Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart. Scholastic, 2016. 240 pages.
What It Is: Horses + adventure + Western + voice + diversity + grit + courage + all. the. feels = a great read. (Or, a fast-paced adventure novel about a boy and his horse (set in Washington state in the 1890s)).
What It’s About: There are plenty of orphan stories, horse and boy stories, and Western adventures. Gemeinhart manages to roll them all up in one along with a young Chinese boy, some bonafide villains, and lots of wilderness survival. Joseph is on his own, bravely tracking down his beloved pony. He befriends a Chinese boy named Ah-Kee. Their friendship is natural and crosses language barriers because they both understand sorrow and longing–not to mention their shared boyishness and humor. The last couple of chapters are a bit over the top, but this is an adventure novel and they flow with the rest. A great read all in all.
What Works: the main character’s moral integrity, the manner in which diversity is handled, and the constant action and adventure.
Joseph’s moral integrity rings true and is clearly based on the teaching he had from his parents. He’s not overly religious; rather, he consciously chooses to the do the right thing (often at great cost to himself), he consistently treats others–no matter their race/gender/appearance/behavior–with respect, and he shows real courage.
Gemeinhart never lets us hear Ah-Kee actually speak because Joseph can’t understand him. I love this: how many young Chinese boys in the 1890s would have spoken English anyway? This lets us see Ah-Kee through the white character’s eyes rather than a 21st century white man’s attempt to understand what Ah-Kee might have been feeling/thinking. Kudos, Mr. Gemeinhart, for walking this delicate tightrope of historical fiction so well. The Native Americans seem to be treated with similar respect, but the section focusing on them is much shorter.
This is a book that will hook readers and keep them on the line until the very last page. The ending is just right, too–happy, but not without its own pathos. This grown-up reader shed some tears. The last couple of chapters are a bit over the top, but this is an adventure novel and they flow with the rest. A great read all in all.
What Doesn’t Work: Not much! Personally, I could have done without the frequent “3rd commandment violations,” but they’re easy to skip over in a read aloud and flow with the Western-sounding talk.
What You Need to Know: towards the end, especially, there’s one fairly violent scene as Joseph confronts an outlaw. Guns are fired, people are wounded, etc. If you have especially sensitive children, perhaps wait on this one a year or so.
What to Use it For: Recommended for 4th grade and up (3rd as a read aloud, depending on your children’s maturity). A good choice for independent reading lists, for “strewing” about the house in hopes someone will pick it up, for working into a historical study, or for class/group discussion.