The Devil’s Paintbox, by Victoria McKernan, is a historical fiction novel that takes place just after the American Civil War. The story follows Aiden Lynch, a 16 year old boy, and his journey with his sister to from Kansas to Seattle on an Oregon Trail wagon train. During the course of his journey, he meets a tribe of Native Americans who are threatened by smallpox, or the Devil’s paintbox. This book paints a clear picture of life out west, especially the absurd juxtaposition of the defeat of slavery with the callous disregard for the Native people. McKernan does not glorify the time period at all, but the book always avoids becoming overly dark or depressing, even when things are at their bleakest. The Devil’s Paintbox touches on many themes in its winding journey, including racism, poverty, war, and alcoholism. Yet, despite these dark themes, the book has a hopeful message and maintains a focus on its main characters. The Devil’s Paintbox was a surprisingly gripping book to me. I don’t often read historical fiction novels, but Aiden’s story is interesting enough to have come from a made-up universe, yet the fact that it does come from our (fairly recent) history adds another layer to the book. Overall, this book was very interesting and fun to read, and made me consider the time period in a different light. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes fast-paced novels with interesting characters.
Gorgeous compelling Western with themes and action appropriate to High School, adults, and mature middle schoolers. The sequences with Native Americans are (from the point of view of this Anglo) respectful and nuanced and tribe-specific. The search for hope and humanity's goodness amidst so much evidence to the contrary was believable and -- for me -- inspiring. If you have any interest in historical fiction or the western genre. this is a not-to-be missed gem.
When The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan opens in April 1865, Aiden and his sister are barely surviving on their family homestead in Kansas. Over the last winter, their parents and other brothers and sisters have died and they have been reduced to eating dirt to quell their hunger pains. Luckily a wagon train master arrives and although he plans only to take them into the nearest town, Aiden convinces him to allow both himself and his sister to travel west to Seattle to work in the lumber camps.
They are told at the beginning of their journey, “There’s a grave a mile along the Oregon Trail. Aside from disease, there’s storms, Indians, stampedes, and pure awful accident. Anyway you can think up to die is out there.” This dire warning proved true as tragedy indeed struck. The story then makes an abrupt change as we follow Aiden into the lumber camps, but eventually this story evolves into the quest for getting smallpox vaccinations to the Indians.
I felt like I was reading two separate books as the story changed so completely. Either plot would have been an excellent story, but the mash up of the two just left me rather confused. Underlying all was a darkness that hung rather heavily on the pages, making it difficult to see this book as a YA. Although a well written story, I was left a little disappointed as this wasn’t the story I had envisioned.
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