review of YA book The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones

Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones

by Helen Hemphill

Front Street (November 2008)

ISBN-10: 1590786378, ISBN-13: 978-1590786376

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“Halleloo!” Omer grins, wide and proud. “That sure is some fine riding, Prometheus!” A string of sweatshines down one side of his forehead into brown eyes teh color of oiled leather.
I throw my leg over the filly’s back and slip to the ground while Omer slides a rope over Miss Stoney’s neck and hands her off to Pernie Boyd Dill.
“Got my four bits?” I ask.
“I ain’t paying four bits for you to break a filly.” Pernie Boyd sets his wide-brimmed hat on the back of his sandy hair and rests his hands on his hips. He bears the same ferret-eyed stare and pitted skin as his daddy. “You getting dreadful sassy, Prometheus Jones.” Pernie Boyd talks big, as long as his brother, LaRue, is nearby.
LaRue spits tobacco into the dirt. “You’re getting nothing,” he says.

The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill, p. 11.

Prometheus Jones, a young boy who has a talent with horses, breaks a horse for two racist brothers who refuse to pay him. Instead, they give him a raffle ticket for a horse. But when Prometheus’ ticket wins, the two brothers rile up the crowd against Prometheus and his cousin, Omer, and try to steal teh horse away from him. Prometheus and Omer escape on the horse with an angry, racist crowd of white boys and men after them–men who can kill them. So Prometheus and Omer keep riding–to Texas, to look for Prometheus’ father who was sold as a slave. Along the way, they get hired as cowboys, and undergo adventure and strife.

Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones is an entertaining story. I found myself interested in Prometheus’ adventures and scrapes, and wanting to know what happened to him. I cared about the characters–Prometheus and Omer, especially–and wanted them to get through everything safely. The book is a kind of survival story; there was so much that threatened Prometheus’ survival, from extreme racism, to stampeeding buffalos, to Native Indians angry at their land being invaded. Prometheus faces all of these challenges with courage.

Prometheus is a likable character. He repeatedly stands up for others even though it means great risk to himself, even his life, because he is an African American in a time when there’s a huge amount of racism. He also repeatedly stands up for his own rights, fights for what is his, and does the right thing. He is hard working, skilled at what he does, and repeatedly gains the respect of others. I loved how Prometheus is so good at what he does–calming crazed horses and shooting with such accuracy. All of those things gave him hero-like qualities, and helped me care about him.

However, there was a distance between Prometheus and the reader. It didn’t feel like we were fully in him; I wanted more emotion, more character involvement, more sensory information–more of Prometheus, and who he really is, not just what he does. I also wanted to see more of Prometheus’ relationship to his horse. We’re told that he ends up caring for her, but I didn’t see any of that relationship, and I expected to because he was so good with horses.

Prometheus was the most well drawn character, and then Omer and a few of the cowboys. Some of the other characters felt flat or not fully drawn; I would have liked to see more sides of them. At times it felt like sensory detail was dumped in a few places–too many different details all at once–and then long stretches where there was nothing.

Hemphill included great details of life in the west that helped it seem believable, such as that the cowboys sang not to each other, but to the cattle to calm them down.

When Prometheus starts having a number of things go wrong for him (spoiler alert)–he loses his precious horse, and his cousin is killed–and Prometheus himself loses hope and his upbeat way of looking at the world, the story starts to lose me. It felt like it changed the whole tone of the book, from a lighter adventure story to a more depressing story.

I found it upsetting that Omer, Prometheus’ cousin, was suddenly killed. Omer was important to Prometheus, and Prometheus was protective of him. The book took a depressing turn after that, especially since Prometheus and Omer had planned to go to Texas together and that goal brought both hope and forward momentum, and because Omer was such an innocent. Granted, I always have a hard time when good characters die in books–but if there’s more emotional working it through and hope, then it feels like there’s more reward for the reader for sticking through that hard period. And I didn’t get that from this book. Still, I kept reading. And I had no problem with the abusive and horrible characters dying.

I also didn’t find the ending satisfying enough. Throughout the book, Prometheus’ drive is to find his father, who was sold as a slave in Texas. But once Omer dies, Prometheus doesn’t care about it, and we never see whether he finds his father though we’re led to believe that that won’t work out. We also don’t see him gaining a replacement or happiness, though he does stay on with the cowboys.

Still, I wanted to read about Prometheus’ adventures, and the adventure and the setting should appeal to readers who like adventure. This would be a good book to give to boys who don’t like to read, since there’s adventure, danger, and a hero who stands up for what is right. It may spark their interest, especially because it doesn’t shy away from some of the bad things that could happen in that time period. The book is an excellent way to help readers deeply understand racism and the unjustness of it. It also shows readers that there were African American and Mexican cowboys, not just Caucasian cowboys–something that does not seem to be widely known. For that reason, it might be useful in school as supplemental material for history or English projects. At the back of the book there is an author’s note with a little more information.


For a fun book talk of the book, see the video below.

Other reviews:

Reading YA: Readers’ Rants “An energetic read for ages 10 and up, this is a surprisingly accurate, gritty portrayal of life in the Old West, telling it like it was for hundreds of young boys who left their homes and plantations after the Emancipation Proclamation and struck out for the untamed West.”

BookMoot “Wait a minute, I’m only on the second page of the story and I am totally and utterly committed to this young man and his predicament. How did Hemphill do that?”

Children’s Book Page “Hemphill lassos readers with her gift for dialogue and nail-biting scenes of danger, and holds them with fascinating descriptions of cowboy life and clever historical references….”

Author Interview:

Maw Books Blog “I had no idea that cattle driving could be so exciting, but it’s not hard when you have Prometheus Jones as a main character.”

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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