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Reviewed by Jorja Davis for Readers' Favorite
Craig Ridgway leaves his well-educated home at the age of fifteen because he cannot imagine being in school another year. He moves from Philadelphia to Lancaster where he apprentices himself to the master-gunsmith Jakob Wetzel. When Jakob dies in January 1811, twenty-one year-old Craig loses his mentor. Grieving Wetzel’s death and the end of his job and his home, he decides to move west to Pittsburgh. There he stokes coal in one of the town’s new foundries. Craig needs the wide open spaces he fell in love with as he made his way over the mountains of Pennsylvania in the snows of January. He moves on down to the Ohio River to the rich farmlands of Kentucky. He disembarks at Widder’s Landing, deathly ill with pneumonia. The Widder nurses him back to health, extracting his promise to continue through the planting and harvesting seasons. So starts ten months of back-breaking labor. Craig has much to glean from one of Cottonwood Bend’s infamous outcasts. He can do little more than notice Mary, the beautiful daughter of the neighbor whom the Widder curses. Farming suits his restless spirit. Mary Catherine McDonnell suits his tender spirit. Life and love rest on a few hundred acres on the edge of the Ohio River. Setting the life and love on the Kentucky frontier in the years 1811 to 1815 provides a good window into the American history of the period. The years of initial statehood for Kentucky, the Comet of 1811, the New Madrid Earthquakes, and the War of 1812 provide the backdrop where Craig wins and loses and hopes to win again. In the process, he grows to love the land and its people. The small town of Cottonwood Bend bears intentional resemblance to the small town of Cloverport in Breckinridge County.
Price’s vivid descriptions draw on all the senses and paint a vivid picture of a vivid time. His characters are all unique and will continue with the reader long after the 568 pages have flown by, like the great flocks of geese and passenger pigeons that show the change of seasons on this edge of the frontier. The characterizations are all well-rounded as the author develops them in the ways they relate to one another, and to the times in which they live. Eddie Price’s love of history and the scope of his research will make the reader want Price to have been their history teacher when they studied the Great Westward Expansion, the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, crops of Kentucky, and the mighty river systems that were the first roadways of America. Starting with a real farmhouse built in 1802 on the western edge of Breckinridge County, Price helps us visualize, taste, smell, hear and feel “What stories this old house could tell!” His research is well-grounded and presented in the Introduction and Acknowledgments. This book makes history come alive. Readers will match Price’s book with renowned epic novels like Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, Morgan Llywelyn’s Brian Boru, or Mary Renault’s epic historical novels of the 1960’s. The reader will come away not only with a book they will need to share and read again, but one that will stand the test of time, and teach more history than one could understand any other way.