A Difficult Boy

Written by M. P. Barker
Review by Sonia Gensler

In 1843, nine-year-old Ethan is indentured to Mr. Lyman, a wealthy Massachusetts shopkeeper. Ethan must work with Daniel, an older Irish boy who at first seems angry and unsociable for no reason. Ethan softens toward him, however, when he realizes that Daniel keeps up his grim façade as a shield against abuse and ethnic prejudice. Together they endure long days of hard work and angry beatings from their employer. Having no one but each other, they form an unsteady friendship, a bond that gains strength when Daniel teaches Ethan how to ride Lyman’s spirited mare, Ivy. Such unsupervised moments are rare, and both know there is no permanent escape from their life of hard labor and abuse. But when Ethan uncovers incriminating secrets from Lyman’s past, the boys realize escape could be possible if they are willing to risk the danger of exposing such a prominent man.

This well-researched historical places the reader squarely in the world of a 19th-century rural community in New England. A former costumed historical interpreter and archivist, Barker has in-depth knowledge of daily life in this time period; she also possesses the skill to make these details tangible for her readers. As protagonists, Ethan and Daniel are effectively developed and sympathetic, while the antagonists are appropriately nuanced. The resolution verges on being pat with its meticulous tying up of plot threads, but most readers should find it satisfying. The book is intended for 9-12 year-olds, but teens and adults will also appreciate the rich language and detail.