The Devil’s Paintbox
Victoria McKernan

Random House Childrens books
Hardcover/368 pages
ISBN: 0-375837507
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". . .a wonderful mélange of wild and cultivated ingredients. . ."

The Devil’s Paintbox: Adventure, death and hardship on the Oregon Trail.

Aiden and Maddy Lynch survived a brutal winter and the death of their family members, but they won’t survive much longer. There is little cornmeal left, and they must eke out clay from the riverbank near their fire-ravaged Kansas farm to eat. Then Jefferson J. Jackson arrives looking for men to join his wagon train and work in the logging camps in Oregon. He doesn’t think much of Aiden and Maddy’s chances of survival on the Oregon Trail. He isn’t about to put up the $200 it will cost to take them along just to lose it when both kids die. But Aiden and Maddy convince him to take them with him. Aiden will stand good for the $200 by working in the logging camp as long as it takes. Grudgingly, Jackson agrees. The kids don’t have much, a couple of quilts, Aiden’s bow and arrows and some books, but they’re soon on their way.

Once on the trail, with food in their bellies and help from other members of the wagon train, Aiden and Maddy come back to life. Aiden trudges the long weary miles, becoming stronger and filling out. Maddy blooms into a confident young woman and is touched by love for the first time. The way is hard. Graves, illness and hardship mark the trail. Adventure, excitement and new friends greet them on the path until a river crossing devastates the party and changes Aiden and Maddy’s prospects for a new life in Oregon.

With a strong voice that lays bare the raw brutality of hardship and life in the years following the Civil War, Victoria McKernan creates a lasting memory with The Devil’s Paintbox. Salted among the ugly realities of life in the late 1800s are surprising and breathtaking moments of beauty, creating a landscape of what it must have been like for settlers, veterans of the war and entrepreneurs.

McKernan’s historically accurate facts are as much a part of the story as Aiden and Maddy’s struggles, triumphs and failures. Each one of the characters, even the minor characters, is clearly drawn, as is the landscape and the history. Each moment of death, rebirth and living becomes a poignant and moving experience. The Devil’s Paintbox is a wonderful mélange of wild and cultivated ingredients that lingers long after it is finished.


Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell