by Avi. (Avon Camelot, 1996. ISBN 9780380725625. Order Info.) Novel. 128 pages. Grades 4-9.
In this brief novel set in 1855, Ben's father has been felled by palsey -- what we call today a stroke. Ben, nine years old and the youngest child, has been called home to Oregon Territory from the boarding school he's been attending. More gifted intellectually than his siblings and, perhaps, with a stronger sense of family, Ben quickly becomes the leader, dividing the labor as efficiently as possible. This leaves him with the care of his father.
First finding a way to communicate at least minimally, and desperately needing to re-establish contact with the dying man, Ben determines that, if they build a barn his father had planned, the man will recover. His sister, Nettie, anxious to marry, delays her plans to help with the barn and the three set about the nearly impossible task. The barn becomes a symbol for achievement, acceptance and love. It is also, quite obviously, the object of the boy's obsession which he questions himself, but only after the barn is completed.
Detailed descriptions of barn-building take up much of the room on these few pages, but it is, after all, the focus of the book and Avi cleverly makes us care about it as deeply as Ben does, even while questioning his logic. The book, in spite of that amount of detail, is spare and can be read within one sitting. It can be looked at as the historical piece it is or can become a starting place for the look at symbols in books or in our own lives. Passion and obsession are also obvious directions that can be followed as a result of reading the book.
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