Homer Figg is an engaging 11 year old boy from Pine Swamp, Maine in the 1860’s. He and his older brother Harold, having been orphaned, have been sent to live with their uncle, Mr. Squinton Leach. Squint is not happy at this turn of events. He makes the boys sleep in the barn, feeds them very little and requires them to do a great deal of the work on his farm.
The story begins when Squint catches Homer eating part of the slops he is to feed to the hogs. A confrontation ensues in which Harold, for the first time, knocks his uncle to the ground. Furious, Squint connives to sell his eldest nephew into the Union Army as a “replacement” for $200. Since Harold is only 17 and the conscription law has not yet passed, Squint’s bargain is illegal. After Harold is led away to the Army at gunpoint and Homer is locked in the root cellar, Homer overhears Squint celebrating his trickery and his share of the $200.
Furious, Homer vows to find his brother before he gets to the War in order to save Harold from being killed by the Confederate Army. What follows is Homer’s desperate journey to find his brother, the only family he has left in the world.
He encounters slave catchers, abolitionists, a conductor for the Underground Railroad, a foolish minister, a pair of charlatans who kidnap and imprison Homer in order to rob his companion, a tattooed lady, the owner of a traveling medicine show, Confederate spies and a descendant of Davy Crockett. He becomes The Amazing Pig Boy, is thrown into a Confederate prison as a Union spy and, in the climax of the story, he is drawn into the decisive Civil War battle of Gettysburg. Along his travels Homer learns what it means to be self-reliant, changes his opinion of slavery and discovers the true horrors of war.
In spots the language is rough, that is, appropriate to the 1860’s. Homer’s sometimes inappropriate language in reference to slaves is countered, however, in the language of Jebidiah Brewster, a Quaker abolitionist involved with the Undergraound Railroad who helps Homer to realize slaves are people, not things. There are also some frank descriptions (although not graphic) of the surgeons’ actions treating the wounded in the war–specifically amputations. For these reasons I would not use this book as a read-aloud selection in a classroom. In general, I would not recommend it for younger than 4th grade. It it, however, a great example of adventure, historical fiction and personal growth for older elementary and middle schoolers.