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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
When thirteen-year-old Daniel’s parents are killed in a house fire that he later discovers was almost certainly started deliberately, because of his father’s support for and shelter given to runaway slaves from the South, Daniel is consumed with anger and thoughts of revenge. In California Trail Discovered by Marie Sontag, Daniel and his younger sister are made wards of one of his father’s friends and must make the journey across the country from Illinois to the Oregon territory, along with other settlers from the east. The long, arduous, and dangerous journey that these wagon trains took back in the 1840s will be a time for Daniel to rapidly grow up and take responsibility for his little step-sister, Hannah, who has problems of her own with her vision and her refusal to speak following her parents’ death in the fire. In this journey across barely marked or defined trails to the west, their wagon trail will come across many dangers and tragedies aplenty that will test the mettle of all concerned and give young Daniel little time to contemplate the burning ache for revenge.
California Trail Discovered is targeted at middle-school readers and there are a number of elements about this book from author Marie Sontag that make it stand out from others in this genre. The setting and period make it excellent for helping youngsters understand what a truly untamed and wild place the central-west of America was back in the 1840s. There are enough real and recognizable historical elements and connections to serve as a wonderful background to the social climate of the time. Daniel and his sister Hannah had both already experienced tragedy in their lives and this served to reinforce the fragility of life for these early pioneers. There was also respect and understanding of the various native American cultures that they encountered. I particularly liked that the author has made the effort to put some searching moral questions at the end of the book for discussion amongst children at class level. Equally pleasing were the additional resources available on the author’s website to enable readers to delve further into some of the issues raised by the narrative. As a teaching tool and as an excellent read for young people looking for adventure and the nature of the true west, I can recommend this read. The author does nothing to glamorize the west or indeed to pull her punches when describing the harsh realities and travails these early settlers had to endure.