The Bookworm: The way things were, back in the day

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“Worthy Brown’s Daughter”

By Phillip Margolin

c. 2014, Harper

$26.99/$33.50 Canada

352 pages

You know your rights! Or, well, at least you’re pretty sure you do. Laws can change quickly and they’re often up for interpretation. Sometimes, there’s a gray area, too, and

So you know your rights. But how to enforce them is perhaps another matter especially if you’d once been a slave. In the new novel “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” by Phillip Margolin, that’s one man’s struggle.

Facing a noose-waving lynch mob would terrify anyone.

Matthew Penny knew that to be a fact: as a lawyer, he’d seen many men strung up and his new client, a traveling salesman, was meant to be next. Penny was sure the man wasn’t guilty, though, but it was 1860 on the frontier, corruption was common, and the man’s beautiful, exotic accuser seemed to have the judge under her spell.

And as it turned out, the salesman was convicted and harshly punished but things could have been worse. He would’ve hung, were it not for the quiet black man who approached Penny and whispered that the trial was rigged.

Weeks later, in Penny’s Portland office, it was time to pay for that information.

Worthy Brown had once been a slave in Savannah, and had traveled west with his owner, Caleb Barbour, who was escaping debt. But slavery was illegal in Oregon and Brown was now a free man, though Barbour still held Brown’s only child, Roxanne. The law was on Brown’s side but Barbour was smart, and well-connected.

Brown needed Penny’s help.

Penny understood loss all to well. Traveling westbound two years prior, his beloved wife had drowned during a river crossing, and he sorely missed her. He knew Rachel would want him happy but what would she say about his growing romance with the daughter of Portland’s wealthiest citizen?

That vexed him greatly, but there wasn’t time to dwell on it. Saving Brown’s daughter from her captor was more important. And since Barbour had started collecting supporters, there was no chance for error on Penny’s part

Good and bad. That’s this book.

Author Phillip Margolin admits that he took license with history in order to write “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” and, indeed, the premise of this novel bears rather small resemblance to the true events it’s “loosely” based upon. The real-life tale of “several” unlawfully-held former slave children is surely one of fascination and outrage but here, it’s watered down by fiction that mostly seems to get in the way, and that turns what might’ve been a stellar novel into just another courtroom drama.

And yet there’s Worthy Brown.

Margolin makes his title character someone who’s steadfast and solid, someone you desperately want to win. Brown is just one man in this well-populated story, but his presence alone will keep your nose buried in this book.

Overall, I think that if you’re looking for historical accuracy, you’ll be happier looking elsewhere. This ain’t what you want. But if you need a decent enough novel to pass the time and you think “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” is it you might be right.

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“One Room Schools”

By Susan Apps-Bodilly

c. 2013, Wisconsin Historical Society Press

$15.95/higher in Canada

146 pages

This morning on your way to school, you caught something: a ride.

It was way too cold to wait outside for the bus. Your teeth would be chattering before you could ever walk to school. So you had a personal chauffeur named “mom” today, and you were pretty glad.

Now imagine wading to school in snow that’s waist-high, and having to build a fire when you got there. Imagine going outside to go to the bathroom, no matter what the weather. And then read “One Room Schools” by Susan Apps-Bodilly.

When Susan Apps-Bodilly’s father was five years old, he was excited for his first day of school to arrive. As soon as he heard the school bell from far-away, he knew he had a half-hour to be at his desk and ready to learn. But first, he’d have a long walk to the school house.

The school house was prepared for him, thanks to a neighbor who came and cleaned it top to bottom. All the desks were lined up and waiting for the kids in grades one through eight, the wooden floors were shined, and the windows were clear; it was 1939 and there was no electricity at school, so students could only use daylight and gas lamps to see their lessons.

Many of the kids who attended school had a job to do there. One older student was chosen to raise the flag each day, and it was an honor to have that job. Younger kids cleaned chalkboard erasers, or fetched the mail, or emptied waste baskets. Teachers and older kids made sure the outhouses were easy to get to (there were no indoor toilets!) or they pumped water and carried it inside for the water cooler. Once all the school chores had been done, it was time to start learning. With eight grades in one room, younger students often would “listen in” on the lessons that older students were learning. Older students were always willing to help younger kids with their lessons, too. That helped a lot because everybody learned together.

Your local school has all kinds of amenities. But do the kids appreciate them? Once they’ve read “One Room Schools,” they surely will.

Using the Wisconsin-based tales of her father, Jerry Apps, author Susan Apps-Bodilly gives young readers a sense of a normal school day, eighty years ago, and the kids who eagerly attended those schools. Her chapters cover all seasons, lessons and recess activities, and they touch on the support that parents and communities gave their schools, which began closing in the 1940s. And since all this might be hard for children to believe, Apps-Bodilly includes lots of pictures as proof, which was my favorite part.

I’d like to say that this book is good for grandparents as well as for kids, but I think elders would be happier with a Jerry Apps original. Giving this book to your favorite 8-to-12-year-old to read, however, might happily spark some memory-sharing. You both may find that “One Room Schools” is a book with class.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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