Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Matchlock Gun

Finished The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds. It won the Newbery Medal in 1942. Set in Guilderland, New York in 1756, during the French and Indian War, it's the story of Edward Van Alstyne, a ten year old boy who defends his family's home with an ancient matchlock gun. The gun was brought to America from Holland by Edward's great-grandfather.

Before leaving with the militia to stop the French from advancing towards their settlement, Edward's father, Teunis, shows his son how the gun works. Once he is gone, Edward's mother, Gertrude, keeps Edward and his little sister Trudy close to the house. When bringing the family's two cows in for the evening, Gertrude notices a large plume of smoke in the distance. She realizes that nearby settlements are being burned by Indians.

She takes the children inside, bars the doors and shutters, then takes down the cumbersome matchlock gun. She loads the gun with lots of extra powder, the two bullets left in the mold, and an assortment of hard and sharp objects such as nails and buttons. Outside she chops a hole in the front wooden window shutter. Back inside she and Edward drag the dining table up to the window and prop the gun so that the muzzle is lined up with the hole. She gives Edward very explicit instructions on how to light the gun with a candle before firing. She drills him in the procedure until there is no doubt that he understands. She tells him to fire it only when she yells the signal "Ateoord!" which is Edward's name in Dutch.

Gertrude then goes outside into the dusk with her basket and pretends to be gathering beans. Her plan is to trick the lurking Indians into chasing her, thus leading them into the path of the gun's ammunition. This seems so desperately brave to me. Her plan works to a point. She is careful to run just fast enough to keep a few lengths ahead of them. When she reaches the door of the house she yells the signal. The Indians throw two tomahawks at her. One lands in the door next to her face, the other in her left shoulder.

Meanwhile, Edward follows her instructions exactly. The enormous gun fires. The force of the blast knocks Edward backward and out for a moment. He awakes to a great light and realizes that the front stoop is on fire. He rushes out to find Trudy trying in vain to pull the tomahawk from their mother's shoulder. Gertrude is unconscious. Edwards sees that he has killed three of the Indians. The others have fled. He and Trudy drag their mother away from the the fire into the yard, and with effort, Edward is able to dislodge the tomahawk. He uses his sister's shirt to stop up the wound. With what little strength he has left, Edward runs inside and drags out the antique gun. He and Trudy sit in the dark watching their house burn to the ground. Soon after, Teunis returns with the militia.

This book was based on a true story. Colonial history is full of such stories, many of which did not end so well. I admit I was a bit shocked by Gertrude's injury. The book's illustrations, by Paul Lantz are at times soft and charming, at others lurid and harsh. While the story was exciting, it wasn't one of my favorites.

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