The Devil’s Paintbox
Orphaned and starving, sixteen-year-old Aiden Lynch and his younger sister Maddy struggle to survive on their family’s dried up Kansas farm. In the spring of 1865, Jefferson J. Jackson rides onto their land looking for men to work the Seattle lumber camps. Desperate to keep his sister alive, Aiden pledges more than a year’s wages to pay the cost of traveling in Jackson’s wagon train.
Thus begins an odyssey of adventure, danger, and terrible loss along the Oregon Trail and beyond. During the journey, Aiden forges a friendship with a trio of Nez Perce Indians who save him from drowning. He bonds most closely with Tupic, a boy who learned English at a missionary school and translates for the others. When smallpox—the “devil’s paint”—threatens Tupic’s people, Aiden must decide how far he’s willing to go to help them. After all, he is one of the few non-Indians to feel the native tribes are worth saving.
One might think the hardships of the Oregon Trail combined with the horrors of a smallpox epidemic would make for a very dark read, but Mckernan has crafted a tale that seamlessly weaves in historical detail while maintaining a momentum that keeps the reader glued to the page. Gritty scenes of hardship abound, yet the author balances them with moments of suspense and humor. Though her plot hinges on an extensive cast of supporting players, her deft characterization ensures that each person Aiden encounters is a complex and discrete individual. Mckernan’s prose is both straightforward and lyrical, and the poignant character arc she creates for Aiden commands our sympathy. Savvy adolescents, teens, and adults will enjoy the novel, though parents should keep in mind that it contains strong language, violence, and references to sexual situations.