Learn more about CCRLS
Reading recommendations from Novelist
Online learning resources
Cover image for A difficult boy
A difficult boy

1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Holiday House, ©2008.
Physical Description:
298 pages ; 22 cm
In Farmington, Massachusetts, in 1839, nine-year-old Ethan experiences hardships as an indentured servant of the wealthy Lyman family alongside Daniel, a boy scorned simply for being Irish, and the boys bond as they try to right a terrible wrong.


Call Number

On Order



Riveting historical fiction from a debut novelist about the friendship that grows between two young indentured servants, one of them Irish, as they struggle to survive their harsh master in nineteenth century New England. It is 1839, Nine-year-old Ethan does not want to work for Mr. Lyman, the wealthy shopkeeper in their small Massachusetts' town. But Ethan has no choice--it is the only way to pay off his family's debt to the man. Ethan tries to befriend the Lymans' other indentured servant, but Daniel, as everyone says, is a difficult boy. Sixteen years old, Irish, and moody, Daniel brushes off Ethan as if he were a pesky gnat. Ethan resolves to ignore the brusque older boy, but is then shocked to see how cruelly Mr. Lyman's blows, and the two boys have only each other. Will Ethan be able to save his friend? And will others finally have the courage to do what is right for this not-so-difficult boy?

Author Notes

M. P. Barker worked as a costumed historical guide in Massachusetts for nearly ten years. She received a firsthand taste of nineteenth-century New England rural life by milking cows, mucking out barns, and doing other tasks that helped her bring realism and immediacy to A Difficult Boy, her first novel. The manuscript for A Difficult Boy won the 2003 PEN New England Children's Book Caucus Discovery Award. Learn more at mpbarker.net.

Reviews 5

School Library Journal Review

Gr 5-8-When nine-year-old Ethan leaves his family to be bound out to Mr. Lyman, his father tries to make it sound like an adventure and an opportunity to learn a trade. But Ethan knows that it is a necessity: his father has no other way to pay off his debts to the wealthy shopkeeper. The Lymans' other indentured servant is a surly teenager who rebuffs Ethan's attempts at friendship. Mr. Lyman is initially affectionate and gracious to Ethan and warns him against spending too much time with Daniel, a "difficult boy" whom the Lymans call Paddy to underscore his Irish inferiority. But when Ethan accidentally breaks a plate, he witnesses how quickly the man's benevolent demeanor can transform into violent rage, and, after a vicious beating, he and Daniel begin to form a bond. But to the town, and even to Ethan's parents, the man is a shining example of virtue, teaching these boys a trade and "disciplining" them only when their misdeeds warrant it. As the boys' friendship grows stronger, Ethan learns more of Daniel's tragic past and the circumstances that have bound him to the Lymans. How Ethan and Daniel bolster each other and escape Mr. Lyman's tyranny makes for a memorable tale of friendship and a fascinating glimpse into mid-19th-century Massachusetts. Like L. M. Elliott's Give Me Liberty (HarperCollins, 2006), this is an eye-opening look at indentured servitude in American history.-Kim Dare, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publisher's Weekly Review

Barker's gift for historical detail illuminates this absorbing first novel, accurately portraying the pleasures and the harsh realities of 19th-century Massachusetts farm life. From describing exactly how to milk a treacherous cow to the precise way a servant ties and knots her shawl over a dress that is "the color of an overdone Indian pudding," the author adds authenticity to her well-constructed story. Nine-year-old Ethan Root has been "bound" to shopkeeper and farmer George Lyman as an indentured servant. Lyman appears to be generous, and Ethan will have an opportunity to learn a trade. Ethan and his fellow servant Daniel form a bond that grows as they endure beatings and humiliations at Lyman's hands. Barker uses the burgeoning friendship as background for the quickening pace of the text, as the boys discover evidence of Lyman's double-dealings. Readers will like this book for its attention to heady issues like early prejudice against the Irish (Daniel is Irish) and the treatment of indentured servants as young as themselves, and for its satisfying and hopeful conclusion. Ages 10-up. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Horn Book Review

Nine-year-old Ethan becomes an indentured servant to the local shopkeeper. Irish teenager Daniel, another indentured servant, teaches Ethan how to bear the position's hardships. Set in 1839, the story provides an insightful look at the cultural norms and prejudices of the time while telling the story of two boys who, despite differences in age and background, develop a lasting friendship. (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

Indentured to prosperous Massachusetts merchant George Lyman, nine-year-old farmboy Ethan Root initially hates working with the moody, sharp-tongued bound boy everyone calls Paddy. His feelings change, however, after he learns that "Paddy" is an ethnic slur (the teenager's name is actually Daniel) and sees Lyman viciously beat the lad. Soon Ethan himself is feeling the rod as well, but what recourse do the two have against their brutal employer? In 1839, none at all--until Ethan discovers that Lyman has been systematically cheating his customers out of their money, and Daniel out of his inheritance. Cast as the protagonist, Ethan is younger than the intended audience for this tale, but the central figures here are really Daniel and Lyman. Ultimately the former shows hidden depths of character, and the latter turns out to be, if not sympathetic, at least more than a cardboard villain. Though the resolution seems forcibly tidy, the sense that events are taking place in a different time, when people held different attitudes and expectations, comes through clearly. (Historical fiction. 11-13) Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

The truth of it is, son, I need you to go, Ethan's dad confesses when the boy protests becoming indentured to a local businessman. It is 1839 and families can indenture children to help pay debts. Nine-year-old Ethan's plight might have been somewhat bearable if it weren't for the cruelty of his master, George Lyman. The Lyman family treats another indentured boy with appalling meanness, calling Daniel Paddy and denouncing his Irish heritage at every opportunity. Ethan and Daniel live in fear of brutal treatment for the slightest infractions. Daniel's only respite comes from caring for the Lymans' horse, Ivy. The boy teaches Ethan horsemanship, and the two enjoy brief, exhilarating flights of freedom on horseback. They also slowly uncover Lyman's financial dishonesty and eventually prove that Daniel's indenture is completely fraudulent. Relief descends a little too neatly in the end, but readers will cheer for the two charming, perseverant protagonists as they force a corrupt grown-up to face the music.--O'Malley, Anne Copyright 2008 Booklist