Desperate Journey, by Jim Murphy; Scholastic
Press: New York, 2006; $16.99
Something about Desperate Journey just pulled me in. The author, Jim Murphy, showed me a different way of life. In the mid-i800s, many families, usually Irish, made a living by being pulled along the Erie Canal by teams of mules, horses, or any other animal able-bodied enough to pull a boat. They had to haul cargo with them and load it off, at their destination, all before a deadline. Otherwise, they didn’t get any money.
I can imagine what life must have been like. Near my house in New Jersey is the Raritan Canal. It was used to transport goods such as coal, straight through central New Jersey from Philadelphia to New York City Both the Erie and the Raritan Canals were built mostly by Irishmen, and by hand. Today, when I walk along the Canal, it is more overgrown and I see trees between the towpath and the water. My family and I bike and run along the towpath and canoe on the Canal.
In Desperate Journey, the main character, twelve-year-old Maggie, her Momma, Papa, Uncle Hen, and little brother, Eamon, live on water in their boat and make a living by delivering goods along the Erie Canal. Maggie’s job is the only job on the towpath. She makes sure the mules don’t do any mischief. Her Papa and Momma take turns steering the boat. I can understand why Maggie feels left out. She wants to be in the nice, dry, non-muddy boat with her family. Most of all, she’d like to live on land.
Maggie’s Papa also earns money by having fist fights with canal bullies. He protects weaker men from the canal bullies. I don’t like the fact that Maggie’s Papa fist fights, but he does it for a good reason. But one fight goes wrong. Maggie’s father loses a battle against a Canadian bully and owes three hundred and forty dollars! Maggie’s family doesn’t have that kind of money and the only valuable thing they have is their boat. The only way to save the boat is to make a bonus shipment. Everything changes when her Papa and Uncle Hen get arrested and are accused of beating up a man. With a nagging brother, a sick mother, and an arrested father and uncle, I really felt sorry for the hard-working Maggie.
Maggie helps her family earn money. Kids today don’t normally pitch in and help the family pay bills. Instead they might get an allowance and earn money from chores and get to keep it. I’m glad I get to go to school and make friends my own age. Maggie only has her brother and they fight all the time. Over the course of the book, Maggie and Eamon learn to get along. Maggie makes herself and her brother work hard to take off some of the gigantic burden her momma carries, being the only adult.
The Erie Canal has a very interesting history. I think the book is printed in brown ink to give it an old-fashioned look. It was fascinating to read about life i5o years ago, but I’m glad to live in this century Today kids actually have a choice of what they’re going to be when they grow up. Desperate Journey is about family bonds, luck, and tragedy, and it was captivating to read.