The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan

Oregon Trail GameWhen I was a child, my friends and I would huddle around a computer (I’m dating myself; computers were rare way back then) and play a game called The Oregon Trail. It was all the rage. (My goodness, how things have really changed!) I never thought about what it might have been like to actually traverse that path. McKernan’s novel brings it home, makes it personal.

This book is getting some Printz Award buzz. Here is a sample of the beautiful prose:

Aiden had somehow expected to wake up one day and just see the mountains there, tall and snowy and stabbing at the sky like the picture of the Alps in The Atlas of the World. But the horizon crept up so slowly that they appeared at first only as a faint rise on the far edge of the earth, like a line of baby teeth (p 61-62).

The Devils Paintbox by Victoria McKernan

It is the spring of 1865. Having just survived a bitter winter, Aiden and his sister, Maddy, are the lone survivors on their family’s draught-ravaged farm in Kansas. Mr. Jefferson J. Jackson is a trader looking for able men to work as loggers in Washington.

“Timber company outside of Seattle will pay me one hundred dollars for every man I bring in.” He looked the skinny boy over again and hoped he wasn’t going to regret this. “Once there, you’re bound to work it off. It’s hard work. Rough living. Plus costs of your passage owed to me. That’s another hundred dollars. Each. It takes most men a year to work it off and you got her to keep, so figure two.”

Maddy and Aiden go along with Jackson’s wagon train, ending their starvation but opening the way for new dangers. The caravan is full of different people heading west for different reasons, but Aiden and Maddy are the main focus of the narrative. While the others are well described and interesting, we never feel too attached to them. Some will surely die. Their deaths are swift and unexpected but bring home the reality of the dangers each travelers faces. When a group of Indians crosses path with the train, the story widens its scope and never looks back, extending in length even after the wagon train disperses.

The whole story was fascinating and multifaceted. Aiden and Maddy’s development was brilliantly told, the plight of the Indians was not simplified nor their characters stereotypical. I was wondering where the story was going as it dragged a little after Aiden broke off from the group, but I should have had more faith. McKernan showed her readers the rough logging community, the treacherous city and the peaceful calm of Jackson’s trading post and brought it all together with the sly and calculating puppet-master, Napolean Gilivrey, timber company owner. Magnificent.

Read another review at: BCCLS, Plymouth Staff Choices

Vocabulary:

scurvy (p 31), gregarious (p 35), taciturn (p 129), ague (p 135), desultory (p 251), totemic (p 260)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read the Recent Trends in Infant Mortality Rate in the United States (published by the National Center for Health Statistics). How does this information compare to the infant mortality rate as painted by Aiden (p 38)?
  2. After speaking with Marguerite about Doc Carlos, Maddy reflects silently, “It seemed there was no end to the complexities of hurting” (p 58). What does she mean by this? Do you find this to be true as it relates to your life? How are the surviving characters hurting at the novel’s conclusion (consider Aiden, Doc Carlos, Tupic, Annie and Polly, even Napolean Gilivrey)?
  3. The Nez Perce Indians have a different view of religion, nature, man, and the world: “Too much Bible” (p 99), Aesop’s Fables (p 110-12), “Sand Creek changes the way the heart beats in a man.” (p 125), and prayer versus action (p 144-45). What do you think of their views and their different positions on how to deal with white men?  How does Aiden react to them?
  4. The Nez Perce Indians are also confused by Aiden’s description of an orphan (p 148). How are orphans treated today and is it a good system?
  5. When Tupic and Aiden part ways, Tupic says, “In a different world, I would keep you as my friend.” Why couldn’t the two remain friends and how is the world different now? How is it the same?
  6. How does Aiden react to those who insult himself or his sister (p 17,77-78, 233-35)? How does his reaction reflect his physical/mental state, his development, his character/personality? How would you have reacted?
  7. When the army soldiers appear, the Indians are skittish and Aiden becomes suspicious and asks, “Have you done something?” “Yes, we have dome something,” Tupic said sharply. “We were born Indians” (p 115). What does he mean by this? Are there ethnic groups today that might say the same thing about their existance and why? How can we change how they are treated?
  8. Woud you have traveled the Oregon Trail, knowing its dangers and what awaited you at the end? Why do you think people did it?
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6 thoughts on “The Devil’s Paintbox by Victoria McKernan

  1. Wow – great discussion questions! And thanks for the good review. I’m actually in the middle of trying to finish my next book, continuing Aiden’s journey after Devil’s Paintbox, and am somewhat bogged down with various complexities, so just taking a break and decided to google around. Very nice encouragement to find your site. Thanks.

    Victoria

  2. I had no idea you were working on a follow up but I’m very glad to learn it. The Devil’s Paintbox is ripe for discussion and a very enjoyable read. Thank you for writing. My coworker and author of “Neil Armstrong is My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me” also recently went through a tough writing spell but she stuck with it and is now working on her follow up book. I look forward to reading both your works. Is that odd? Wanting to read something before it’s even written or completely conceived? But you both write well… so I think not :)

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  5. I loved the Devil’s Paintbox. Not what I was expecting with very adult themes and issues but should be great for my Teen Reading Club at the library. The descriptions were wonderful and I found myself in tears at times. I, too, am glad Ms. McKernan is publishing a follow-up. Jackie

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