Letting Swift River Go

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by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Picture Book. 32 pages. Grades PreK-9.
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Review

cover art

In 1927 it was decided by the Massachusetts State Legislature that the Swift River should be dammed to form a reservoir. This would supply needed water to Boston, one hundred miles to the east. To build what would become Quabbin Reservoir, four small towns had to be completely destroyed.

We live not far from Quabbin as does Jane Yolen. She has told the story of what it must have been like to be living in one of those towns that ceased to exist so that Boston could have water. She does so through the eyes of Sally Jane, a little girl living in one of those towns.

Barbara Cooney's illustrations are masterful. They are done in a slightly primitive style that evokes the time and place.

First Yolen and Cooney, with Sally Jane's help, show us what life used to be like in the peaceful valley. Then we watch as the valley is transformed.

The remarkable thing is that, although we empathize with the people having to give up their homes for what the state considers a greater good, there is no feeling of blame here -- no blame for the city of Boston for needing the water, no blame for the people of the valley and not even any blame for the state of Massachusetts. It just was. My grandmother used to say, "When progress is made, a price has been paid." This book talks about that price.

The book stands up as a beautiful work of art and should be appreciated from that point of view. Yolen's use of language to convey the tender feeling of the child toward her home and the later sadness when the waters move in must be lingered over along with the exquisite paintings.

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Activities

  • There is a lot of history that can be touched on through this book: the WPA projects, the Great Depression, the ways of life in New England at the time.

  • The Swift River Valley was chosen for its location between low hills. The reservoir could be created with one dam and one dike. Create a model of a similar valley and find out through trial and error how and where the dike and dam should be placed.

  • Figure out how, on a topographical map of Massachusetts, water could be piped to Boston with the least resistance.

  • More map skills can be involved in studying that same map to figure out why it was necessary to go so far from Boston to find the water. That investigation will probably also involve looking at population figures of the time.

  • Go back to the science for a look at water supply in your area. Where does your water come from and how does it get there?

  • Investigate the science of water. See A Drop of Water below.

  • Look back at the story of Quabbin from the point of view of the environment. Some of the web sites listed below deal with Quabbin as it is today: a wonderful place for wildlife. In creating a water supply for Boston, the state created this wildlife refuge. Is there a similar created spot in your area? Is it better to let nature build its own areas or that those areas be left alone? Who pays the price?

  • Speaking again of prices, look at this and similar projects economically. The creation of Quabbin was a WPA project. It provided needed work when there was great unemployment. Are there organizations like the WPA in existence today? How successful are they? How much work do they provide? Do they employ skilled or unskilled labor? How long term are they?

  • Last of all, and maybe most important of all, take another look at Letting Swift River Go and just enjoy it for the beautiful piece it is.
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Related Books

  • A River Ran Wild: An Environmental History by Lynne Cherry (Voyager, 2002 ISBN 0152163727. Order Info.) is about the Nashua River, which runs almost parallel to the Swift River, but about 60 miles east. This book shows the passage of time and its effect on the river. The history connection is strong, of course, but so is the environmental story it tells. More Info.

  • A wonderful book to get students of any age excited about water is Walter Wick's A Drop of Water: A Book of Science and Wonder (Scholastic, 1997 ISBN 0590221973. Order Info.). Using stop-action photography Wick explores the properties of water in ways that most second graders can understand and that most adults will find delightful and enlightening.

  • Both Yolen and Cooney have done many other books and Letting Swift River Go can serve as a stepping stone to explore them. See the link to our article on Barbara Cooney's work below.
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