Title: Crows & Cards
Author: Joseph Helgerson
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: April 2009
Length: 348 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, YA
Three warnings for readers who hate surprises: 1. Beware of slivers, 2. and gamblers, 3. and aces.
Zebulon Crabtree found all that out the hard way back in 1849 when his mother and father shipped him off to St. Louis to apprentice with a tanner. Too bad he had serious allergies to fur and advice from his parents.
Hearing the beat of a different drummer, Zeb takes up with a riverboat gambler who has some special plans for him, crosses paths with a slave who turns out to be a better friend than cook, and learns that some Indian medicine men can see even though blind.
And then there’s the Brotherhood—the one that Zeb can’t seem to get out of. . . . Lucky for us, the price of living in turbulent times is often a good story, and Zeb spins an unforgettable one.
Narrated By: MacLeod Andrews
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Release Date: April 2009
Length: 6 hrs and 41 mins
The Highs and Lows
- Zeb. He is a 12-year-old boy and the oldest of seven. His father scrapes together $70 to send him to his Uncle Seth to become a tanner’s apprentice. He is a very sheltered boy. He doesn’t know things about the world. The notion of not talking to strangers, let alone trusting one, isn’t a lesson Zeb has learned – but he will. The story is told from the perspective of Zeb.
- Setting. It is 1849 in St. Louis. This was the year cholera hit a peak in St. Louis, and it was also the year of the infamous St. Louis Fire.
- Other Characters. Zeb also learns from the slave, Ho-John, who burns all the food (on purpose) and a blind Native American chief whispered to be a “seer.” Zeb tries as much as he can not to endanger
- Zeb’s Journey. During his travels to St. Louis via steamboat, Zeb meets a professional gambler and thief named Chilly. Through their escapades, Zeb believes they are going to be a modern-day Robin Hood crew and swindle money from the rich to give to the poor. Eventually Zeb wises up and decides to help the slave and the already swindled chief. But by now he has already become Chilly’s apprentice and magic key to his swindling gigs, pledged himself to the Brotherhood of the Gamblers, and resides in an inn with a gambling parlor,to which Chilly is secretly half-owner in. Eventually, Zeb turns the tables on Chilly with the help of the chief and his daughter, referred to as the princess.
- Plot and Pacing. This wasn’t a particularly interesting book. In fact, it was particularly boring. I determined to finish listening to the audio so I could mark it for several of my challenges, especially my audiobook challenge. I wasn’t an invested reader in this slow-moving, woefully underdeveloped writing.
- Imitation or Homage? I couldn’t really tell which angle the author was taking, whether it was an homage to Mark Twain or trying to imitate him. Either way, it feel far from the mark. This emulation of Twain is a cheap imitation and very obvious. While Twain was masterful at Mississippi dialect, this duplicate wannabe is merely bad grammar from the 1830s, and all the characters have the same dialect. The craft and skill that Twain used is not evident in this novel, but there is a great deal of figurative language. The book is also illustrated.
- Historical Notations. There is an appendix of historical information and a dictionary at the back of the book. The information contained in the appendix is interesting and the dictionary is quite humorous. The appendix contained information about slavery and Native American issues, as well as the attitudes from the time.
First of all, I blame my family for my becoming a writer. Scratch one of my relatives and often as not you’ll get a story, usually of the tall-tale variety. Though I’ve lived out West, I’ve spent most of my life in Minnesota, along the Mississippi River where such tales are a tradition.
As you can see, I’m a redhead, freckled, fry easily. Stories could be told. Stories have been told. I’m married with a son and daughter. Over the years we’ve shared our home with creatures who purr, chirp, bark, scuttle, and molt. It’s generally a happy house, though not always quiet.
I grew up playing sports like a fiend and during college bicycled from Minnesota to Arizona for the adventure. During that trip I kept a journal, which marks the official start of my writing career. My advice to would-be writers? Never turn down a chance to take a bike ride.