Nine-year old Benjamin didn’t even know that his father had met with an accident until the day his big sister, Nettie came to pick him up from the boarding school where he was living. His father had sent him to that school; said that he’d promised Ben’s mother before she died that he would give Ben an education. Ben’s school teacher agrees that Ben is a promising student. Maybe he can be a scholar one day. But now Father’s gone and gotten hurt. Ben will have to return home with his sister.
As he joins Nettie in their wagon, Ben realizes that Father isn’t just hurt. Something far worse has happened. He listens horror stricken as Nettie explains the details of their father’s palsy attack – his inability to move, eat, speak, or interact with them at all. He feels even more sick as he experiences his father’s vacancy.
But Ben has an idea. Before his father fell ill, he had made plans – plans to build a new barn. Maybe if Ben, Nettie, and Harrison can build it for him, he’ll be given the energy, the will to live. But he is fading fast. Can the three siblings build it in time to save their father?
The most troubling aspect of the story as far as I was concerned, was the relationships within the family. It is made clear from a few comments dropped here and there, that Father was not really respected by the children or their mother before his illness. Benjamin is the only one who seems to really have affection for his father (the others care for him more out of a sense of duty), but this love causes him to become angry with his father because of the unfairness of their situation. Ben also struggles with his position in the family; however much he insists that he is like his family, he is continually viewed as the ‘smart’ one, the ‘educated’ one, in a word – the outsider.
The whole idea of building the barn is fueled by Ben’s belief that if they give their father this barn, he will have something to live for. When asked, Father blinks a yes, that he will live if they build him a barn. But how can a barn be of more value to him than his own children? Shouldn’t they be much more important and valuable to him than some barn?
After Ben returns, Harrison tells him that a man named Tod has been “sparking” Nettie. He kisses her once – it’s not hugely romantic. It happens, she blushes, and they get right back to what they were doing before.
Ben’s father, being unable to move himself, was not able to control his bodily functions. Ben describes how he and his siblings must change and clean him in one chapter and never mentions it again, due to the disgust he feels over its necessity.
Ben insists that they work on the barn on Sundays and excuses their actions, saying that it’s not really work because they are building it as a gift for their father.
There are several respectful references made to God – the Lord’s Prayer is repeated twice and Ben comments that his father always stuck a small tree at the top of every building he built to “signal the Lord that he wouldn’t build any higher so as to get into heaven the easy way.” [pg. 98] (An obvious reference to the Tower of Babel.) However, at the end of the story, after Father has died, Ben, Nettie, and Harrison bury him themselves. Here is that scene.
I read from our Bible the same prayer that Mr. Dortmeister had read when I had left his school: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
As Nettie, Harrison, and I came back down to the house, down from the hill, and saw the barn before us, we stopped and could not help but gaze upon it. After all the work it took to make, all that time and effort, it seemed – sitting there in our acres – hardly more than a blade of grass in a field of wheat. And yet it was the only thing we saw.
I said, “When I was reading that ‘Our Father,’ I wasn’t thinking of any God. I was thinking of our father and wondering where he was. And then I thought that if Father is anywhere, he’s in that barn.”
To which both Nettie and Harrison said, “Amen.” [pg. 105]
Conclusion. Not a flawless story, but one that has deeper themes than most kids books.
Review © 2013 Laura Verret