Monday, July 14, 2008

Genre #5: Historical Fiction - WORTH

Bibliographic Data:

LaFaye, A. 2004. Worth. New York: Scholastic, Inc. ISBN 043991342X

Plot Summary:

In this book, two boys who come from very different worlds find themselves trying to prove their worth for the same man. Set in Nebraska during the time in which families ran their own farms for a living, Nathaniel (“Nate”) Peale is a sturdy boy who helps his father around the farm. However, one evening during a storm, lightning and thunder spook the horses, causing the wagon to fall on top of Nate, crushing his leg. This injury leaves him unable to help on the farm at the same level as before and forces his father to look for help in other ways.

Pa, Nate’s father, finds another young man to help out on the farm. John Worth, an orphan, comes to live with the family, though his rank in the family is quite low. He is treated more like a servant than a member of the family. Despite this, he and Nate have something in common. They both are experiencing difficult times in their lives and have to adjust to new situations – Nate has to return to school since he cannot help out on the farm and John has to learn how to do the manual labor required on the farm since he can no longer attend school.

The family finally sees eye-to-eye and works together in cooperation when trouble escalates between cattle ranchers and farmers. As fence-cutters do damage to the Peale’s property, Nate and John come together to warn other members of the town, in turn both earning Pa’s pride and admiration.

Critical Analysis:

From the beginning, this book establishes strong characters that mesh with the historical setting in which the novel takes place. With character names such as ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa,’ the reader is transported to older times and a setting that calls to mind open fields and plains. Also, from the opening interaction between Ma and Nate to the climatic ending with Nate and John against the fence cutters, the characters draw attention to the events and lifestyles that were important during the 1800s in the Midwestern United States.

Additionally, the book’s plot presents a truthful look at the life of farmers and ranchers in the 1800s as it incorporates realistic conflicts between farmers and ranchers and even bankers, as well as a realistic portrayal of the amount of work it takes to maintain a farm and its crops. When Nate is injured and Pa has to find someone else to help out on the farm, the plot develops further because the reader is able to see exactly how important the farm and its upkeep is to the family’s way of life. Also, with the contrast between John and Nate, LaFaye allows the plot to highlight societal differences that existed in the 1800s in areas such as schooling and city versus country life.

The rural setting of the novel contributes to the time and place of the story in that many details paint a picture of farming and the life that people lived during this time of history. Specific details to things and places such as ‘watering hole,’ ‘field of hay,’ and the horse wagon give the reader visual cues to the lay of the land and the transportation that allowed them to take care of the property on which they lived.

The author’s style incorporates dialogue and detailed descriptions to present a deep look at the situations that bring people together and tear people apart. The characters’ interactions with one another are natural and help the author portray the 1800s in an authentic and personal way. By bringing attention to multiple layers of relationships (i.e. Pa and Nate, Ma and John, Nate and John), the author helps today’s readers understand the relevancy of this novel and how it transcends the rural life of the 1800s. While it does allude to the difficulties that farmers face in every generation, even more important is the message that the book presents about accepting people from different walks of life. While each of us has a certain life to live, we should be open to embracing the differences that others can bring into our lives, just as Nate, Pa, and Ma eventually embrace John into their life.

Review excerpts:

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

School Library Journal – “The author convincingly conveys the boys’ gradual realization of the value of one another’s friendship….A satisfying piece of historical fiction.”

Starred review from Booklist – “The short, spare novel…tells its own story of darkness and courage…A great choice for American history classes.”

Personal Reaction:

This was an intriguing book because it introduced so many important issues of the time – from orphans to farming and ranching and the conflicts that existed in that lifestyle. I felt the book was quite deep, though, as LaFaye takes the reader beyond these historical issues and hits home with a story about people and how they relate to one another.


· Explore life on a pioneer farm by reading excerpts from a farm letter at

· Role play a situation that might have occurred between Nate and John early in John’s stay with the Peale family. What tensions and emotions are expressed in this situation? Do you think you would have been able to welcome John into your family?

· Write a letter from John’s perspective, highlighting your experiences moving from a city to a farm.

· Read a description of life in Nebraska during the 1880s at Would you have been able to live back then? Why or why not?

Related Readings

Other Books by A. LaFaye
Stella Stands Alone

Nissa’s Place

The Strength of Saints

The Year of the Sawdust Man


The Orphan Train and Life in the 1800s
Walker’s Crossing by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In the Face of Danger by Joan Lowery Nixon

Pioneer Life from A to Z by Bobbie Kalman

Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story by Andrea Warren

Children of the Orphan Trains by Holly Littlefield

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