Trouble in River City... in 1937
Brothers Pete and Gus live with their family in Ironton, Ohio in 1937. Practical Pete, the younger brother, is the one the father counts on to help around the house, and Gus is the more poetic, distracted, romantic type. When the Ohio River starts to rise after a warm and rainy January, the father asks Gus to accompany him in helping their neighbors prepare for and fight the rising waters. Gus is pleased to be asked instead of Pete, until he realizes that being left in charge of the house and younger siblings is a greater responsibility. Pete accepts his job and performs it with diligence, trying to keep the house dry while not alarming his mother more than necessary. As the water rises, he removes the refrigerator motor and takes it upstairs so it doesn't get damaged, brings food and supplies up, and even positions the family row boat so it can be accessed if needed. Gus helps with sandbagging until the men in the town realize how futile their efforts are. When his father wants him to go home, he instead crosses the river to visit a girl he likes, only to be stuck there when the bridge is closed. His family hadn't liked Venus because her family is protestant and her mother is divorced, but Gus learns some family secrets that make the girl more accepted by his family. Pete evacuates the family to an aunt's house and is worried that he hasn't heard news of Gus and his father, but eventually the family is reunited, and the clean up work can begin.
Historical fiction is a great way to help young readers understand current events. I read this book while Hurricane Harvey was devastating the Gulf Coast in Texas. While the conditions of the flooding are different, the end results are the same. The author based this story on her own family's experience living through this flood; it was interesting to read that the brothers marked the flood level in the garage, and that the house is still standing! This is ultimately a hopeful story about living through and overcoming disaster.
The details about daily life are accurate, but might surprise readers. The fact that Venus is not Catholic is bad enough, but that her mother is divorced? Scandalous. Again, there are many issues today with people from difference religious backgrounds getting along, and it's all too easy to forget that not very long ago, the Catholic/Protestant division was very, very important. Perhaps in 80 years, it will be just as unremarkable to have Muslim neighbors. There are other, more frivolous details as well-- knickers, ice boxes, and popular radio shows are just a start.
The drama between the brothers, as well as the socioeconomic divide between Pete's house on Fifth Street, which should be safe from the flood, and his friend Richie's house closer to the river that is prone to flooding, add interesting dimensions to the book, but the real draw is the flood. Through short chapters, first from Pete's perspective and then from Gus's, we see day by day and hour by hour how the water rises, and what devastation it causes. There's a light but palpable tension as Pete tries to keep his family safe but unaware of how bad things are, and Gus's decision to travel out into the midst of the problem steps the tension up a notch.
The short chapters help to really move the story along. Readers who enjoy survival stories with lots of action and adventure will want to add Not on Fifth Street to their pile of books containing Will Hobbs, Gary Paulsen, and Terry Lynn Johnson titles.