CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 33. . . .April 30, 2010.
The Ballad of Knuckles McGraw. (Orca Young Readers).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2010.
105 pp., pbk., $7.95.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Jonine Bergen.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
More rusty red box cars grind by. Burlington Northern is written on most of them. Burlington Northern. Burlington Northern. Burlington Northern. Burlington Northern.
That would be a really good name for a horse, Kevin thinks. If he was a cowboy called Knuckles McGraw, he would call his horse Burlington for short. He would leap onto his back without needing a hand up. He’d grab the reins and lean low over the saddle as he rode into the night, leaving behind the busy principal and the welfare lady who is nice in a way that makes Kevin Mason want to cry.
But cowboys don’t cry. A cowboy with supper in his saddlebag and a horse called Burlington Northern has nothing to cry about.
Right there and then he decides that from now on he will be Knuckles McGraw, riding the range. Instead of Kevin Mason, whose mom left a note in his Wagon Train lunch box that said Please look after my son. I can’t take care of him anymore.
Kevin Mason is scared and confused as he is picked up from school by a social worker after his mother disappears. While daydreaming on his way to the foster home, Kevin decides he would rather be Knuckles McGraw, a tough cowboy, riding the range on his trusty horse than Kevin Mason, a scared boy dependent on strangers. Unfortunately, Knuckles soon discovers that he has to learn how to live with different expectations and a seemingly daunting group of characters that make up the family of Liddy and Joe, his new, but hopefully temporary, foster parents.
Peterson’s character-driven narrative is light while being enlightening. Although Peterson is tackling heavy subjects, like parental abandonment, she does so from a child’s honest, naive perspective. As Kevin reveals snippets of his life with his mother, the reader can see the difficulties and stress he has had to live with while feeling the love he has for his mother. Indeed, through the characters of Knuckles, Ice, and Breezy, the mute granddaughter who does headstands on Kevin’s bed and chooses what pyjamas he should wear, the reader is able to explore different children’s reactions to the challenges and losses they face.
As in Meeting Miss 405, Peterson uses stock characters to help the reader identify quickly with her story. She then slowly peels back the covers so the human face behind the expected can be seen. For example, Knuckles has to share a room with a stereotypical “bad boy” –– black leather jacket with chains, blue-black hair, tattoos and piercings –– named Ice who is also a sometime foster child of Liddy and Joe. Initially, Ice proves as cold as the icebergs on his wall; particularly when he draws a chalk line down the middle of the bedroom and insists that Kevin stay out of his personal space. However, with Peterson’s deft handling, the reader soon sees a boy who, though gruff, is also gentle and has dreams of his own that he is carefully protecting.
Peterson’s experience is evident in her careful pacing of Kevin’s story. She adds the right amount of colour to her secondary characters while continuing the forward momentum of the plot. As important as her pacing, however, is her deft handling of the climax and denouement. Happily, Peterson is able to provide Kevin a promising conclusion while remaining true to the realism of the story. Like any skilled author, she also refuses to tie up all the loose threads. Children are left satisfied, but with questions to consider.
Peterson’s fiction is a welcomed addition to an elementary school library. Her books provide a gentle introduction to social issues that all too many young people are grappling with daily. She incorporates interesting characters, well-developed plots, and sensitive handling of realistic issues written at an appropriate age level.
I tip my cowboy hat to Peterson and the “Orca Young Readers” series and hope I will be reading more of her work in the future.
Jonine Bergen works as a librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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