A Voice for Kanzas

Written by Debra McArthur
Review by Kathryn Johnson

This young adult novel speaks to the heart of writers everywhere, young and old, throughout time. When Lucy, the young protagonist, is warned, “You can’t clothe your family in poetry,” we hear the often-repeated cautionary messages of parents, teachers, and all of those not bitten by the bug that tempts the literary minded into the sheltering world of words.

Lucy Thomkins is thirteen years old and a poet. She lives in Kansas before it became a state, in 1855 when some men are determined, no matter the cost, to make Kansas a state where it is legal to own a human being – a slave state. But Lucy knows of others who believe as she does, that Kansas should be a free state for everyone regardless of race. And when she meets an Indian boy and then a family who helps runaway slaves reach safety, she knows she will need to choose how to use her words for the greater good. Or maybe step outside of her cozy poetry into a less comfortable or even dangerous place.

Some of the loveliest elements of this novel, aside from the strong, clear prose, are the added gifts of Lucy’s poetry, scattered throughout the book. In addition, the author has inserted snippets of historical documents (real or fictional) that lend an authentic flavor to the story and provide a brittle, sometimes shocking glimpse into the times. We see a price list for goods in 1855 Lawrence, Kansas, editorials from the local newspaper Herald of Freedom, and statements from settlers revealing the extreme tension and harshness of living in those times. This is McArthur’s first novel, and a most impressive one it is.