Desperate Journey by Jim Murphy

That’s what she felt like, Maggie realized. A boiler filled with steam, wanting to go and go fast, but held in place, steam pressure building and building.

Nice description. I’ve felt that way.

Author Jim Murphy is well-known for his nonfiction titles about historical events, including The Great Fire about the Chicago fire of 1871, Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America, and An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. He’s won the Newbery Honor twice and other awards.

Desperate Journey is different, however, since it’s a fictional account set in 1848 of the life of a twelve year girl, Maggie Haggerty, and her family, living on a canal boat on the Erie Canal. In historical fiction the author must tell a made-up story with all the drama and details of history, but that comes across as both plausible and interesting. Mr. Murphy does a fine job of creating characters and a story that draw the reader in and keep us invested in the outcome of the story. Maggie and her family have lots of obstacles to overcome, and they do what needs to be done in spite of the difficulties. I guess you could say they’re examples of inspiring characters in historical fiction.

I’m working on a post on “God talk” in children’s literature, a continuation of some thoughts I had after reading MotherReader’s post on Hattie Big Sky. Desperate Journey is certainly another example of a book in which God and talk about God play a role. Maggie and her mother and brother are caught in desperate race to get a load of cargo down the canal, and God sends help in the form of a strange character who sees visions and hears God speaking to him in dreams. It’s a sort of a “touched by an angel” situation, but there is little indication that the visionary character, Billy Black, is anyone other than a man with a troubled past, redeemed and sent to help Maggie and her family in their desperate journey. The God talk is an integral part of the story, and Maggie reacts to all this talk of visions and messages from God as one would expect a normal twelve year girl to react—with skepticism and a bit of curiosity. Billy Black remains a mysterious character all the way through the novel, and I enjoyed that bit of ambiguity.

Desperate Journey would make a fine addition to the American history curriculum. I would recommend it to homeschoolers who use Sonlight or Tapestry of Grace, curricula that make heavy use of historical fiction to teach history. I think I’ll add it to our read-aloud list for the next time we cycle through U.S. history.

2 thoughts on “Desperate Journey by Jim Murphy

  1. The Billy Black character was an interesting component of the book, and would make an good discussion in terms of religion. I read the book last week, and was going to review it, but didn’t get back to it. Maybe now I can just link here instead, save some time. It was certainly a good book.

  2. sounds interesting.

    i loved historical fiction when I was younger. (i suppose I still do I just haven’t read any lately.)

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