Crows & Cards
By Joseph Helgerson
Houghton Mifflin, 2009

Crows & Cards is a children's chapter book that combines magical realism and historical fiction. It is also heavily rooted in Americana, somewhat akin to Sid Fleischman.

Twelve year old Zebulon Crabtree is not happy when he is shipped off up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, where he is to be apprenticed to his uncle. Particularly so because his uncle is a tanner, a smelly and unpleasant profession. But in the steamboat voyage he meets an interesting character, a riverboat gambler. Chilly Larpenture offers him a good deal -- instead of working as a tanner he can sign on as Chilly's apprentice. The fee is $100, slightly more than the $70 the tanner was asking, but Chilly assures him that he can work off the balance.

But the life of a card sharp is not always as exciting as Zeb had imagined -- and an apprentice card sharp even less so. He spends most of his time hiding behind a peephole and signaling hands to Chilly, who is determined that no one leave his presence without fully comprehending the evils of gambling. His life isn't all boring, however, as he makes the acquaintance of an old Indian chief who Chilly had cheated. Chief Standing Tenbears is determined to get his medicine bundle back from Chilly, and Zeb may be able to help him... If he is willing to turn traitor on Chilly and accept bit of aid from the Chief's spirit guide.

This is a well-written and richly textured book. It is more wordy and dense than the average children's book, and a lot of those words are outdated riverboat slang. It is also a bit darker, at times, as it deals in passing with slavery, the oppression of native Americans, and the power that a master is presumed to have over an apprentice. These factors edge it up towards the realm of young adult fiction, although it is still appropriate for the well-read 10-year-old.

Crows & Cards is much the same in tone as Helgerson's previous book, Horns & Wrinkles, although somewhat lighter on the fantastical elements. Fans of one are likely to enjoy the other, although I would consider Crows & Cards to be the more serious of the two.

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