St. Paul Pioneer Press Dead Man’s Rapids Review

August 15, 2017


From St. Paul Pioneer Press 7/7/17, Mary Ann Grossman

Dead Man’s Rapids
By William Durbin and Barbara Durbin
(University of Minnesota Press, $16.95).

Adventure stories are always appealing to kids, especially boys, but this account of life on a logging cook boat will interest adults, too. A sequel to the Durbins’ “Blackwater Ben,” this book begins in 1899. It’s been a year since Ben and his friend Nevers worked with Ben’s Pa in a logging camp where their main excitement was peeling potatoes. So the boys are excited about helping Pa in the wanigan (floating cook shack) on a 100-mile-long log drive worked by tough men called “river pigs.” But Pa decides to stay behind to woo Mrs. Wilson, owner of a boarding house and the woman who almost raised Ben. Pa’s replacement is a sausage-loving, one-eyed, greasy German cook, Old Sard, a cranky dude who is known for his bad food, including stinky sausages hung above the boys’ bunks.

Learning to cook pancakes and bake the heavy bread Sard favors keeps the boys busy. When the wanigan is moved several times a day, the boys sometimes have to hang on tight when they go over rapids. The authors draw wonderful portraits of the loggers, who are divided into crews according to tasks. A near-giant named Hungry Mike is the boys’ friend and mentor, and they learn during the journey Sard has attributes they never expected.

The story makes clear logging is a cold, hard, dangerous business. A man could fall into the water and drown when logs floated over him, or break a limb. Minnesotans know about log jams, because we’ve seen pictures of the historic jam at Taylors Falls in 1865.

The authors give just enough information about logging, including illegal clear cuts, to bring history to life without getting bogged down in details. Ben and Nevers behave exactly the way you’d expect 11-year-olds to behave, alternately self-sufficient, scared, lonely. But it ends with their laughter, and we hope we’ll share their adventures in future books as they mature.

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