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Book Review

This historical fiction novel by Katherine Paterson is published by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, and is written for kids ages 8 to 12. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

It is 1855, and Jip lives in Vermont at the town poor farm. He doesn’t know his age. He only knows he fell off the back of a wagon as a toddler, and no one ever came looking for him. Suspecting he might have been a gypsy child, people call him Jip.

Mr. Lyman, who is fond of hard cider, and his unpleasant wife run the poor farm. There are a handful of other residents, all old or struggling mentally. Jip is good with the animals and residents, especially a man named Sheldon who has the mental capacity of a child.

When the townspeople don’t want to pay for an asylum, they send a man they call “the lunatic” to the poor farm. Jip is instructed to build a large, solid cage in which the man will live. Frightened men from town bring the lunatic one afternoon. He’s a raggedy, old man who raves and makes terrifying noises. Once he’s caged, Jip talks gently to him to calm him. He cleans the man’s injured wrists where ropes bound him.

The next day, Jip finds the lunatic in his right state of mind. He gets the man out of the cage long enough to clean him up, and they start to get acquainted. The man’s name is Putnam, but he tells Jip to call him Put.

Put sings a hymn called “All Is Well” and frequently sings it throughout the story. Put is in his right state of mind more often than not, but the Lymans still require him to stay caged most of the time. He and Jip become good friends.

Mrs. Wilkens' husband froze to death after a drinking binge, so she and her three children come to live on the farm. Her daughter, Lucy, is near Jip’s age. Mrs. Wilkens also has a younger boy named Toddy and a baby. When Jip tells Put about them, Put surprises him by saying there are unluckier people than him and Jip in the world.

About this time, a stranger begins appearing in town periodically, talking to or asking about Jip. He tells Jip he knows where the boy came from and wants to help reunite him with his father. The stranger gives Jip an eerie feeling. Although he’s curious about his origins, Jip always feels the need to flee from the man.

When summer comes, Jip supervises Put and the Wilkens family as they all work the farm. Mr. Lyman sends Sheldon to work at the quarry, which terrifies Jip. He knows Sheldon isn’t mentally capable of keeping himself safe in such a dangerous environment. Sheldon likes the work, since it makes him feel like a man. But before long, he dies in an accident. Men from the quarry bring his broken body to Lyman, and Jip grieves. After the funeral, Jip and the Wilkens kids sing Put’s hymn. They discuss their hope that Sheldon is in a better place.

Mrs. Wilkens urges the Lymans to let Lucy and Jip attend school. The teacher there, the only woman in the area with a college degree, takes Jip under her wing. Jip and Lucy are enthralled when Teacher begins to read Oliver Twist to the class. Jip hopes it will give him ideas about how to discover his own origins.

Mrs. Wilkens takes Lucy and Jip to a Christmas party at the school. Jip enjoys fine foods he’s never even seen before and meets a man named Luke Stevens, who seems enamored with Teacher. That evening, a boy from town tells Jip that a stranger is paying him to keep an eye on Jip. After Christmas, Put begins to have spells of madness more frequently. The Lymans say Jip must stay at home and attend to him, so a disappointed Jip urges Lucy to go to school and learn for him.

Teacher eventually visits and convinces the Lymans that they are legally obligated to put Jip back in school. He returns. Teacher gives him some of her books — a Bible and a book on the Underground Railroad. He’s perplexed when she tells him that if he ever needs help, he must go see Luke Stevens on Quaker Road.

Jip is sad when Mrs. Wilkens finds work and lodging in town. He misses Lucy and Toddy, but focuses on his work and his friendship with Put. One day at a shop, he turns around to see an adult man who is the mirror image of himself, except that he's pale. The man is standing with the sinister stranger who has haunted Jip in the past. Although Jip has no doubt the pale man is his father, he senses danger and runs to the Stevens home.

Luke’s mother, a Quaker woman, takes him in. She and Luke explain to Jip that he was the child of a slave woman they knew. The woman was part African and part white, so her skin was fair. Her master had taken advantage of her, and she bore a child. When Jip was a toddler, his mother took him and ran away. A man offered her a ride in his cart, but she discovered he was going the wrong direction and planned to turn her in.

In desperation, she pushed Jip off the cart to save him. She was recaptured, and she told her master the baby had died. The stranger, a slave catcher, recently saw Jip and realized who he was. Jip’s father was not looking for a reunion with a son, but seeking to reclaim lost property. By law, Jip was his slave.

Jip knows he must flee to Canada, but he won’t leave without Put. He sneaks back to the farm to collect his friend before they return to the Quakers’ land. The slave catcher and Jip’s father are guarding the Stevens home, knowing the Quakers are part of the Underground Railroad. Luke is able to shelter Jip and Put temporarily, but they are forced to run again. Jip knows Put is too old and weak for much more hiding out, and he tries to get help from the Wilkens. When he taps on Lucy’s window at night, she tells him he must go or her mother will turn him in.

Jip and Put run to Teacher’s house. His father, the slave catcher and the sheriff catch them. There is a skirmish, and Put and the slave catcher die. Teacher insists Jip must get a fair trial, so the sheriff puts him in jail rather than immediately turning him over to his father. Teacher and Luke tell Jip they will lie and say they are his biological parents, but Jip knows they would suffer scorn for this.

He sneaks out of the jail at night and runs for Canada. There, he meets a man Teacher mentioned earlier and becomes part of his family. He ends the tale years later by saying he is returning to the United States. He is joining a Negro regiment in New York to fight for the end of slavery.

Christian Beliefs

Deacon Avery of the Congregational Church and his wife find Jip. The irritated clergyman initially tells the toddler to go home. When it doesn’t work, he reluctantly picks up the screaming child and takes him to Reverend Goodrich. The Reverend can’t keep Jip because he has 13 children of his own, so he sends Jip to the poor farm. The narrator often refers to the citizens of Jip’s town as God-fearing people, but their main concern seems to keeping the poor and mentally ill from becoming a tax burden.

Jip attends the Congregational Church and tells Put he finds church music dreary. Put regularly sings a hymn called “All Is Well” about not fearing death and looking toward the peace and joy of heaven. The song talks about grace, freedom, forgiveness from sins and being with Jesus. At first, Jip can’t understand how Put can sing about death so joyfully. The children eventually grow fond of the song and frequently sing it, too.

At one point, Jip thinks Put’s lunacy has been cast away as the biblical demons were cast into swine. When Put starts raving again, Jip urges him not to let the Devil possess him. Jip can’t make himself lie to a stranger because the sin of lying is too heavy for his conscience.

Reflecting on his fall from the wagon, Jip wonders why parents wouldn’t search high and low for him like the Good Shepherd of the Bible for his lost lamb. After all, lambs were only beasts, while he was made in the image of God. After Sheldon dies, Jip ponders about whether the man is really free from pain and sorrow, wearing a glittering crown and singing with the angels. Reverend Goodrich preaches at Sheldon’s funeral and reminds people that Sheldon was like a little child, the kind Jesus welcomed.

Jip wonders why God wouldn’t want animals in heaven, since they’d be more useful than angels walking around strumming harps. One of the first things Jip learns to write is the Lord’s Prayer, and Put helps him know where to start when Jip starts to read the Bible his teacher gave him. As Jip listens to the recitation of Luke concerning Jesus in the manger, he wonders if even a poor boy like him could be descended from someone important.

Jip thinks Quakers with a lot of land are hypocrites, since they’re supposed to be plain, simple folk. Luke tells Jip that Christians are to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. This means they must sometimes employ their own covert methods to do the work of God.

Jip suggests God must like bitter jokes, since Jip had always wondered why no one came back for him and now someone evil had. Preparing to go to war, Jip acknowledges that God doesn’t rejoice in seeing people killing each other, but He also hates slavery.

Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Mr. Flint, who oversees the poor farm, demands gratitude from those he houses, though they live in poor conditions. Mr. and Mrs. Lyman care little for the residents of the poor farm, though they are the caretakers. When in his right state of mind, Put is a teacher, friend and father figure for Jip. Jip’s teacher refuses to let him fail with his education. She and Luke stand up for him and help him escape to freedom. Mrs. Wilkens is a friend to Jip until she learns he is black.


The narrator mentions several characters misusing the Lord’s name, though no actual swearing appears in the text. The Lymans hire Jip out to a farmer who beats and bullies him. Sometimes when Put is overcome with madness, he tears at his skin until he bleeds. Jip sees the broken, newly dead bodies of Sheldon and Put.


The narrator implies that Jip’s father impregnated his mother without her consent. Jip believes his mother would not have fled if it had been her choice to have the master’s child. Teacher and Luke say they will claim to have conceived Jip out of wedlock to save him from being returned to his father.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at ThrivingFamily.com/discuss-books. s not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.*

Additional Comments/Notes

Parent Note: Slavery: During this time period, many believe slavery to be right and beneficial for the nation.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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