You can almost smell the cabbage stew and hear the mules' hooves slurping in the mud in Jim Murphy's new novel for young readers, "Desperate Journey" (Scholastic, $16.99) about a boat racing to Buffalo on the Erie Canal -- at three miles an hour.
The story is told through the eyes of 12-year-old Maggie Haggerty, who must help pilot the boat after her father is thrown in jail. Anyone with an interest in the canal (and our serial story on Page 9) should check it out!
Murphy won prizes for his non-fiction books, "An American Plague" and "The Great Fire." He lives in Maplewood, N.J., with his wife, Alison Blank, who is also a writer; and their sons, Michael, 15, and Ben, 11. NeXt recently interviewed him by telephone:
Were you interested in history as a kid?
I wasn't a very good student for the first six years of school, I had a wonderful teacher who loved history in seventh grade and it suddenly came alive for me.
Is it true that this book was inspired by a canal boat at a museum?
At a museum in Hershey, Pa.] they had a cutout section of a canal boat. I was astonished at how tiny it was. I kept thinking, how do you operate in that kind of tight quarters?
How do you research your books?
I do a lot of reading. I discovered that it wasn't just the Erie Canal as a transportation system, it was this amazing community of very interesting people, very independent, hardworking. People had to struggle constantly just to make their daily bread.
You do a lot of homework?
A lot of what I do is reading books, studying illustrations and photographs. We visited towns that the Erie Canal went through, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, smaller towns in between.
How did you do your research about mules?
I can't stay I ever drove a mule team. When we were at the Bronx Zoo, we did go see some mules because I wanted to get a sense of how big they were.
This book gives an amazing look at the hard work that children had to do.
In my non-fiction I want to show readers especially young people, that they were not just observers in history, they participated in making it.
How did you come up with the character of Maggie?
I kept wondering how a young woman operating in an essentially tough man's world felt and how she would deal with very challenging problems. I wanted to show the kind of resourcefulness that so many people, especially kids have. It's inside of them, they just need to be allowed to express it.
So do you think that school textbooks are boring?
I think they lack a narrative story line. They're trying to convey facts, get a lot of dates and names and information across.
What were your favorite books as a kid?
I did not read very much until I got to seventh grade and was inspired to read history. I was reading adult books when I started reading. One of the first books I read was "Moby Dick."
>More about Murphy:
College: Rutgers University
Pet: A mixed-breed dog named Cody. "He's a big dog with a big bark but he just likes to run around and bark a lot."
Best book he read this year: "Paul Revere's Ride" by David Hackett Fischer.
Next project: A book titled "The Real Benedict Arnold."