cover image Once on This River

Once on This River

Sharon Dennis Wyeth. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-679-88350-0

Occasionally ponderous execution impedes the flow of this otherwise rewarding novel about an African girl's voyage to America in 1760. Monday and her mother, citizens of Madagascar, have set out for New York City to rescue Monday's uncle, who has been illegally enslaved. The setting is sharply drawn and the background fascinating, showing how a small community of free African Americans flourished in the years before the Revolutionary War. The reader, along with Monday, is plunged into a strange world where some black people are slaves and others are respected professionals and land-owners. In striving to understand her cousins and new friends, Monday learns a shocking secret about her own origins. Unfortunately, the novel gets bogged down in its intricate explanations of how all the characters (and their forebears) came to be in their current situations. The climax, in which a desperate Monday lectures a ship's captain about the evils of slavery, has a forced quality that undercuts much of the subtler groundwork laid earlier. Wyeth (The World of Daughter McGuire) has an imagination equal to her prodigious skills as a researcher, but she has a tendency to toss every pertinent historical fact into the mix rather than keep the focus on her story. Ages 10-13. (Jan.)