By: John Evans
Publication Date: October 2008
Reviewed by: Pamela Victor
Review Date: May 18, 2011
In 1868, 12-year-old Joshua Lee emerges from a contented childhood with his hard-headed Papa, his ever-patient Mama and his trusty sidekick, a bluetick hound named Specks. Together they live comfortably in the “friendly” farmland of East Texas, a land where, as Joshua describes it, “Our hogs could roam free along the Trinity River bottom and grow fat as ticks. Swamp rabbits were thick near the dozens of streams that crisscrossed the bottomland, and I was already a pretty good shot. We could have meat three meals a day if we wanted. And talk about rich soil!” But the idyll is broken when Papa announces to the little family that they’re headed west, whether Joshua and his mother like it or not, to conquer the unclaimed and dangerous land.
So the family sells nearly everything for a covered wagon and supplies, setting off for parts unknown where they face thievery, flash floods, the ever-present threat of hostile Apaches and “rough-looking scalawags – half-breeds, ex-soldiers, and border riders flashing gold teeth and snaky smiles.” In Canaan’s End, John Evans’ agile use of language skillfully carries the tone of the young narrator while artfully establishes the rhythm and flavor of the era. As a result, young readers quickly become immersed in Joshua’s adventures as the family makes the arduous trek across an unforgiving land. Canaan’s Land does not disappoint in providing young readers with an authentic, engrossing exploration of a young boy’s journey into the Old West.
The adversity and hardship faced by this family on the trail epitomizes Joshua’s own fierce struggle to figure out what kind of man he’ll grow up to be. His father’s behavior during their trials and tribulations on the road magnify Joshua’s attempt to understand and love his father while he tries to figure out what it means to be a man. Would Joshua become soft like his quietly strong and faithful mother? Or would he become hard like his tough-as-nails, bull-headed father? Or could Joshua parse out a middle way? “The days dragged along. Papa worked as always, beating and banging on the busted-up wagon…Mama walked, and thought, and read her Bible. And there I was caught between the two of them – just like always – standing on shifting sand.”
Spoiler alert: Parents and teachers may want to be forewarned that Joshua faces a heart-breaking episode with his dog at the end of the book. The author handles the scene without unnecessary dramatization, and it is an integral element to Joshua’s transition into adulthood. However, especially sensitive readers may need to have some preparation for this moment in the story.
Canaan’s Land is not only an entertaining book for young readers, but also would be well appreciated by teachers and parents who are teaching about this era in American history. Evans deftly weaves interesting details into the plot about the Civil War, Yankee reconstruction, Texas Rangers and more. The story is so compelling, readers learn without even knowing it. As a special bonus Evans includes two recipes mentioned in the book that literally bring the flavor of the trail right into your home or school!
Quill says: A young boy becomes a good man as he and his family tackle a difficult journey across the unforgiving land in the Old West.