Desperate Journey Lesson Plan
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
By Jim Murphy
A Teaching Guide
Introduction: The Story
Desperate Journey is a riveting novel set on the Erie Canal in 1848-a fascinating period in American history when the canal was a vibrant trade route, and home and workplace to about 20,000 people.
The novel tells the story of twelve-year-old Maggie Haggerty, whose papa has lost all of their family's money in a bare-knuckle fight with canal bully Long-fingered John. Desperate for cash, and only days away from having their boat seized for debt, the Haggertys' only way out is to make a fast haul of cargo to Buffalo and collect a much-needed bonus. But when Papa and Uncle Henry are arrested for an alleged assault, it is up to Maggie, her younger brother, and their ailing mother to overcome one obstacle after another in their frantic race against the clock.
In this unusual and gripping drama, Newbery Honor-winning author Jim Murphy seamlessly weaves history and thrilling adventure into a moving story about courage, endurance, and the powerful bonds of family.
Once, my family visited a canal museum and one of the exhibits was a life-size reproduction of the living area of a canal freighter. I was immediately struck by how small the space was, and when I learned that boat captains were often accompanied by their families on their boats, I was amazed. How could a family of four or five maneuver in such cramped quarters? And what happened when it rained? I began doing a little research and learned that the canal was a rough and tumble place when it first opened. In fact, it sounded a lot like the Wild West, though this one was in New York State. Then one day I wondered what it would be like to be a kid on the Erie Canal whose father is a legendary fighter.
Before beginning to write the story, I did more research. I wanted to know enough about the particulars of canal life that I could close my eyes and see a boat, fully loaded, traveling along the canal. When I read that there was sometimes open hostility between canalers and people who lived on land near the waterway, the opening scene began to take shape. I decided to have a girl be my main character, and to have her take the brunt of the initial attack. I wanted readers to see her at her lowest point emotionally and, hopefully, to begin to wonder if she would be able to survive the problems that follow.
- Jim Murphy
About This Guide
The questions and ideas presented in this guide are intended to spark discussion and debate, and to deepen students' understanding of the novel's historical context. Teachers and other educators should read this guide with their own students' skills, interests, and reading level in mind, and choose a combination or sequence of activities that is best suited to the level and aptitudes of the participants.
Discussion: Time and Space
As your students begin to read the book, have a conversation to help them better understand the setting of the novel. The below questions can shape your group discussion.
- When does this story take place? (1848)
- How many years ago was that?
- Do you know of any relatives or ancestors of yours who were alive at this time?
- How many years was this before you were born?
- What was going on in America at that time? What was happening in your state? What was happening in your town or city?
- How long ago was the American Revolution? When was the Civil War?
- What was the relationship between the Americans and the Native Americans at the time of this story? What about the relationship between African Americans and European Americans?
- Why did America need the Erie Canal? How did it help America? ("About the Erie Canal," starting on page 271 of Desperate Journey, is an excellent introduction to Erie Canal history.)
- Look at a map of America - Where is New York State? Where is the Erie Canal? Where do you live in relation to the Erie Canal?
- Look at a map of the Erie Canal. (See page 270 of Desperate Journey.) Can you follow the course of the story? Where does Maggie's family start? Where do they need to be to make their delivery?
- Can you identify spots on the map as they come up in the story?
- Some of the places mentioned in the book do not appear on the map. Can you guess where on the map they might be, based on what comes before and after them along the Haggertys' route?
Discussion and Activity: Canal Boats and the Canal
Maggie and her family live on a relatively small boat in very cramped quarters. To help your students imagine the Haggertys' way of life, ask readers to pay particular attention to descriptions of the boat and how it travels. Then use the below questions to frame your discussion. (The glossary on pages 277-278 is a helpful resource for your students to look up unfamiliar words.)
- Who lives on the Haggertys' boat? (Momma, Papa, Uncle Hen, Eamon, Maggie, four mules, and Marcus the cat.)
- Where does Maggie sleep? (In the cuddy.)
- What is a cuddy? (A tiny part of the boat with bunks where the captain and his family or crew slept.)
- Where does Uncle Hen sleep? (In the forward stable with the mules.)
- What does the driver of a boat do? (Controls the mules or horses while they pull the boat. She or he walks on the towpath with the animals.)
- What is a towpath? (The narrow dirt path alongside the canal that serves as a walkway for drivers and horses or mules.)
- What does it mean when Maggie is "at the sweep"? (She is steering the boat by controlling the rudder.)
- What is a lock on the canal? What happens when a boat passes through a lock? (A lock is a rectangular area large enough to hold a canal boat, used to raise or lower boats over uneven terrain. See page 272.)
- How fast could a canal boat travel? (Up to about 4 miles per hour.)
- Can you figure out how many minutes it would take to travel at that pace from, say, your school to the airport in your town or city? Or from your town to a neighboring town?
A Note from the Author on Canal Boats:
After your students have made their own observations based on their reading, you may want to help them even better visualize the setting by reading aloud the below paragraphs composed by Jim Murphy:
When Maggie's story takes place, most canal boats were about seventy-five feet long, twelve feet wide and weighed 75 tons when empty. The front (bow) and back (stern) of the boat were blunt. At the front was the stable, which was about six feet by twelve feet in size and had to house the mules, feed, tackle and sometimes a driver.
The boat was steered from the stern deck (about four feet by twelve in size) by using a long-handled rudder, called the sweep. You went down a short flight of stairs to get to the kitchen (about ten by twelve in size) that contained a small wood-burning stove, a fold-down table, a few chairs, some shelves for food and other supplies, and probably a mirror. A small opening at the back of the kitchen led into the sleeping area, called the cuddy, which was about five feet by twelve and jammed with narrow sleeping bunks and hooks on the wall for clothes. Both the kitchen and the cuddy had small windows on each side of the boat.
Between the stable and the living area was a large, open space for cargo. Anything needing to be transported could be stored in the area -- cattle, pigs, pig iron, coal, ash, stoves, plows, whatever! The whole affair was pulled by either two or three horses or mules.
Assignments Related to this Discussion:
1) What would it be like to live on a small boat like this with your family? Write a chapter about your own family and pets living on a houseboat this size.
2) The author draws an amazing picture of life on a canal boat. Write a short essay comparing your life today to the life on the canal. Discuss differences in daily habits and environments. For example, you can compare and contrast ways of sleeping and eating, what it's like to walk through your house versus a canal boat, ways of shopping, methods of transportation, neighborhoods, and the difference between living in a stationary world and a moving world.
3) Go to a library and do further research into the way canal boats looked. Based on what you learn, build a 3-D model of a canal boat or draw a diagram (bird's eye view and side view) of a canal boat.
4) Research the way the locks on a canal work. Search for websites with detailed descriptions or images of locks. Then draw a picture of a lock and label its different parts (bottom gate, top gate, chamber, etc.).
To reinforce the words learned in the discussion of the canal and canal boats, ask your students to refer to the glossary on pages 277 and 278. Then ask them to select their favorite five words and use each one in an original sentence that illustrates the meaning of the word.
Which words have to do with the boats? Which words are insults? Have students read aloud some of their sentences.
Discussion and Activity: Thinking About the Characters
After your students have finished reading the book, ask them to brainstorm a list of major characters. These might include Maggie Haggerty, Tim Haggerty, Eamon, Momma, Uncle Hen, and possibly also Long-fingered John and Billy Black.
Ask them to list as many of the minor characters as they can remember. These might include Russell Ackroyd, Michael Connelly, Mr. Mutcher, Jozie Dalrumple, Sheriff Einhornn, Mr. Bauer, The Betty, Tom, and Issachar, among others.
As they list characters, ask your students to give adjectives describing each character on the list. Also discuss each character's role in the plot. Who could you cut out without significantly changing the story? Can you debate whether some characters are major or minor? Can you put your list in order of major to minor? Who are the bullies in the book? Are some characters more "good" than "evil"? Are some characters more "evil" than "good"? Discuss a character that is neither completely good nor completely evil. As a reader, what makes you sympathize or not sympathize with this character? Why or why not?
An Activity Related to this Discussion:
Choose a minor character that interests you. Also choose a scene or chapter in which this character appears. Then, writing from the point of view of that character, rewrite that scene or chapter. Desperate Journey is written in the third person (using "he" and "she" to refer to all the characters), but you should write in the first person (using "I" to write in the voice of the character you chose). Be creative! Invent details that Jim Murphy does not include in Desperate Journey. For example, be sure to describe what the character is doing and thinking about before and after he or she appears in the action of the story.
Discussion and Activity: Building Suspense
The author has written a very suspenseful story. Ask your students to identify the main source of tension in the story. What keeps the reader on edge? As the students were reading, were they wondering whether Mama, Maggie, and Eamon would make it to Buffalo on time to get the bonus? What is at stake for the Haggertys? (The family will lose the boat if they don't make it!)
Ask your students to discuss other sources of suspense, too. For example, did Papa and Hen beat up Russell Ackroyd? What does the author do to keep the reader on edge as to whether or not Papa and Hen were guilty? Did you ever think that they may have done it? Did the author sometimes lead you to believe the outcome would be different? How did he throw you, the reader, off the track? What are some of the most suspenseful scenes in the book?
An Activity Related to this Discussion:
Think of a time in your own life when you were on edge about the outcome of something. For example, would you get something you really wanted for your birthday? Would you get the teacher you wanted? Would your sick dog ever get well? Would you do well on your test? Would you pass for the year? Would you ever find your way back to your family or friends in a crowded amusement park? Would the wave at the beach let you come back up for air?
Think about a few different situations like these. In each case, how important was it that you get what you wanted? How high were the stakes? What would happen if things didn't work out?
Write a true story about something that happened to you that was suspenseful. Or make up a story about something that could happen to you (but didn't!). Be sure to build in suspense.
Discussion and Debate: Risk, Trust, and Responsibility
Use the below notes to spark a discussion with your students. When they become engaged with a particular idea, phrase the subject they're discussing as a controversial statement, and make it the resolution of a debate. For example, a discussion about gambling could lead to the resolution "Be it resolved that gambling is always wrong," or a discussion about risk could lead to the resolution "Be it resolved that in Desperate Journey, Papa risked too much." Then divide the class into groups of four, with two students in each group arguing FOR a resolution, and two students arguing AGAINST a resolution. Each pair of students should prepare their arguments as a team, and then debate their opponents in front of the class.
Ideally, when students take turns standing up to speak in the debate, their remarks should include a brief introduction, arguments supported by specific examples, and a concluding statement. Also, the first speaker on each team should give definitions of important words or phrases in the resolution (for example, "risk" or "too much"), and the second speaker on each team should give respectful rebuttals of the points made by the other team. You may want to time the speeches, asking students to speak for at least two minutes each, but no more than four minutes each.
Papa takes a risk when he bets his family's boat on a fight with Long-fingered John. Last year, he lost another fight with Long-fingered John, and he lost a lot of money. What were the results of these bets? What risk did he put his family up against? Even though it all turned out well, he took a big risk. Was this right or wrong?
What does it mean to gamble? Is it good or bad? Is gambling responsible? Talk about how sometimes good things can come of it - and sometimes it can lead to ruin.
When does Mama take part in risky behavior? What was she risking? Was it right or wrong?
The relationship between the Haggertys and Billy Black depends on trust. What risk does Maggie take when she trusts Billy Black? What kind of person is Billy Black? How does he appear at first? How did you feel about him when you first encountered him in the story? If you were Maggie, would you have trusted him at first? Were there times he was scary? Does he prove himself over the course of the novel? How? How did you feel about him in the end? Do you know anyone who changed after you got to know him or her?
When is it okay to trust a stranger?
How does Maggie take responsibility in the story? What about her brother? Her mother? If you were in the same situation as Maggie and her brother, what, if anything, would you do to help your family?
The title is Desperate Journey. What is the meaning of the word "desperate"?
How do people behave when they are desperate?
Have you ever been desperate for something? What did that feel like?
What are the meanings of the word "journey"? In what ways does this word relate to Maggie's story? How does she change from the beginning of her journey to the end? Does responsibility play a part in this change? How?
Ethics and Morality
What is the meaning of "right" and "wrong"? Is it sometimes not clear in the story what is right or wrong? Can you give a specific example from the book? What does "ambiguous" mean? What in the story is clearly wrong?
Do "right" and "wrong" mean different things today than they did at the time of the story? Can you give examples of things that may have been considered socially acceptable then, but are no longer acceptable now? What about things that are acceptable now, but were not acceptable then?
Conflict means a struggle with an opposing force. In books and other kinds of storytelling, conflict is what allows dramatic action to arise. Dramatic action is usually what makes stories interesting to read. There are many conflicts in Desperate Journey:
. Maggie is hit with rocks
. Momma punches the captain of a rival boat
. Maggie struggles with her own doubts about her father's innocence
. Papa has two fights with Long-fingered John
. Eamon fights with Russell
. Maggie argues with her brother
. Momma is frustrated with Papa's behavior
Discuss each of these conflicts, and add others to your list. In each conflict, who is right and who is wrong? Do the conflicts get resolved? How? What other ways would it be possible to resolve these conflicts? What conflicts are in your life? How do you deal with them? What conflicts are in the world? How would you deal with them?
Discussion: The American Justice System
Chapter 20 includes the trial of Papa and Uncle Hen. While your students read this chapter, ask them to make a list of law-related words and phrases that they encounter as they read. Then compile a list of all the students' words and phrases, and discuss the list.
Order in the court
What do these words mean? Can your students figure out what the words mean from the context in which they're used in the story? Ask your students to use a dictionary to look up words that they can't figure out by context.
Supplementary Discussion and Research:
- What are some different types of trials? (Bench trial vs. Trial by jury)
- What are some different types of cases? (Criminal case vs. Civil case)
- What is jury duty? Why is it important? Who serves on juries? What are some of the reasons a person may not be able to serve as a juror for any given case? (Conflicts of interest, etc.)
- Have you ever heard lawyers use the term "mens rea"? It comes from the Latin words for "guilty mind." What do you think it means when lawyers in a court case try to establish mens rea? Under mens rea, the standard test of criminal liability (whether someone can be convicted of a crime) is "the act will not make a person guilty unless the mind is also, to some degree, guilty." Do you agree with this? Should a person be considered guilty of a crime even if they did not intend to do it? Should they be punished the same way they would if they had planned to commit the crime? Should they be punished at all?
Websites to explore for further information:
Just for Fun: The Erie Canal Song
This song is more than one hundred years old and has become part of the American folk repertoire. Many recordings exist, including versions by singers like Pete Seeger, Glenn Yarborough, and Bruce Springsteen. You can use the lyrics below and a recording of your choice to teach your students the song.
Low Bridge, Everybody Down
(Written by Thomas Allen in 1905)
I've got a mule, and her name is Sal,
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie canal,
She's a good ol' worker and a good ol' pal,
Fifteen miles on the Er-ie can-al,
We've hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lum-ber coal and hay,
And ev'ry inch of the way we know
From Al-ba-ny to Buff-a-lo OH
Low bridge ev'-ry bod-y down,
Low bridge for we're com-in to a town,
And you al-ways know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal,
If you've ev-er navigated on the Er-ie can-al
We'd better look round for a job old gal,
Fif-teen miles - on the Er-ie can-al,
You bet your life I wouldn't part with Sal,
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie can-al,
Giddap 'there gal we've passed that lock,
We'll make Rome fore six o'clock,
So, it's one more trip and then we'll go,
Right back home to Buff-a-lo OH
Oh, where would I be if I lost my pal?
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie can-al.
Oh, I'd like to see a mule as good as Sal,
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie can-al,
A friend of mine once got her sore,
Now he's got a busted jaw,
'Cause she let fly with her iron toe,
And kicked him in to Buff-a-lo OH
Don't have to call when I want my Sal,
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie can-al,
She trots from her stall like a good old gal,
Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie can-al,
I eat my meals with Sal each day,
I eat beef and she eats hay,
And she ain't so slow if you want to know,
She put the "Buff" in Buff-a-lo OH
Other Books by Jim Murphy
A partial list of titles by the author:
The Great Fire (A Newbery Honor Book)
An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (A Newbery Honor Book)
The Boys' War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War
For more information about the author, his books, and how to order them, please visit: