Brief Description: 12 yo boy suffering from tuberculosis (consumption) is sent to a clinic inside Mammoth Cave. In spite of being from a slave owning family, he befriends and helps the African American people working there.
Geographical Setting: Kentucky, Mammoth Cave, North America, United States
Historical Era: 1840s, 19th Century
Date Range: 1842
Keywords: African American Slavery, carrier pigeons, caves, Dr. John Croghan, Knights of the Round Table, Materson Bransford, medicine, Nick Bransford, sailor's knots, STEM, Stephen Bishop, tuberculosis (consumption), Underground Railroad
Original Publication: 2016
Suitable for Grades: 4-8th
Target Audience: Middle Grade
After his sea captain father succumbs to tuberculosis, a twelve-year-old similarly afflicted boy is sent from his home in Virginia to a clinic deep within the twisting dark halls of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Sensitive and observant, Elias wiles away his time underground by practicing sailor’s knots and reading The Death of Arthur. He is expected to follow a dreadfully bland diet and quietly cheer up the other, older patients.
An air of mystery pervades every chapter, and not just due to the atmosphere in the cave, “the dark pressing in from every side.” Many adults seem to harbor secrets: what are the doctor’s secret horrid therapies and are they effective? Why don’t the African American slaves, who act as cave tour guides, let Elias explore the cave with them? What does the unfriendly and demanding Mr. Pennyrile, a fellow patient, want from him? And is the quiet whisper he hears one evening really a “ghost?”
As Elias, whose own family in Virginia owns slaves, gets to know the African American tour guides and nurses in the cave, he starts to appreciate their humanity. When a nurse surprises him with her gratitude, he wonders “what he’d done to make Lillian smile. And then it dawned on him. He’d told her thanks.” He asks himself “if he’d ever thanked their house girl back home. Or if he’d ever heard his mother or Granny thank her.” Later, when he agrees to help in a risky endeavor, he comes to the realization that he “wasn’t the same boy who’d left Virginia.”
This is the kind of engrossing fiction that can make a young reader forget they are learning a bit of history. Back matter includes an author’s note explaining the inspiration for her story and a bibliography. She suggests the reader investigate what is true and what is made up, one of my favorite exercises. The clinic, the doctor and some of his slaves are all based on true historical people and places. The National Park Service’s website is an excellent educational resource to accompany this book. There is also a map of the pathways in the cave.