Desperate Journey

Sigh. After casting around for an image of the great cover of this book, I give up. I present you a review with no accompanying cover, but know that it is quite a nice cover, especially considering this is historical fiction and those covers are so often not reflective of the actual story.
Desperate Journey by Jim Murphy.
This work of children’s fiction is written by that amazing author of children’s nonfiction, Jim Murphy. With this book, he proves that he is just as good at fiction as nonfiction. 12-year-old Maggie lives on a boat on the Erie Canal along with her father, mother, younger brother and uncle. Life on the canal is hard and lonely as the mules that pull the boat must be worked with, people who live on land not accepting their roaming way of life, and the constant motion of moving from place to place with cargo. Maggie’s father is known all along the canal as a man who is not afraid to fight but who only fights to right a wrong. Last year, her father fought Longfingered John and lost hundreds of dollars. Now the family is hurrying to their next port to get a bonus that will let them keep their boat. But when they stop along the way, Maggie’s father is accused of assaulting a man and beating him almost to death. Maggie’s uncle is accused as well.
With her father and uncle dragged off to jail, Maggie and her brother find themselves alone on the river with their ailing mother trying desperately to reach their next port to claim the bonus and then rush back down the canal for the trial.
This book is gripping. The constant pressure the family lives under as well as the roughness that surrounds them is daunting, but Maggie and her family continue to do the right thing and fight against the adversity they find themselves in. Maggie is a strong female character who manages to not lose her feminity while she does the work of a grown man. The characterizations of the family are three dimensional and well done. Only the villains of the story are two-dimensional and that is to be expected because that is how Maggie herself views them. I especially enjoyed the character of Billy Black, an unlikely hero in the story. The historical aspects of the book are vividly written and the small details woven into the story create a whole that is realistic.
Recommend this book to teachers to read aloud for historical fiction. Also recommend to young readers who enjoy survival stories and history.