Crows & Cards
Twelve-year-old Zebulon Crabtree doesn’t want to be steaming down the Mississippi on a riverboat in 1849. His father is sending him to be apprenticed to a tanner, which he considers a very unexciting profession. An opportunity to change his fate arises when gambler Chilly Larpenteur tries to persuade him to become his assistant. After Chilly loses the tanner’s apprenticeship fee in a card game, Zeb has few alternatives.
In St. Louis, the gambler guides Zeb to an inn run by his partners, where they fix up a cupboard for Zeb to hide in so he can spy on the players and signal which cards the victims hold. Chilly justifies himself by saying that an honest rich man wouldn’t be gambling to try to increase his fortune, but when Zeb expresses his doubts, Chilly uses force to make him continue spying. Then Chilly arranges to cheat a blind Indian chief and his beautiful daughter out of a medicine pouch and other valuables. Zeb thinks he knows a way to help them outwit Chilly and his gang, and maybe escape from his enforced apprenticeship.
This Twain-influenced adventure story will make young readers both think and laugh. The tone is often humorous, though serious questions such as what makes someone a gentleman, and whether cheating is ever acceptable, form some of the themes. Helgerson uses a single, clever footnote to lure young readers to consult the over 60 pages of historical background materials: “Proceed with caution. That dictionary’s filled with words and foreign phrases that have been dying off in these parts since the time of this story. There’s no telling what diseases you might catch from them.” An afterword explains what life was really like in the 1840s for white and Native American children, and slaves.