Written by Marguerite de Angeli, this book was first copyrighted in 1939. It is listed as a historical fiction novella. The story is about a boy named Eli, whose family leaves Germany to find religious freedom in America. They make their new home in a community of Mennonites living in Pennsylvania.
The family consists of the father (Pop), mother, Eli, Sibilla who is four years old and a baby sister, Barbara Ann, who is born on the ship. Their voyage takes ten weeks on The Charming Nancy. Two oxen and a cow travel on board the ship with them.
A cousin, Jacob, gave Pop land, which was marked at the corner by a “great butternut tree”. (p.17) As soon as they arrive, neighbors come to help cut trees and build a cabin for Eli’s family. The women cooked and kept everyone fed.
Eli and his dad built furniture for the cabin, and a shelter for the cattle. Eli started a special project of building a fireplace bench with a carved border for his mother to replace one she had to leave behind. His only regret is that soon he has to start school. He has never liked school and has not been diligent to learn his letters, even when his mother tried to teach him during their voyage.
School starts on a Monday not long after the cabin is finished. This section of the book introduces the Schoolmaster who through wisdom, prayer, and use of the Bible begins to help make changes in Eli’s behavior.
The Schoolmaster, Master Christopher Dock, begins Eli’s education with the proper way to “answer any man”. (p. 27) The first assignment given to Eli is to learn his letters. A school mate, Amos, is assigned to teach him. The schoolmaster awards the students for learning well with sugar pretzels, reading passages of the Bible to the younger children, and letting them help him make pencils. Other awards are trips to German Town, and beautiful painted pictures of birds with Bible verses that the Schoolmaster makes.
The schoolmaster ends each day with these words, “Now God bless you all and bring you back safe in the morning.” (p.30)
Each day after school, Eli helps hoe beans, keep the wood box filled and takes care of the cattle. He continues to work on the fireplace bench and the wood carving he designed into it. (P. 32)
The schoolmaster is one of the most interesting characters in the book besides Eli. He uses scripture for correcting wrong behavior. He uses students who are doing things right to guide and correct those who are doing things wrong. Rewards, and punishments are carefully administered.
When Eli breaks a window of the school accidentally, while throwing a ball, he is put under the care of Tobias who has done well in school that week. He also receives the punishment of having to go home and tell his parents what he had done. (P.40)
Pop decides that Eli has to pay for the broken window by selling the bench he is carving for his mother.
Eli tries harder in school and is rewarded by being allowed to make lead pencils. To make the pencils, they heat lead on a stove, pour it in cracks in the floor and let it cool. Once cooled, they dig the pieces out with a knife to use for making “clear marks” on paper. (p.45)
Eli continues to get in trouble in school. One day he forgets his lunch basket at school and hurries back for it. He enters the school quietly and finds the schoolmaster down on his knees praying, “And Eli Shrawder, O Lord, he is not a bad boy, but he is so full of mischief. Help me to show him how to use his time aright. He has a sweet singing voice too, but thou knowest that sometimes he uses that voice to say mischief—” (p. 48) Eli slips away unnoticed and ashamed.
The Schoolmaster teaches part time at the Skippack School and part time at the German Town school. As a treat to Eli for improvements he has made in his behavior since hearing the Schoolmaster’s prayer, the Schoolmaster takes him to spend three days in German Town. After school he is taken to the paper mill and shown how rags are turned into paper. The owner of the paper mill gives him three sheets of paper. Eli makes a journal to write in by folding them in half. The next day he is taken to a printing shop to learn how books are made.
Eli’s world is opened to many things after visiting German Town. It is a life changing experience for him.
Throughout the book lessons are taught from Scripture. Kindness and manners are taught through interactions with others. Eli is receiving a very valuable education.
At the end of the book, Eli is given a wonderful prize from the Schoolmaster as a reward for the changes he has made in his behavior. Read the book to find out what this coveted prize is.
I enjoyed this book so much. It is a great look into what life may have been like as this country was being settled. It teaches about the communities and how the members helped each other and shared what they had like the early church of Acts did. It is a great book to look at how reliance on Scripture can get you through each day and guide you to do right things. It is an amazing book for learning how to teach a child (the Schoolmaster used many useful techniques to help the children learn).
I highly recommend this book for children. It can be read to younger children or used as a chapter book for older children. I highly recommend it for adults as a teaching tool for dealing with children and encouraging them to learn in positive ways.
**A special thank you to my daughter, Allison Martin, for sharing wonderful literature for me to review. Since she homeschools she is a great resource for books that provide good reading material for students.