The Devil’s Paintbox begins in April 1865. At the close of the Civil War, 16-year-old Aiden Lynch and his younger sister, Maddy, are near starvation, the sole survivors on their family’s Kansas farm. So when a man named Jefferson Jackson shows up looking to recruit workers for a Seattle lumber camp, Aiden knows his only chance is to convince the man that taking them along is worth the risk.
In this compelling coming-of-age adventure for teens, Victoria McKernan, author of the acclaimed Shackleton’s Stowaway for middle-grade readers, doesn’t shy away from some of the grittier aspects of life in the old West. Aiden’s journey is marked by hardship, tragedy and conflict. Through Aiden’s experiences, readers glimpse a changing world, where settlers, soldiers, timber workers, Civil War veterans, women and Native Americans struggle for existence.
Aiden is a likeable, engaging hero, and the secondary characters stand out as real individuals of the time. For instance, the wagon train’s doctor is a man trying to recover from his war experiences. A young woman Aiden meets explains why she is forced to make her living as a prostitute. McKernan also captures the dramatic, often random events that transformed people’s lives: a difficult crossing, an encounter with a rattlesnake, an outbreak of disease.
Smallpox and its tragic effects on Native Americans are major themes of the novel. The book gets its title from the words of a doctor describing this dreaded disease: “This death is a devil child playing with a paintbox, just spattering all over. You reach out to grab its hand and make it stop, but you find this devil child is made of smoke.”
Through his unlikely friendship with Tupic, a Nez Perce boy, Aiden is thrown headfirst into the controversies surrounding the vaccination of Indians against smallpox. The author’s extensive research makes Aiden’s world accessible to readers, whether it’s daily life on a wagon train, or learning to survive in the harsh world of Pacific Northwest timber camps.
The Devil’s Paintbox is a wonderful choice for teens—both boys and girls—who want a break from a diet of fantasy, science fiction and of course, vampires.