In the novel Joshua’s Journey, author Judith A. Dempsey tells the story of a young free black man finding his way in post-Civil War America. Each chapter is a story within a story, focused on “Old Joshua,” who is living with his adult daughter and her twin sons. Some event sparks a memory of his younger days, which Joshua then relates.
As a young man, Joshua worked in his uncle’s blacksmith shop and assisted him with care of the horses on the Bigley farm. When his loose grip on a horse allows an accident that threatens the life of Captain Bigley’s daughter, Joshua’s sister sends him to find a woman rumored to have healing powers. She gives him medicine that cures the girl, and the family is so appreciative that they help Joshua realize his dream of becoming a doctor—but there are many challenges along the way.
Dempsey brings history alive through vivid detail, and the numerous illustrations are a nice touch. However, the layout is jarring; each illustration takes up a full page, but the previous page ends abruptly, with just a few lines of text at the top and the rest of the page blank. This makes for a disjointed reading experience.
Dempsey also occasionally loses track of her narrator. For example, Chapter Eleven opens on Old Joshua applying denture adhesive while one of his grandsons watches. Musing on aging inspires him to share a childhood story. The setup is written in an omniscient voice, while “young” Joshua’s stories are relayed in first person. Twice, however, things abruptly revert to omniscient (“Even before Joshua could call her,…”). Additionally, quotation marks are sometimes misapplied, further confusing matters.
Joshua’s Journey has much potential. The chapter book structure makes it a natural for kids learning American history, and there’s plentiful material for discussion. But it needs scrupulous editing and re-formatting to make it truly sing.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.