This novel set in the 1860s begins with 12-year-old P K Pinkerton finding his foster father dead with an axe in his chest and his foster mother alive only long enough to whisper some instructions into his ear. Our hero shows little of the emotion one would normally expect from a child of 12 who encounters such a scenario. PK is guided by his belief in God but he has trouble telling whether people are genuine or not. His story is supposedly written on some ledger books found in Caroline Lawrence’s great-grandmother’s attic in California.
The reader readily enters the life of this resourceful and engaging young man as he goes on the run from Whittlin Walt who is in search of a letter which gives the bearer ownership of some land near Pleasant Town. This land is evidently worth a dollar or two as PK is chased to Virginia City, encountering Belle, the ‘Soiled Dove’ and the newspaper reporter Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain. Helped by a Chinese boy and a professional gambler who teaches him how to read people by watching their feet, PK evades Walt until the final pages when he is trapped down a mineshaft and writes his story on the ledger to be found later which is where we came in.
The text is full of clever jokes like PK’s description of the prostitute Belle as a ‘Soiled Dove’, or the exchanges on p.205 about the meaning of Mark Twain and the many misspellings of words like ‘hore’ for whore. These may appeal to an adult but would I fear pass over a child’s head. The story moves along at a pace, is very exciting and full of twists and turns and, if the reader can suspend the picture in his/her mind of the foster father with an axe in his chest, then it is a good read. To enjoy this Western genre reality has to take a back seat. This novel would read aloud very well and also probably make a good film.