Monday, November 5, 2007


LaFaye, A. 2004. Worth. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 1416913211

Plot summary
Eleven year old Nate suffers a farm injury that makes him unable to help on the family farm. His father decides that he needs help and brings in orphan John Worth to help. Nate feels that he is being worthless and being replaced. While Nate is going to school, John is learning how to work on the farm. As the two boys get to know one another, they find that they are more alike than they realized.

Critical analysis
Each chapter of this book is named. The story is told from 11 year old Nate Peales's point of view and carries an informal tone. After an accident mangles his leg, he feels like a freeloader "lying around" (11) not able to help his dad.

When Nate first goes to school, a "place like a root cellar--dirt walls, air choked up with must and bugs" (34), he finds out that he's not book smart. "They'd all studied things like map knowing. Called it a geo-something or other" (28). He feels like "pretty much all the kids hated me" which is a common idea among adolescents.

The setting is Nebraska, but the time is not specific. The reader can gather from the clues given in the text that this story takes place before automobiles (or at least before the automobile reached the rural farmlands), as the mode of transportation is horse-drawn wagon. "The jingle of tack and the rumble of the wagon said Pa headed out for town" (17). When the family moved to Nebraska, they furnished their house by Ma's "tinkering." "Brought in most of our house by tinker trade....We got an old table for fixing a brush rake....Chairs came to us through piecework" (13).

The reader also learns that living on a farm is not a glorified place. There is always something to be done and the threat of losing the crops is constant. Before moving to Nebraska, the reader learns that "locusts ate up all we had, left us with nothing to live on for the winter or pay the bank with, so Pad had to give them our farm" (25).

When Nate cannot work, Pa finds John Worth, a boy about Nate's age, from the Orphan Train. At first, Nate is resentful of John. "The only hint of happiness I got was when I heard Pa shouting at John Worth for doing something city dumb again" (38). As the story unfolds, Nate learns that John's life has been hard and unfair. too. Nate's mother is not happy about bringing in a child from a "no-account family" (31) but changes her mind some when she learns that John's family died in a tenement fire.

Due to a choking accident, the Peales' family lost a one year old child. Missy is not mentioned very often in the book, but it is one of the ties that bring Nate and John closer. Nate realizes that losing his sister is similar, but not as awful, as John losing his entire family to fire. Their relationship becomes less hostile and more friendly when they discover that there are similarities between the two of them. When John explains that he was scared running at night in the country, Nate remembers helping his mother one time in Chicago. "He [John] was afraid of the country and all the dangers he couldn't understand, just like me in the city" (87). I think that young readers can relate to this universal truth that we are more alike than we might at first realize.

Another aspect of history that LaFaye writes about is the highly emotional range wars. The battle of fencing in one's land became an issue as the country's population moved west. Cutting fences to let the cattle graze was a hanging offense. At the end of the story, Nate and John work together to stop fence cutters.

When I first picked up this book, I thought the title would be something about self-esteem (worth) and was tickled when I saw that "worth" was symbolic and one of the main character's names. When I finished the book and read the "About the Author" page, I was surprised at myself for assuming that the writer was male. Alexandria LaFaye writes a believable story from a male point of view.

Review excerpts
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "LaFaye paints a realistic picture of the hardships for average families at the time the Orphan Train rode the rails."
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "The author convincingly conveys the boys' gradual realization of the value of one another's friendship....A satisfying piece of historical fiction."

*Have a guest speaker bring in "props" from living on a farm, such as a pair of fence cutters or a wagon wheel to give students an idea of what life on a 19th century farm looked like.
*Have students write about a time when they discovered that someone was different than they first thought. How did their relationship change? Did the realization bring them closer or make them grow farther apart?
*Read more about Greek mythology (like Nate did at school) or books about settling Nebraska.
Bunting, Eve. Dandelions. ISBN 0152024077

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