Away West (Scraps of Time 1879) by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Gordon James.
Puffin Books, Penguin Young Readers Group, New York, 2006.
Elementary historical fiction, 121 pages.
Lexile: 510L .
AR Level: 3.4 (worth 1.0) .
The Scraps of Time series is built around the idea of a grandmother and three grandchildren building a scrapbook about their family from items kept in their grandmother’s attic. One of the children finds something and asks Gee about it, and then the story proper begins as she tells them the story behind that item.
In this case the item is a Civil War army medal, although the story does not deal directly with the Civil War. Instead, Gee tells them about her grandfather, Everett Turner. The youngest of three brothers, he was determined to find his place in the West.
However, this story is not about his journey west either. Instead, it starts with him running away from the family farm. Their parents have passed away and his eldest brother is obsessed with toiling on the farm, work that Everett has no use for. Instead he wants to join his brother who is one of the Buffalo Soldiers on the Western frontier. Everett was born free and his father insisted that he go to school and learn to read and write, so he has a somewhat different outlook than his brothers.
Needless to say, running away doesn’t go as Everett expected, but he is lucky enough to meet some kind people who help him amidst the many hoping to take advantage of a naive farm boy. Over time, he even discovers where his true passion lies, and that literacy is important but doesn’t make you superior to others who have had fewer opportunities.
We even get to eavesdrop on some of the letters that his soldier brother Cole sends. Although Everett doesn’t see it, the letters make it clear that being a soldier on the frontier is no picnic, and Cole is desperately longing for the home his brothers feel trapped by. At one point Everett is helped at a church, and a few characters are motivated to learn to read in order to read the Bible. But Everett’s focus is elsewhere.
There is brief mention of the KKK. In fact, this short volume manages to pack in a LOT of historical references. While the previous book in this series didn’t educate me as much as the kids, I’m less well versed in this time period, so this book also gave me a great deal to study. We even learned a new term – Exoduster.
Although some violence does occur, it’s kept very mild and suitable for young audiences unless a child or class is particularly sensitive. There’s at most three scenes in which the main character is in serious peril, and situations are resolved quickly. I did get concerned at the mild romance building, but it was thankfully kept appropriate for even very young listeners. Everett does make some serious errors in judgement and rash choices, however his character grows and develops over the course of the story and the appropriate lessons are learned.
This series is geared towards elementary students but could be profitably used in middle school as well. Since the main character is a 13-year old boy but the content is appropriate for most any age, this is one of those rare historical fiction books that would make an excellent family read aloud. Recommended.