure set against the Old West-style backdrop of St. Louis in 1849. While the story builds slowly at first, the ending is fast-paced and suspenseful. The setting, dialect, and humor of this novel brings to mind Mark Twain (in fact, it was paired with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on SYNC this summer), and Helgerson keeps the story light and amusing, though he also includes some interesting historical information at the end of the book. I listened on audio and enjoyed the folksy Missouri accents and voices, though the written book includes full-page illustrations. All in all, this is a rollicking story for middle-grade readers who may just learn a little history while they have fun!
352 pages, HMH Books for Young Readers