summertime book of the week…600 miles of grit, grime, and cannons

henry and the cannons cover imageHenry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revolution, written and illustrated by Don Brown

In 1775, after all the excitement of Paul Revere’s ride, the Minutemen’s stand at Concord Bridge, and the shot heard round the world, George Washington’s ragtag army was stymied. They simply could not budge the Redcoats from their hold over the city of Boston. 

What I need, said George, are some cannons.

George had cannons a-plenty. The problem was they were located at a fort in New York, some 300 rugged miles away. So what good were they henry and the cannons illustration don brown3going to do him?

Enter Henry Knox, one-time bookseller in Boston. Knox thought the impossible notion of bringing those cannon to Boston was not-so-impossible. All it would take was some grit and determination, and Knox was willing to supply that.

So Knox set out on horseback, and his incredible journey to Fort Ticonderoga through rain and snow and sleet and hail, and back, directing the operations of lugging 60 tons of cannons through icy waters and knee-deep mud, drifts of snow and mountainous landscapes –henry and the cannons illustration don brown2– a 600-mile round trip accomplished in 50 days — is a tale of truly heroic proportions of grit and determination.

Don Brown has written this fantastic, true story in picture book format — miraculously thrifty on words while abounding in the tension and strain and glorious accomplishment of Knox’s feat. It’s history accessible to children as young as 5, that’s riveting for adults. Brilliant.

Brown’s illustrations in watercolor and ink create a colonial, Revolutionary world with steely-gray-blues and biscuit browns dominating the pages — a sober, chilly wash — until the final victory ushers in some warmth of color. His rough, sketchy lines, bulky figures, and loose style add to the sense of the unpolished setting, and his perspectives pull us in to battering weather, straining  ropes, sloshing waves, sloggy mud, and weary miles. henry and the cannons illustration don brown

I also love his use of sequences of panels on a number of pages that lend almost a graphic novel pacing of action as we move through one toilsome moment after another.

It’s an excellent new look at American History that will animate the subject and bring to life the ordinary people who act with extraordinary tenacity in our world, then and now. There’s no Author’s Note, though one possible follow-up is the historical-fiction novel Guns for General Washington by Seymour Reit. I’ve not read it, but it covers this same incident and could be read aloud to kids as young as 8 who want to know more.