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Trouble River

Betsy Byars

Theme: The Pioneer Life and Spirit
Grades: Grades 6-7

Trouble River is a novel that takes place on an isolated prairie farm in the 1800s. When 12-year-old Dewey Martin frightens off one Indian trespasser, Dewey fears a raiding party will soon follow. His parents have gone to distant Hunter City to have a new baby, leaving behind Dewey, his grandmother, and his dog. The fastest means of escape is the small raft Dewey has built but does not know how to use. The three set off—with Grandma on her rocker—on Trouble River, a twisting and unpredictable route that offers its own challenges to safety. As they head for Hunter City, they cling to the hope that Dewey's parents have not encountered the raiders. The travelers fend off a pack of wolves and overcome raging rapids before reaching Hunter City, reuniting with Dewey's parents and new little sister.

  1. Tapping Prior Knowledge: Lives of the Pioneers.
    Invite students to share what they know about the daily life of the pioneers who settled on the Great Plains. You might create a cluster diagram on the chalkboard to stimulate and guide the discussion. The following cluster diagram includes sample categories. Encourage students to add topics and details.
  1. Linking to Today: New Frontiers.
    In a class discussion, invite students to talk about regions that remain hard to reach and unpopulated (for example, polar regions; deep jungles in Asia, Africa, or South America; the ocean floors; outer space). Discuss exploration of these regions in terms of the following categories: the degree of isolation, the landscape, other life forms, and the dangers. Ask students to describe what characteristics modern-day explorers might have in common with people of America's frontier era.
  1. Frontier Voices.
    Have students find pioneer narratives and choose one to read for a Readers Theater presentation. In such a production, staging and costumes are unnecessary. Performers read an actual work of literature aloud, almost as if it were the script of a play. Students might also create brief narratives based on characters from Trouble River. Suggest that students use recorded background music to help "set the scene" of each narrative.

  1. Prairie Promo.
    A land office in Hunter City is trying to encourage more settlers to homestead in the area. Have students create a poster that can be displayed in train stations, stagecoach depots, and land offices in the East and that will promote the many advantages of life on the prairie. Encourage students to begin by brainstorming a list of all the benefits of prairie life.
  1. Frontier Travel.
    Besides covered wagons, what other means of travel did pioneers use in the West? What was it like to travel by stagecoach or flatboat? How did the building of a transcontinental railroad affect the the growth of the West? Ask students to write a research report to answer one of these questions, or write a few entries of a travel log a pioneer might have kept while traveling by stagecoach, flatboat, or railroad train.
  1. Through Other Eyes.
    Discuss with students the fact that there is evidence in Trouble River of Indians destroying settlers' farms. Grandma describes these Indians as renegades. Point out that this is only one side of the story. Ask students to research the history of the Plains Indians after the arrival of the settlers. Then have them write a speech in which they present the Indians' point of view.