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How I Found the Strong: A Civil War Story    by Margaret Mcmullan order for
How I Found the Strong
by Margaret Mcmullan
Order:  USA  Can
Laurel Leaf, 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

In first-person narrative, ten-year-old Frank 'Shanks' Russell sets the mood for the year 1861 and the beginning of the Civil War. He laments not being old enough to join the Mississippi militia like his (not much) older brother Henry and Pa. Grandpa speaks his mind, 'Things have gotten too easy for you boys ... Telegraphs, newspapers, and rifles now, not muskets. Everybody's gone soft. This will be a soft, easy war.' Many believe this, and also that the soldiers will be home by Christmas, but the havoc drags on for years, with defeats and victories on both sides.

Shanks finds comfort in the love of his Ma, grandparents, and in the male companionship of family slave Buck. It isn't long before the horrors of the war between North and South reach the Russell farmland, with shortages of food and water. They get by with whatever they are able to scrounge from the earth and woodlands, as well as the generosity of neighbors and the Parson. A lot of work is done by boys and girls, as 'best they can'. Not much is left for wildlife as soldiers from both sides hunt to eat. Shanks' memories of Pa and Henry begin to fade.

It is the time of corncob mattresses, and the superstition that drinking from cracked cups will 'shave many years off of yer life'. Shanks questions why Lincoln declared war. Grandpa tells him, 'Cause we fired on Fort Sumter ... near Charleston, South Carolina'. When Shanks asks 'Why'd we fire on 'em?', the response is, 'Because the Yankees won't let us alone. They think they have a right to tells us how to live ... and they don't think Pa should own Buck'. Grandpa provides news of the war, and of Stonewall General Jackson, who is called 'Old Blue Light' by his troops. However, it isn't long before Grandpa takes off to travel west.

The Pearl River runs along the property, good for fishin', as it 'runs into the Strong', which is 'about thirty miles from where you're sittin' ... runs west of Smith, through Simpson County, Mississippi.' Buck is not much older than Shanks, fears water, and has no intent to run away like many other slaves are doing. The sounds of gunfire come close, and a disabled, deserting Confederate soldier appears on the Russell farm, just in time to deliver newborn baby sister Bit. In time Shanks comes of age, and goes off to sparking blonde-haired beauty Irene at the next farm. He sees and does a lot of things, earning his given name 'Frank, no longer Shanks'. There are some graphics of injured soldiers in the hospital set up at the schoolhouse.

Margaret McMullan was born in Mississippi, and is currently an English professor at the University of Evansville, Indiana. How I Found The Strong was her first YA work. It's beautifully written in a rhythmic style. The author based the story on her own family ties, both in setting and the main character - representative of her grandmother's great-uncle. McMullan's sketch of the Civil War is a well-done introduction to the time and reasons for the war. I recommend it to middle school to teen readers, and as a teaching aid for educators.

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