Thursday, April 07, 2011

Precious Resource: The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt

"When I was a boy, my pa dowsed to earn estra money when we had a lean year. And when he put the branch in my hands for the first time, I felt a burning inside me because I had the gift, too.

Just be thankful I didn't hand the gift down to you."

Amos figured it was probably best not to tell his father that it was too late.

It is 1833 when Jake leaves his new wife Delilah for the winter's trapping, and when he returns, he finds her dead and his motherless newborn being cared for by his brother Gil and his wife Rebecca. Childless, Rebecca loves Amos from the first moment he is put in her waiting arms, and Jake, restless, born with wander foot, gladly hands Amos over her and heads out to the mountains again in the fall.

But life on the frontier is hard, especially on its women, and when Rebecca dies of fever, Amos is passed to the care of neighbor Henrietta Block, to be raised with and by her four older boys. Amos is a self-contained child, and although pained deeply by the death of the dearly loved Rebecca, thrives under Henrietta's no-nonsense care.

But when Jake returns in 1841 with a Shoshone wife, Blue Owl, it is for Amos that he has come, and Amos begins a new life, one that will lead him to a long journey on the Oregon Trail. Amos is fortunate in his succession of mothers, for Blue Owl's first act is to make him moccasins to relieve the blisters caused by his boots as they begin their long walk to St. Louis. There Jake hires out as a scout and hunter in a wagon train, and as the group makes its way west, Amos grows from a child to a young man.

Life, death, and the depth of human bonds is at the center of Kimberly Willis Holt's sweeping novel of the westward movement, spanning decades in the history of one extended family as Amos survives the trek and builds a life in Oregon. Disappointed in his first love, Amos finds a deeper love with an unlikely young woman and at last returns to his gift of finding water for his newfound community.

Holt's latest, The Water Seeker (Henry Holt, 2010), combines gritty realism with a touch of magical realism in the form of Delilah's fierce but protective spirit, appearing, not to Amos (except in her avatar form as a bird), but to the succession of mothering women who anchor his life. As Kirkus Reviews says of this book "Drawing on such diverse themes as Manifest Destiny, personal identity and cross-cultural relationships, the author has crafted a satisfying all-ages story that hosts a dazzling array of richly realized secondary characters (including Jake's scene-stealing second wife, Blue Owl) and flows as effortlessly as the Platte River."

Jennifer Willis s Holt is the author of the award-winning My Louisiana Sky and the Newbery When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (Saddleback's Focus on Reading Study Guides), as well as her popular beginning chapter Piper Reed series.

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