In Plain Sight

by Hurst, Carol Otis. (Walter Lorraine Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2002 ISBN 0618196994. Order Info.) Novel. Grades 4+.



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We thought this month we'd be shamelessly self-promoting and use one of my own books as a focus book. The advantage for you is that you get the author's point of view as well as the activities and suggestions for further reading. We'll use In Plain Sight because it uses the California Gold Rush as part of its background information but is set in western Massachusetts. That gives us two loci for contrast in the same time setting.

Because we can't pretend to be objective in our review you can follow this link to School Library Journal and Booklist reviews on


Gold has been discovered in California. All over the country people, especially men, are heading west to make it rich. When the light of eleven-year-old Sarah Corbin's life, her father, joins the throng, she is heartbroken. Miles Corbin is sure that he'll have no trouble finding the gold and will be back in no time, making his family and the neighbors who help support him rich. Sarah's mother, Delina, is strong and capable, but stern and demanding as well. If anyone bends, in this relationship, it seems it must be Sarah. For a while Delina keeps things going on their small farm in Westfield, Massachusetts, but as the months go by and the letters from her husband are few, Delina goes to work in the whip factory, much to the horror of her own well-to-do father. Even then, things don't go smoothly. There's a terrible fire and Sarah is badly burned. The grandfather has a stroke. Somehow Delina brings her family through. In the process, Sarah comes to see her mother and her father clearly. By the end of the story, there they stand - in plain sight.

Comments by the Author:

Most of the ancestors in my family came to this part of Massachusetts early on and they've stayed right here. That, and the fact that I grew up in a family where storytelling - especially of family stories -- was rampant, helped to bring about this book as well as the other books I've written.

One of those family stories concerned a great-great grandfather who, like Miles Corbin, left his wife and children behind and went out to find gold in California. According to the family story, he found plenty of gold and was heading back home when he was robbed aboard ship and thrown overboard. Alas, went the story, that's how come we're so poor. Then, one day doing research on another ancestor, I came upon a probate document showing a court appearance by that same great-great grandfather ten years after he supposedly was drowned at sea and it lists him as the head of household of an entirely different family. So, the questions: Did he ever even go to California or was that just a ruse he used to leave his wife and children? Did he go to California and not find gold and was therefore too ashamed to return to his family? Did he go to California, find gold and decide to start fresh and rich with another family?

We'll probably never know the answers to those questions but they got me thinking. Why would a man go to the gold rush and not come back to the family he claimed to love? Thus began the story of In Plain Sight.

The characters are not really based on any one person although my Grandfather Clark's mother was named Delina and was said to be a stern taskmaster. Maybe there's a bit of that Delina in Sarah's mother.

The setting of the story, on the other hand, is Westfield, Massachusetts, a place I know well. Indeed I've lived most of my life right here.

I meant the story to cause the reader to think about the people left behind by the adventurers in history and to explore the relationships within a family when hard times hit. How clearly do we see our own parents?


Things to Talk About and Notice

  • When the letters arrive, each family member wants something different from them. What are those expectations and why are they so different?

  • Grandfather's opinions change too. What causes those changes?

  • Does Miles Corbin's explanation of why he did what he did make sense to you? Would you have accepted it?

  • If you were a friend of the family at the beginning of the story, would you urge Miles to go or stay? Would you put up any money to help him? Explain your feelings and decisions.

  • Which character in the story do you understand best? Can you figure out why?

  • In most narratives, we see the action through the eyes of one character. Sometimes that character tells the story. That doesn't happen in this book, but there is a character whose point of view we see. Who would you say that is? How can you tell?

  • In most stories, there's a climax, an important point in the story where things come to a head and then get resolved. Where do you think that point is in this book? Do other readers agree with you?

  • What if Miles had found gold and returned to his family a richer man? How would that have made life different for his wife and children?


  • Make a time line of the events in the story. At various points along that time line, think about Sarah's opinion of her mother. When do those feelings change? Do you think they'd have changed even if those things hadn't happened?

  • Miles Corbin tells his children the story about seeing the elephant. This web site:
    has that story and has some thoughts about why it became sort of a symbol of the gold rush. What do you think the story meant to Miles?

  • Each character in the story has both strengths and weaknesses. List the characters and those qualities. Do you share any of those weaknesses or strengths?

  • Make a chart showing what Miles is seeing and doing in California and what Sarah is seeing and doing in Massachusetts. Which of them do you think is learning more?

  • Use a map of the time to plot out the various routes from Massachusetts to the California gold fields. There's a map at
    that may help you get started. Look closely at one of those routes and list the cities and landmarks the travelers would have encountered.

  • Research how many of those who went for gold in California in 1849 and 1850 actually found gold? How much did they find?

  • How did the gold rush in California change the country?

  • Would you have written a different ending for the story? Find a spot in the book where your version of the story would head in a different direction. Take turns telling the different versions of the story of Sarah Corbin.

  • Carol Hurst has written other books. Read Through the Lock and Rocks in His Head (listed below). Do either of those books have anything in common with In Plain Sight?

Related Books

  • Altman, Linda Jacobs. Legend of Freedom Hill. Illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright. Lee & Low, 2000. ISBN 1584300035. Grades PreK - 3. Order Info. This picture book tells a story of slavery and inter-racial friendship during gold rush times. When Rosabel's mother is taken by a slave catcher in slave-free California, Rosabel and her Jewish friend join the gold rush to get money enough to buy her freedom. More about slavery.

  • Kay, Verla. Gold Fever. Illustrated by S. D. Schindler. Putnam, 1999. ISBN 0399230270. Grades 1 - 5. Order Info. In rollicking verse, this picture book tells of young Jasper's participation in the California Gold Rush. The ending tells it all: "Family waiting. 'Where's the gold?' Jasper Shrugging, 'Warn't like told.'"

  • Levitin, Sonia. Boom Town. Illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith. Orchard Books, 1998. ISBN 0531300439. Grades K - 3. Order Info. In this picture book, the whole family has come to look for gold. When Amanda has a hankering for pie and figures out a way to bake one in a skillet, Pa stops looking for gold and starts selling slices of pie.

  • Cushman, Karen. The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. Clarion, 1998. ISBN 0395728061. Grades 4 - 9. Order Info. The mother in this novel, set in California during the gold rush, may remind some readers of Delina Corbin. Lucy and her mother meet many characters involved in various roles during the early 1850s: miners, saloon keepers, Native Americans, slaves and mountain men, to name a few.

  • Fleischman, Sid. Bandit's Moon. Greenwillow, 1998. ISBN 0688158307. Grades 3- 7. Order Info. Gold Rush times are hard on orphan Annyrose. Held prisoner by one bandit, she escapes only to be captured by another. Like many books by Fleischman, this is a melodramatic page-turner.

  • Carlson, Laurie. Boss of the Plains: The Hat That Won the West. Illustrated by Holly Meade. DK Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0789426579. Grades PreK - 3. Order Info. When John Batterson Stetson went west for gold, he failed to find it but the man from New Jersey invented the hat that became a symbol of the place and time.

  • Ketchum, Liza. The Gold Rush. Little Brown, 1996 ISBN 0316490474. Grades 4 - 9. Order Info. This very informative book is not the least bit intimidating as it tells of gold fever and the disruption it caused in the lives of so many. The effects of the gold rush on immigration, racism and Manifest Destiny are also covered.

  • Kroll, Steven. Pony Express. Scholastic, 1996. ISBN 0590202391. Grades 3 -5. Order Info. The amply illustrated book takes on the format of a photograph album as it tells the story of the mail system so vital during the gold rush.

Related Areas Within Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Web Site

  • Other Books by Carol Otis Hurst

  • Through the Lock Walter Lorraine Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2001. ISBN 0618030360. Grade Levels 3 - 7. Order Info. Set in 1840 just west of the Connecticut River, Etta and Walter find a way to make a family out of a lot of broken pieces. The canal provides a home and work for the children even while it fails as a business.cover art

  • The Wrong One (to be released in April, 2003) Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618275991. Grade Levels 3 - 6. Order Info. The Spencer family has suffered the loss of their father and the resulting lessening of income means that they must move to an old house in western Massachusetts. There mysterious things occur: the television set refuses to stay shut off, a blue light comes and goes as it causes things to turn cold and their newly adopted sister, Sookan, appears to be able to talk to the light. Is it a ghost story? Who knows?

  • Rocks in His Head Illustrated by James Stevenson Greenwillow, 2001 ISBN 0060294043 Grades K - 8. Order Info. This picture book biography of the author's father tells how a childhood hobby of rock-collecting sustained him throughout his life and lead to a new and challenging career during the Great Depression.

  • A Killing in Plymouth Colony Walter Lorraine/Houghton Mifflin. (To be released in October, 2003.) In 1630, Plymouth Colony had three hundred citizens. When one of them is murdered, the whole community is shaken. Set against that time and event is the story of eleven-year-old John Bradford, the son of the governor, who wants, more than anything else, to understand and be understood by his father.

  • Beyond the Divide by Kathryn Lasky. Book Review.

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