This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Fifteen-year-old Simon Green lives in eastern Missouri in 1860 with his aunt and uncle. His mother has been dead for 10 years, and his father deserted him around the same time. Most people refer to him as “pea-brained” since he just finished third grade for the fourth time. His beloved teacher, Miss Rogers, says it’s time for him to do something new with his life.
Simon learns that a local turkey farmer has more birds than he can feed. They would fetch serious money in the booming city of Denver, Colorado. But Denver is nearly 1,000 miles away. Simon hatches a plan to buy the turkeys and walk them to Denver.
His aunt and uncle reluctantly let him take a cart and the mules he’s raised, and Miss Rogers invests her life savings in his venture. Simon also learns about a local drunk named Mr. Peece who, after three days of drying out, is ready to drive the mules so Simon can herd the turkeys. Simon purchases 1,000 turkeys at a quarter apiece with the intent of selling them for $5 each at the end of his journey.
Simon and Mr. Peece face early challenges, like figuring out how to get 1,000 turkeys across a river. They come upon a hungry runaway slave named Jabeth who is about Simon’s age, and he soon becomes a member of their team.
In Jefferson City, Simon reads about a circus featuring exotic animals that Miss Rogers had mentioned in class. He leaves Mr. Peece and Jabeth with the turkeys to see for himself. Simon inadvertently comes face to face with his long-lost father, Samson, who is a circus strongman. He watches Samson’s performance, and then the two catch up in Samson’s quarters.
When Samson learns about Simon’s money-making endeavor, he suggests going with his son to Denver. Simon is skeptical of his father’s motives but tells Samson where they’re camped and that they’re leaving in the morning. When Simon returns to discuss his day with Mr. Peece, the older man agrees that Samson’s motives sound suspicious. Simon and his crew decide to leave early the next day to avoid Samson, but they’re too late.
Samson and another performer named Cleaver ride up on Arabian horses that they’ve stolen from the circus. They pull revolvers on Simon and Mr. Peece. Then they tie up Simon and Mr. Peece, and steal the mules and turkeys.
Jabeth, who hid at the first sign of white men, unties Simon and Mr. Peece. They follow Samson’s trail and round up the birds that fall behind. Then they sneak into Samson and Cleaver’s camp, tie up the men and reclaim their animals. They also take Samson’s stolen circus horses.
Things go well for Simon and his friends as they travel through Missouri. They all celebrate Jabeth’s freedom when they reach Kansas. Their new concern is the wild, ferocious Indians they’ve heard live in the area. When they meet members of the Pottawattomie tribe, however, they find the men wear clothing similar to theirs and have an articulate, English-speaking chief.
Samson and Cleaver resurface, this time on stolen camels. The Indians dress in traditional garb and face paint to give Samson and Cleaver a scare. Simon gives the chief turkeys in exchange for his promise to detain the con men for a while.
Back on their route, Simon and his friends have a run-in with some soldiers taking potshots at the birds. On the desolate Kansas prairie, they find a homestead inhabited by a half-crazed girl named Lizzie. Her entire family has just died of cholera.
A massive cloud of locust swarm them on Lizzie’s farm, but the turkeys save the group by eating the grasshoppers. Lizzie joins Simon’s group on their journey to Denver. Once cleaned up and rested, she is a sane and lovely girl.
Simon is enamored with her, but he grows sullen and keeps his distance when he realizes she is an unattainable older woman of 16. She soon puts Simon’s fears to rest, admitting she likes him, too. Simon feels sad as they near Denver. He imagines all of his new friends will take their portion of the turkey earnings and go their own ways.
The group camps on the outskirts of Denver and orders handbills announcing their turkey auction. The whole town turns out, and the turkeys sell for $6 each. Just as the auction is ending, Samson and Cleaver show up and claim the birds belong to them. Simon produces a mangled bill of sale from the turkey farmer in Missouri, and Samson and Cleaver are thrown in jail.
Back at camp, Simon sadly doles out the money to his friends. To his surprise, they throw it back at him and say they want to invest in his next venture. A joyful Simon writes to Miss Rogers, telling her about the turkey ranch he, Mr. Peece, Jabeth and Lizzie are starting in Denver.
As Simon leaves home, Miss Rogers says she’ll be praying for him for good measure. When Mr. Peece talks about the family he lost 15 years earlier, Simon points out that their deaths took place about the time he and Jabeth were being born. He says the Lord took away from Mr. Peece but gave back at the same time by preparing the new “family” Mr. Peece would meet years later.
As a cloud of locust swarms toward them, a crazed Lizzie cries out that the wrath of God is upon them. She wails that the Lord said to let His people go, and she is one of His people. Jabeth explains that she’s quoting from the book of Exodus in the Bible. He briefly mentions some of the other plagues on the Egyptians. Simon notices churches in some of the towns they pass through. Mr. Peece tells Simon he’ll stay with him as permanently as the Lord will allow.
Miss Rogers encourages and inspires Simon to keep trying when most people tell him he’s too dumb to succeed. Simon’s aunt and uncle grudgingly take care of him after his mother’s death. Simon’s long-lost father turns out to be a money-hungry con man with no love for his son. Mr. Peece offers wise advice and friendship, becoming a father figure to Simon.
Simon says the turkeys are making a godawful rumpus, and a circus performer asks, “Who the devil are you?” Lord knows is used, and Pa says d—ation and uses other curse words not recorded in the text. Simon tells him such language isn’t necessarily a sign of manliness, but demonstrating bravery or a having a gentle heart is.
Simon is intrigued and a little embarrassed by a female circus performer whose legs are covered with nothing but tights. Lizzie invites Simon to kiss her on the cheek. He “accidentally” misses and gets her lips.
Prejudice: Simon witnesses prejudice against black people and Native Americans on his journey. Jabeth often pretends to be Simon’s slave while the group is still in slave territory. This keeps him safe.
When Simon takes Jabeth to get a pair of shoes, the shop owner first notes that he doesn’t have any slave-grade shoes. Simon tells him he wants quality shoes so they won’t wear out, but the owner still makes Simon buy socks so Jabeth’s black feet won’t contaminate the stock. Simon and Mr. Peece celebrate with Jabeth when the group crosses over into free territory.
When the group enters Indian country, Mr. Peece explains how the government sent the Indians west. The Indians they meet defy stereotypes, as they wear similar clothing to the group and have a leader who uses large, eloquent words.
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