The Wanigan: A Life on the River by Gloria Whelan is a short novel about eleven year old Annabel Lee and her parents and the journey they take down Michigan’s river system to Lake Huron as a part of a logging crew in the year 1878. Annabel and her mother live in the wanigan, which Mama defines for Annabel as “a little floating house where I will do the cooking and where you and I will sleep for the three months it will take the logs to make their way down the river” (13). Papa and the rest of the crew, including Jimmy the chore boy, sleep in the floating bunkhouse. The work is hard, both for the men and for Mama, and Annabel and Jimmy forge a friendship through their common experiences and lack of other playmates. Annabel even has to step up and accept adult responsibilities when her mother gets sick and cannot do the cooking. Still, there is fun to be had, and Annabel and Jimmy have their share, from splashing in the river to raising a baby raccoon. By the end of the three months, Annabel has come to look upon the river as her home and upon Jimmy and the men of the logging crew as members of her family.
I really enjoyed this book (Do I say that all the time? Well, it’s true. I rarely finish a book I don’t like.) and would recommend it to any child capable of reading it or listening to it. This book would be a perfect book for a study of Michigan history or a history of the Great Lakes region. Whelan’s books are usually full of literary allusions, and this one is no exception. As one would expect in a book with a protagonist named Annabel Lee, this book has a quotations from Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry every few pages. Poe is Annabel’s favorite poet. That’s another thing that I like about this book–it shows a child being educated outside of the normal parameters of school. Although she longs to return to school and her normal life in Detroit, it is obvious by the end of the story that she has learned a lot through her own studies and life experiences. At only one hundred thirty-three pages, this book offers a little window into a bygone world that is both interesting and entertaining.
To visit Whelan’s website, go here.