Learning about the California Gold Rush is the highlight of Social Studies in 4th grade. At least I like to think so :)
There are only a couple of really good historical fiction books out there about this time period, Patty Reed's Doll: The Story of the Donner Party being (arguably) the most popular, and though my school had a class set of Patty Reeds when I started teaching 4th grade, another set of books caught my eye. I opened the dusty cover, read a few pages and never looked back. By the Great Horn Spoon, by Sid Fleischman, has been delighting 4th graders at my school ever since. They beg for more at the end of each chapter, gasp, cheer, and groan along the way, feeling as though they are part of the story at every turn.
The story begins on the Lady Wilma, a gold ship bound for San Francisco, California. We learn that two stowaways are aboard ship, a butler and a young boy. They meet the crusty, but soft-hearted Captain Swain, admit to being stowaways and accept their punishment - to spend the duration of the journey below decks, shoveling coal into the furnaces.
The author then flashes back to Boston earlier in the week when young Jack Flagg learns that his guardian, the young and beautiful Aunt Arabella, will soon be broke. Eleven-year old Jack decides to solve this problem by making his way to California to fill his pockets with gold and save the family home and honor. The family's trusty butler, Praiseworthy, figures out what is going on and chooses to accompany Jack on his adventure.
We find ourselves in the present again, enjoying the journey as Jack and Praiseworthy travel around Cape Horn to San Francisco, travel up the river to Sacramento and take a stagecoach to Hangtown. They outwit villains, solve a myriad of problems, make colorful new friends, earn nicknames from the other miners, and explore the area I live in while searching for gold (this might has something to do with the way I feel about this book ;)
My classes love learning about our hometown and the surrounding areas. We map their ascent from Sacramento to Placerville as we read about it, we map their journey from Hangtown (Placerville) to Coloma, and we compare photos of our area then and now.
As readers, we watch hard work, danger, and determination season Praiseworthy and Jack, recasting their relationship and opening their minds to new possibilities for their futures.
Praiseworthy is aptly named and earns his moniker many times over during their exploits. He is astute, mannered, calm, proper, and becomes a true role model for Jack, who begins to see some of the fine gentleman's traits in himself.
I won't write any spoilers, but I will say that it is a very satisfying ending that leaves my class cheering each and every year.