Last year, my son recommended that I read Sid Fleischman’s novel By the Great Horn Spoon. He had read it in class as part of the Gold Rush unit and enjoyed it. I agreed but did not immediately follow up on my promise. The picture on the cover showed a muscular bearded man battling a hairy giant. Wrestling is not my favorite topic, nor do I feel particularly enthralled by the gold rush (though I am a huge Jack London fan). After a lot of enthusiastic prodding by the young reader, I finally picked up the book last week and started to read. And I’m so glad I did!
By the Great Horn Spoon is one of those rare books that encourages free thought, creative problem solving skills and faith in oneself. Jack, the main character is a young boy who leaves for California during the gold rush in order to find enough gold to allow his Aunt Arabella to keep her house in Boston. He is accompanied by his butler, Praiseworthy, who discovers Jack’s plot to run away to California and decides to help him.
Praiseworthy and Jack run into many adventures and twists of fate, but they always find resourceful ways to deal with obstacles, whether they are concealing themselves in potato barrels on the ship after their fare money is stolen, rescuing a pig from being butchered and eaten, searching for a treasure map, or digging a grave. And luck follows in their footsteps as though it already knows that resistance is futile: if one thing won’t work the partners will try another, till they strike it rich and rescue Aunt Arabella’s house and memories from being sold.
Jack is faithful to his friends and ever ready to try something new, even if it is bitter coffee mixed with ground acorn. He is a curious boy, hardworking, and brave. But it is Praiseworthy who I found to be a character to remember and learn from.
My favorite scene turned out to be the one illustrated on the cover. Praiseworthy has never wrestled anyone, but he has confidence in his abilities to beat the Mountain Ox who “had a neck like the stump of a tree” and whose chest looked “as big around as a flour barrel.” And why? Because “it stands to reason that the Mountain Ox never read a book in his life. He’s no doubt a mere brawler.” Praiseworthy, himself a great reader, had back in Boston read a book about boxing, and he intends to use that knowledge to good purpose. As he explains: “since I’ve outread him, I see no reason why I can’t outwit and outbox him.”
To Praiseworthy, the knowledge acquired by reading is empowering. As a reader and a writer, I believe that is true. I love books that inspire me and lead me to trust in myself and my talents, and By the Great Horn Spoon sure does both.