Book Review: A Difficult Boy

A Difficult Boy
M.P. Barker
Grade 5  and up
272 pages

It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with 1830s rural New England.  So when I found A Difficult Boy, a wonderful, historically accurate, book set in 1839 Massachusetts, I was ecstatic.  I loved the book!  And not just because of the setting. The novel was well written, well plotted and had a cast of characters I couldn’t help but fall in love with.  The setting was just icing on the cake. M.P. Barker’s A Difficult Boy is a page turner that will please all ages.

Ethan’s family is in trouble.  His father, a farmer, owes a substantial amount of money to Mr. Lyman, a wealthy shopkeeper and landowner.  To help pay off his debt and save the family’s farm, nine-year old Ethan is indentured to Mr. Lyman.  When he arrives at his new home, he meets Daniel, a moody, sixteen year-old Irish boy.  Orphaned at a young age, Mr. Lyman took Daniel in as an indentured servant.  Daniel has become a sullen and irritable boy after years of abuse, both verbal and physical, at the hands of Mr. Lyman.  When Mr. Lyman’s blows start to fall on Ethan as well, the boys overcome their differences and learn to depend on each other to make it through each day.

The novel moves at a good pace and has a variety of characters that each add something unique to the story—from Ethan’s good heartedness, to Daniel’s surliness, and even Mr. Lyman’s cruelty.  Even though the novel is told from Ethan’s point of view, the story is really about Daniel.  And even though we are never privy to Daniel’s thoughts, through Ethan we learn to fall in love with him.

Historically, this book is pretty accurate (I know the author has said she’s found a few mistakes, but I didn’t notice any.)  I’ve done more than my fair share of research on this time period, and I was very impressed.  The little details—from milking cows, to preparing dinner, to mealtimes, and even a walk in a pasture—that the author managed to work in throughout the novel painted a wonderful picture of a rural New England farm family and the hardships they faced day in and day out.  The author doesn’t shy away from the hard topics either as she paints a vivid picture of the prejudice many of the Puritans had toward the Catholic Irish at the beginning of the 19th century.    I was really impressed by how Ms. Barker managed to work in these details to aid the story and advance the plot.

I’m pretty picky about historical fiction.  I love to read it, but it takes a lot to really impress me.  This book did just that.  It’s got everything I could ask for: a strong plot, interesting, believable, and three dimensional characters, and a setting that comes alive on the pages.  I wholeheartedly recommend A Difficult Boy.


2 Responses to Book Review: A Difficult Boy

  1. raven allen says:

    hi im doing a project on this book and i was wondering if you could help me with the conflict. is it ethan and daniel vs. mr lyman? im confused please help me? thank you.

  2. The Damsels says:

    Hi Jessica. Conflict is basically tension, right. Who’s causing the problems and who are the problems between. So let’s try and answer these questions:
    1) What does Mr. Lyman do to Daniel? (How does he treat him?)
    2) What does Mr. Lyman do to Ethan? (How does he treat him?)

    Create a list. One for Daniel and one for Ethan. And write down your ideas/answers.

    After that, next to each of the ideas on your list answer the question: How does that create problems.

    For example: Mr. Lyman beats Daniel. How does that create problems? –> Daniel can’t fight back or leave because he’s indentured to Mr. Lyman and so he has to put up with it.

    Look at your list and see if you see an overall theme run throughout them. That theme is probably the main cause of “conflict” in the novel.

    Read through the Author interview too. She might help you understand the character struggles better.

    Hope this helps.

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