Logging-camp adventure turns 10-year-old into mensch

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In the world of Jewish children's books, Kathryn Lasky's "Marven of the Great North Woods" is a step above the rest.

For starters, it is not about a Jewish holiday or Jewish history or about talking to God. And it proves that the words "Jewish" and "adventure" are not mutually exclusive. Plus the oil painting illustrations by Kevin Hawkes add texture and feeling to what is already a charming story.

Set in Duluth, Minn., in 1918, "Marven of the Great North" is the story of a 10-year-old boy sent away from home to avoid the influenza epidemic.

"I want him to live to be a man," says Mama. "He must go."

Marven's parents arrange for him to spend the winter doing bookkeeping tasks at a friend's French-speaking logging camp.

The only boy among five children, Marven and his sisters board a train headed for the great north. Marven has only a rudimentary knowledge of French (bonjour). Latkes and knishes wrapped in newspapers are tucked into his coat, which is lined with scraps of beaver fur. Mama and Papa remind Marven how they learned English when they arrived from Russia and assure him he will do just fine.

Five hours after his departure, Marven arrives in Bemidji, Minn. He straps on his skis and goes five miles to meet Papa's friend Mr. Murray, a big man with a handsome waxed mustache. As night falls he meets Mr. Murray and the two of them head back for camp. Marven learns his second French word — derrière. Mr. Murray is freezing his off.

At camp, Marven watches the huge lumberjacks dancing into the evening. Mr. Murray shows Marven his office-bedroom. He informs him of his bookkeeping duties and his added responsibility of waking any lumberjacks not yet up by the fourth bell at 4:25 a.m. Marven is happy to have a room all his own rather than sharing it with his sisters.

The story continues with Marven's life and growth at the camp and his friendship with the biggest, burliest logger of them all, Jean Louis. Upon waking Jean Louis on his first morning, Marven learns yet another French term — lève-toi, "get up." Once Marven masters his bookkeeping skills he begins skiing into the woods in the afternoon. One day Jean Louis frightens him. Marven thinks he is a bear. The mistaken identity bonds them. Each day Marven skis out to meet the loggers and returns to camp with them to share dinner and dancing.

Four months after his arrival, the snow begins to melt and Mr. Murray says it is time for Marven to go home. "I'll send your parents a letter to say you're coming home. But I don't know what I'll do for a bookkeeper," he laments.

On the day of Marven's departure, Jean Louis hands him an ax. "You are a woodsman now," he says, and begins the five-mile journey to the train station with his small friend.

"Au revoir," Marven says and boards the train home. He arrives in Duluth to find his family intact, smothering him with hugs and kisses. "The sickness is over," Mama says.

A sweet story of an unlikely friendship, "Marven of the Great North Woods" stays true to its Jewish roots in all of its details. For instance, on the first day of wake-up duty Marven wonders to himself if there is a bracha or prayer for a rising lumberjack. At breakfast he notices the food is not kosher. He quickly decides one day he will eat flapjacks and oatmeal with milk. And the next day steak and oatmeal without milk. He passes the bacon to Jean Louis.

It should also be noted that the story is based on history.

At the end of the book author Lasky briefly tells the story of her own Marven — her father, Marven Lasky, born in 1907 in Duluth to Russian immigrants Ida and Joe. The real Marven also headed to the north woods during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Today Marven is over 90 years old. Just like his fictional counterpart, the real-life Marven is also a skier — his last time down the slopes was at age 83 in Aspen, Colo. He, too, has a good head for figures.