Saturday, April 24, 2004

Grape Thief

Franklin, Kristine L. 2003. GRAPE THIEF. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 0763613258 [Suggested Grade Levels 5-8]

Slava Petrovich, better known as “Cuss” for his ability to swear in 14 different languages, lives for school, his family, and raiding the annual grape train. In Roslyn, WA in 1925, the local “ethnics” subsidize their meager coal-mining wages with bootleg alcohol made from California grapes. When Cuss’s older brothers must leave town due to an altercation with the mob, he finds himself confronted with the dilemma of staying in school or going to work to provide for his family. Cuss is an exceptional student, and his mother desperately wishes for him to go as far in school as possible. Just when he finally comes to a decision, the mines begin laying men off, and the search for work leads Cuss to attempt a drastic plan to runaway and find his brothers. Luckily, he changes his mind at the last minute and returns home to find that his dreams of pursuing his education may come true.

Because of the many different cultures represented in Roslyn, there is a strong theme of family devotion running throughout the story. Tied to that is the importance of religious faith. The somewhat unusual twist is Cuss’s tremendous love of school and learning while all his friends are eager to be finished with it. Humor helps propel the story, preventing too much sentimentality. The plot keeps the excitement level high. Fistfights, mobsters, train hopping, juvenile pranks, and of course, multilingual wisecracks provide variety and action. The uniqueness of this story makes it appealing and readable. Based on Franklin’s family stories, it is a historical perspective rarely presented.

Use this book when studying the 1920s to bring in a different perspective from the standard view of flappers, jazz, and economic abundance.

Study some of the historical happenings of the 1920s that have a major impact on the story, such as Prohibition and the emerging use of oil instead of coal for fuel. Discuss how such “far away” events can affect a little place like Roslyn.

Other historical fiction with similar settings and themes:
Curtis, Christopher Paul. BUD, NOT BUDDY. ISBN 0385323069
Holm, Jennifer L. OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA. ISBN 0060278226
Lowry, Lois. THE SILENT BOY. ISBN 0618282319

By Amy D. Picard

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