Through the Lock

by Hurst, Carol Otis. (Houghton Mifflin, 2001 ISBN 0618030360). Novel. Grades 4+. Order Info.



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My Grandmother Clark seldom told her story although she told a lot of others. When pushed for details about her own childhood, she'd say, "Oh, that was a sad time. Let's talk about something else." We knew that this wonderful woman who brought such joy to her grandchildren had had a rough beginning. She'd been an orphan and ward of the state, separated from her brother and sisters, one of whom was a child laborer in the mills, another raised in an orphanage. Very occasionally she'd talk about being shuffled from one foster home to another - always hoping for a way to get her family back together again.

Grandfather Otis was far more voluble about his childhood - at least some of it. He'd walked (not run, he insisted) away from his large family at the tender age of nine. Why he left was not to be discussed but - the adventures he had, the practical jokes he'd played, the jobs he'd undertaken - were fair game, much to the delight of his many audiences over the years.

I took those fragments of my grandparents' lives and pushed them back in time a bit so that I could use the canal that once ran through my backyard as a setting. I did a lot of research into local history about the canal and the reasons for his construction and ultimate demise. A few twists and turns along the way and the novel "Through the Lock" was born. That novel will be released this month from Houghton Mifflin.

Third Party Reviews

Because we obviously cannot be objective in reviewing this book we have provided you with excerpts of reviews from other publications.

Booklist, Starred Review

*Part historical fiction, part survival adventure, this story will grab readers from the first page. On the run from her dreary foster home, orphan Etta, 11, finds shelter in an abandoned cabin near the newly developed canal in nineteenth-century Connecticut. A boy Walter confronts her; it's his house. What's she doing there? Reluctantly he allows her to stay. Used to being alone, he is grim, compulsively tidy, and tight-lipped, answering in monosyllables when she tries to find out why he left home. "Good grief!" he shouts, "Will you never stop?" Gradually, the children do open up to one another and begin to draw other people into the home they build on the canal. Etta and Walter's terse conversations, anguished and funny, are the best part of the book, and the history is fascinating, including what the canal means to the community. Walter is thrilled to be part of the new engineering, but the local farmers are threatened by it, and the story reveals why. There's the same complexity in individual people. Etta's dream is to reunite her family, but her brother prefers to stay on the farm he loves, and her older sister wants the sociality of town, even though her work in the mill is harsh. A long episode about the death of Walter's father and the disposal of the body is not as taut as the scenes in the cabin. What will hold readers is the elemental drama of friendship and building a home.


Hurst paints a vivid picture of a New England teetering all unknowing on the precipice of radical change; Etta's narration is never heavy-handed or over-explanatory, however (nor preachy-- her older sister is quite happy with the millwork that allows her financial independence and a more urbanized life), and the story keeps a firm focus on the three youngsters' attempts to eke out a living and control their own destiny ... readers intrigued by Ellen Howard's story of British canals, "The Gate on the Wall", will want to check out their account of this American counterpart.

Horn Book

The Farmington Canal, built early in the nineteenth century, ran from New Haven to Northampton, Massachusetts. Along this canal, Etta, an eleven-year-old orphan escaping from the servitude of "foster care," takes refuge in an abandoned foreman's cottage. The cottage is already occupied by Walter, twelve, who's hiding from his abusive, alcoholic father. The children spar at first, but begin to bond when faced with Walter's father, who tracks down his son, drinks himself into a stupor, and dies. In the book's most dramatic passage, the children haul his stiff corpse several miles over the snow to his home for burial. More action arises from the vigorous local opposition to the canal, both from its competitors in towns along the river and from farmers whose land had been summarily commandeered for the project. Meanwhile, a third child joins the m‚nage; the children get official permission to stay together in a larger lock-keeper's cottage, on condition that Walter's mother will live there as well; and Etta tries to get her brother and sister to join them. In fact, the story is essentially the familiar one of wayfaring children joining forces for a new family group, briskly told and nicely integrated here with a little-known, and revealing, piece of social history. In an afterword, the author explains that Etta and Walter's circumstances are based loosely on the experiences of her own grandparents. Copyright 2001 The Horn Book, Inc. All rights reserved.

School Library Journal

Gr 5-8-Etta Prentice, an 11-year-old orphan in Connecticut in the first half of the 19th century, runs away from her foster home and meets Walter, a boy living in an abandoned cabin on the New Haven and Northampton Canal. He conveys his love of canals and locks to Etta as they manage to eke out a living together while also having some adventures. Losing the corpse of Walter's drunkard father while dragging him on a long sled headed for home is one of the more memorable ones. While Etta is unable to fulfill her dream of having her brother and sister join her, she does learn that families don't have to live under the same roof to be connected. The author touches on many issues of the time: the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and mill girls, slavery, immigration, Shakers, and the controversial canals themselves. Hurst does an admirable job of presenting a topic not often found in historical novels for young readers. This well-researched, first-person narrative contains a brief glossary and an afterword of explanation. A minor quibble: one of the seven terms in the glossary is "Eh-yah," a slang variation of yes, still heard in Maine. Judging from the bumper stickers here, that's "Ayuh."-Connie Tyrrell Burns, Mahoney Middle School, South Portland, ME. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

Kirkus Reviews

A runaway orphan's search for a settled home ends along the banks of a newly constructed Connecticut canal in this early 19th century adventure, loosely based on Hurst's own family history. Eager to find a place where she can be reunited with her separated brother and sister, Etta stumbles upon a seemingly abandoned canal foreman's shack. The cabin's not empty, however. Walter, a taciturn agemate hiding out from his abusive, alcoholic father has claimed it already, and isn't exactly welcoming. Etta's not one to beat a quiet retreat, though. Soon the two are working together, surreptitiously hauling in supplies and trying to dispose of the corpse of Walter's father, who puts in a sudden appearance before proceeding to drink himself to death. Etta and Walter make an engaging pair, and their efforts to give Walter's father a proper burial turn into a comedy of errors thanks to a too-helpful younger friend. In the end, coming to accept that her sibs are happy enough where they've ended up, Etta finds a place of her own, and a paying job too, helping to protect that stretch of the canal from threatened local farmers. It's a satisfying outcome for a quick-paced tale that will please Paulsen and Kathleen Karr fans.

Book Jacket Description

Etta and her brother and sister, wards of the state of Massachusetts in 1840, have been parceled off to separate foster homes. Determined to gather her family back together and create a secure home for herself and her siblings, Etta has run away from the last in a long string of foster homes, resolved to find a place where they can live as a family. In her search, she encounters Walter, a young runaway who is hiding out from his alcoholic father in a cabin on the New Haven and Northampton Canal. Before she can get her own family together, Etta gets caught up in Walter's problems, which include the transportation of a body up a mountain in the dead of night, convincing the canal company to hire them as a security team, and catching the vandals who are determined to sabotage the canal.