Benjamin Ward drops out of school to work at the Blackwater Logging Camp in Minnesota. His father, the cook, is proud of his work, and Ben is his assistant, his cookee. It's winter, 1898, and Ben would prefer to be helping the loggers out at the cut, but for now he is cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry and carrying wood. Blackwater Ben is the charming story of Ben's existence among men in an isolated part of the world. The young boy is surrounded by an assortment of odd characters, including Charlie, the "dentist," who sharpens the teeth of crosscut saws, Wally Lofquist, a pencil pusher (clerk) and champion grouch, and Windy, the bull cook (a general maintenance man), who is toothless and whose words have a "mushy sound to them." Though Ben isn't living his dream of helping the loggers, he finds himself becoming a part of the community. The men like to play tricks on him. One day, for example, Poultice Pete and Ed Day return with the bad news that Slim Cantwell has been killed, his crushed body placed in the cellar to stay cool until the funeral. When Ben and his friend Nevers have to go to the cellar for molasses, Ben hears the corpse's muffled voice say, "I'm cold." Slim is alive, of course, and all of the old-timers had been in on the joke. The boys get even one day when they lace the loggers' beans with castor oil, and it looks as if they are beginning to give as well as they get in this rugged community. By the end of the story, Ben and Nevers decide to sign up as log drivers. William Durbin has done his research and knows his subject matter well. He clearly relishes the lumberjack culture the lingo, the tall tales and his depiction of the everyday lives of cookees, sky pilots, dentists, wood butchers, groundhogs, road monkeys, swampers and top loaders is sure to appeal to young readers. This is a satisfying tale rooted in lively characters and a strong sense of place.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.