Journey on the C&O Canal

Written by Tovah S. Yavin
Review by G. J. Berger

In the summer of 1909, Mr. Brandt and his wife operate a barge on the 370-mile Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Pairs of mules walk on trails by the canal and pull the barges via long ropes. Mr. Brandt steers the barge, while Mrs. Brandt does all the cooking and laundry and watches over their young daughter.

On this round trip, the Brandts must retrieve an ailing mule left behind with a veterinarian in Georgetown. However, they can’t pay for an added crew member to help with the recovering mule and tend to its wounds, so 12-year-old Gabe Marks gets recruited at no cost, except for his food. Gabe has been raised as a devout Jew. Mrs. Brandt is happy to provide him kosher meals, and Mr. Brandt makes sure to get to Georgetown and a Jewish home by sundown on Friday for the Sabbath.

Gabe quickly learns how to handle the mules as he walks with them for many hours, taking care to not slip on the wet trail and fall into the filthy canal. Wild pigs, a bear, stinging flies and summer storms menace the crew and mules. On the way back from Georgetown, the sickly mule adds to the demands. Gabe’s quiet diligence and keen intelligence help him get through multiple crises.

Gabe and the Brandts have top billing in the story. But the real star of the novel is the entire canal operation, with its 75 locks, lock keepers, other barge operators, and the tireless mules that make it all work. The story should delight and inform fifth through seventh graders about a little-known but important part of how America was built and the strong people and animals who built it.