The Journal of Jedediah Barstow Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
"It's almost two weeks now, and today is the first day I opened this book. It was Mama's journal. I been carrying it since Mr. Fenster gave it to me. Only thing he found in the river, he said, besides me. It's all dried out now, but there's a big watermark like a long peninsula coming out from the binding. Fat at the beginning and skinnier toward the edge of the page. They never found Mama, Pa, and Sally." So begins The Journal of Jedediah Barstow: An Emigrant on the Oregon Trail, Overland, 1845. Praised for her meticulous research and penchant for accuracy, author Ellen Levine allows young readers to experience the joys and sorrows, dreams and bitter realities, struggles and triumphs of orphan Jedediah Barstow during his journey west on the Oregon Trail.
The pioneers who make up Jedediah's wagon train run the gamut from folks who demonstrate selfless concern for others to selfish individuals consumed only with themselves. As he watches these people around him, Jedediah learns what it means to be honest and kind. Jedediah becomes self-reliant. He confronts his own fears and develops into a hardworking man who would have brought great pride to his parents.
Ellen Levine says that as a young person her favorite books were about pioneers and covered wagons. She always thought the adventure of traveling through unsettled territory and making everything you needed for the journey must have been a fascinating experience. Through The Journal of Jedediah Barstow: An Emigrant on the Oregon Trail, a new generation of readers will share Levine's enjoyment and fascination with pioneers and covered wagons.
"Damn Pa! If we hadn't come, we'd still be a family! Maybe I'll be struck down for the blasphemy. But the stars are still up there and the moon is moving regular. I can hear Mama's voice saying what she said to me and Sally every night: 'Don't go to bed with regrets and you won't have them when you get up.'" writes thirteen-year-old Jedediah Barstow in his journal. Jed does have regrets. His mother, father, and younger sister Sally are now dead, swept out of their covered wagon and drowned while crossing the Kaw River. It is May of 1847, and Jed and his family are part of a wagon train traveling on the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley in the Territory of Oregon. When the tragedy occurs, Jed has to decide whether to continue on the journey or be a "turnaround" and head back home. He decides to stay and is taken in by the Henshaw family. Even though Mr. Henshaw is mean, drinks too much, and treats Jed roughly, Mrs. Henshaw is kind, and their seven-year-old daughter Bekky looks up to Jed and reminds him of his sister Sally.
Jed helps out with the many chores, encounters sandstorms, witnesses a buffalo stampede, and narrowly escapes a grizzly bear attack. He becomes friends with other young people on the journey: Charlie Smothers, Jack Simpson, and Lucy Sedlow. He sees young Amos Littleton bitten by a rattlesnake, and days later, watches the amputation of boy's infected leg. The harrowing journey takes almost five months, and during that time there's a wedding on the trail, a baby is born, and Mr. Henshaw is killed when his gun accidentally discharges. After Mr. Henshaw's death, Jed, now, "the male of the Henshaw wagon," is invited to become a speaking and voting member of the wagon train council despite his young age.
Even though Jed seems comfortable with life on the trail, every time the wagons must cross a river, the memories return, and he doesn't want to go into deep water. "Don't like crossing over anything above my knees — I'm not afraid. I just don't like it. Keep seeing Mama and Sally hanging on to the ropes," Jed writes. "But I don't like not wanting to cross." The true test of his courage comes when the travelers have to pass through the Dalles of the Columbia River, a perilous section full of whirlpools. The rough current causes their raft to rock violently, throwing Bekky, Lucy, and baby Seth into the swirling water. Jed dives in and miraculously manages to save all three. When the group arrives at their destination, Oregon City, Jed plans to stay with Mrs. Henshaw. He writes, "I'm going to get where Pa and Mama wanted to be. I just wish I could tell them that, and that I know why they wanted to come out here to Oregon. And that I'm glad they wanted to make the trip."
Thinking About the Book
- Where and how does Jedediah get the journal he writes in?
- One of the most interesting characters in Jedediah's journal is Jacob Fenster. Why does Jedediah leave Mr. Fenster's wagon? What lessons does Jedediah learn from Mr. Fenster?
- What are some of the reasons Jedediah is angry with his Pa?
- Early in his journal Jed writes about the journey being so "risky, it's like meeting an angry elephant. You either face it down or you turn back." What personal "elephant" does Jed have to face? How does he deal with it?
- Who is the most unlikable character in Jedediah's journal? How does the author make this person so unlikable?
- Traveling on the Oregon Trail was full of hardships and hard work. What did the boys and girls do for fun?
- Jedediah's father once punished his son by beating him then promised he'd never do it again. Why?
- How did Jed feel when Mr. Henshaw died? Why did he not participate in the funeral at first? Who or what changed his mind?
- Near the end of Jedediah's journal Lucy asks him, "Do you think you have to be really afraid before you can be really brave?" How would you answer Lucy's question?
- Jed writes of seeing several interesting land formations on the Oregon Trail: Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Independence Rock. Look at a map of the route the settlers took. Why were these places so named?
- In his May 27th journal entry, Jedediah retells a tall tale describing what Oregon will be like when the pioneers arrive. What is a tall tale? How did these stories come to develop in the United States?
- Read Samuel Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Why does Mr. Fenster say this poem reminds him of their journey west?
- The emigrants copied the Indians' practice of preserving their meat by using the process of jerking. Try making jerky.
- The Library of Congress website features transcripts of Overland Trail lore and early life in Oregon. Using this primary source material, write several journal entries about life in a wagon train or the early settlers of the Pacific Northwest. T
- Travelers on the Oregon Trail were always having to leave their possessions along the way. Pretend that you were going to make the trip with Jed but you could take any of the things you now own. What three items would you absolutely take with you all the way to Oregon?
- During the journey, Jed "ponders on" several possible careers: veterinarian, master craftsman, surveyor, but not a doctor. What makes him consider these jobs? Read the Epilogue to find out what Jed finally becomes. What career goals do you have? How have your ambitions changed as you've grown older?
- Jedediah's journal tells of a young man's adventure on the Oregon Trail. The Dear America book by Kristiana Gregory, Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, relates the journey from a young woman's point of view. Compare and contrast Jedediah's story with Hattie's. What different things did you learn about the Oregon Trail trek from each book? Which book did you enjoy more? Why?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.