It's hard for modern North Americans to think of New York as a wild untamed wilderness. New York City today is the capital of the world, a center for art and culture, and home to Godzilla's favorite buffet. Back in 1756 it wasn't so. New York was a British colony, populated primarily by Dutch immigrants, and troubled by French and Indian invaders from the North.
This is the rural New York of Walter D. Edmonds's The Matchlock Gun, a brief historical adventure set during the French and Indian War of the mid-18th century. When 10-year-old Edward's father Teunis Van Alstyne goes off with the militia to defend the colony from restless Indians, it falls on Edward and his Mama to defend the family farm and six-year-old Trudy from harm.
Edward (pronounced "Ateoord" by the Dutch) wants his father to take the blunderbuss that hangs above the fireplace, but Teunis derides the gun as "nonsensical" and "old-fashioned." Instead, Teunis takes his musket, which is lightweight and much easier to load and shoot. The blunderbuss, a family heirloom of Mama's, remains at home.
When Indians begin to raid and Edward's father fails to come home quickly, it's up to Mama and Edward to fight off the scalping warriors sure to find their farm. The Indians do discover the unprotected cabin, and Edward becomes a hero by shooting three of them with a single discharge.
There are no wasted words or details here. Edmonds doesn't try to make The Matchlock Gun about more than it's actually about, which is simply the bravery of a young boy and his mother in the face of fear and threat. Edmonds's prose is well-crafted, and his accompanying drawings lend atmosphere and visual detail to the fast-paced story.
If there's a weak element, it's Edmonds's depiction of Trudy, who acts more like a 3-year-old than a 6-year-old. This isn't a huge problem as Trudy doesn't play a particularly prominent role, but he does end the book with a quote from her that is a little corny because it doesn't fit her age.
The Matchlock Gun would be a classic whether it had earned the Newbery Medal or not. It's exciting, easy to read, and short, yet a serious work of art for younger readers. There's also a wealth of historical detail (this is apparently based on a true story) that illuminates both the tale itself and the actions of the characters. A rewarding book for young and old readers alike.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.