Book Review of Littsie of Cincinnati by Jinny Powers Berten and Norah Holt

This is a reader request from April. Thanks, April!

Littsie of Cincinnati Book Review by What My Kids Read
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Littsie of Cincinnati is historical fiction, set in the 1830s. It reminded me of the Little House Books. The book is short and easy enough for my 7 year old to read, but there are scary things that I would want to talk through with my kids. Littsie is a strong girl, a brave main character with a very strong loyalty to family and to those who helped her. Kindness and bravery is rewarded, and evil is punished.

There is a sequel to this book, called Littsie and the Underground Railroad. While looking for a summary of this book, I came across a study guide for Littsie of Cincinnati here.

Littsie of Cincinnati captures the importance of kindness in the history of the settling of America.

Parents should be advised that Littsie’s parents die in a cholera epidemic (which is described) and Littsie cannot find her little sister, a man breaks into Littsie’s room and stabs her bed with a knife as a threat, and there are several references to the slave trade (Littsie helps in a rescue of a slave girl). Please see my ratings and details below.

My Mom-Meter gives Littsie of Cincinnati an overall safety rating of 1 (Safe) for ages 8 and up.

The Lexile rating for Littsie of Cincinnati is not listed.

Click here to skip to a Plot summary

Click here to skip straight to Potential Discussion Points

Click here for Liam’s Review

Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):

Alcohol/DrugsSafe - no actual four-letter words

BullyingSafe - no actual four-letter words

Disrespectful AttitudesSafe - no actual four-letter words

Gambling: Safe - no actual four-letter words

Gross BehaviorSafe - no actual four-letter words

LanguageModerately Safe

Magic/SupernaturalSafe - no actual four-letter words

MoralitySafe - no actual four-letter words

Romance/SexSafe - no actual four-letter words

Scary ThemesCaution

ViolenceModerately Safe

Plot summary of Littsie of Cincinnati: ***Contains Spoilers***

The story opens with Littsie as a grandmother, telling her grandchildren about her childhood in the 1830s. Littsie and her family travelled up the Ohio River, and Littsie’s parents buy land in Columbia (a little outside of Cincinnati). Littsie finds an old property marker in French, and when it breaks, Littsie and her little sister, Megan, each take half of the marker. After settling in Columbia, Littsie’s parents succumb to the cholera epidemic that ravaged Cincinnati in 1832. Littsie buries her parents by herself and cannot find her little sister. She looks everywhere and gets confused, confused in the woods, and nearly dies near the Ohio River before being picked up by a riverboat. The captain’s wife takes care of Littsie, nurses her back to health, and finds someone to help Littsie when the boat lands in New Orleans (which had also gone through a cholera epidemic). While on board, a man sneaks into Littsie’s room at night, and threatens to kill her with a knife unless she tells him where a chest is. He stabs her bed to make the point, and Littsie is terrified. She tells the captain about it the next day, and she is kept safe. The man is arrested when they land in New Orleans. Littsie is then taken in by recently widowed Dr. Gilbert who needed help taking care of his children in New Orleans. Littsie is treated well and learns about medicine (her dream is to be a doctor), but wants to get back to Cincinnati and look for her little sister. She writes to Dr. Locke that her father had spoken to before his death, asking for admission to a school for girls in exchange for work. Littsie is accepted into the school in exchange for her work, and travels back to Cincinnati with her friends on the riverboat. She is given a lovely trunk full of clothes from the doctor and his family in thanks for her help. While on the riverboat, Littsie rescues a slave girl who was in a steamboat accident. Littsie hides the girl in her trunk and smuggles her into Cincinnati. Mr. Longworth then intervenes to buy the slave girl from the irate owner (who is following Littsie), and the slave girl is set free and works for the man in Cincinnati. Littsie then goes to school, all the while looking for her sister. She finally finds Megan in an orphanage, identifying her with the broken marker they both had held onto.

Littsie of Cincinnati Book Review by What My Kids Read

Potential Discussion Points for Parents in Littsie of Cincinnati:

  • Littsie sees black men in Cincinnati, and her father tells her that not all black men are slaves. In New Orleans, Littsie asks Dr. Gilbert “Doesn’t that make you sick and angry to see people treated that way, Dr. Gilbert?” Dr. Gilbert replies “What I think isn’t important. There are those who believe in slavery…I don’t keep slaves and I don’t talk about slavery because it’s best people mind their own business as to how they run their homes.” You might want to talk with your children about slavery, and why people like Dr. Gilbert thought that way. Is it “best people mind their own business” or are some things more important that privacy?
  • Littsie’s parents die during the cholera epidemic, and not many people want to help during that time. You might want to talk with your children about weighing the pros and cons of helping others. Why would you not offer Littsie help? Why should you offer Littsie help?
  • Throughout the story, strangers show kindness to Littsie. Dr. Drake sends medicine for free to help her father. Dr. Locke agrees to let her into the school if she will work. The captain’s wife rescues her and takes care of her. People on the riverboat give her nice clothes to wear. Dr. Gilbert takes her into his home to help with his children, and they give her a nice trunk full of clothes when she leaves. “I found myself weeping tears of joy, joy of knowing there were people so kind and loving and interested in me.” You might want to talk with your children about how kindness blesses more than just the person you are kind to. The people that were kind to Littsie ended up also blessing Megan.
  • When the Brandywine explodes, Littsie saves a young slave girl from the river. Once she realizes that the girl is a slave, Littsie decides to smuggle that girl to Cincinnati so that she can be free. Littsie knew she was breaking the law. You might want to talk with your children about how it is sometimes right to break unjust laws.

Alcohol/Drugs: 

  • There are huge barrels of things, including whiskey, at the public landing in Cincinnati.
  • Mr. Longworth offers a glass of wine to the slave owner.

Bullying:

Disrespectful Attitudes: 

Gambling: 

  • Littsie stays in a room on the riverboat that was reserved for a “gambler.”

Gross Behavior:

Language:

  • Littsie describes her sister as “the worst little redheaded dickens of a four-year-old.”
  • Littsie’s mother says “Glory Be.”
  • Littsie’s mother says “Oh dear God!”
  • Littsie says “For heaven’s sake”
  • During the cholera epidemic, a woman sighs “God save us.”
  • “Dag blame it” is used twice.

Magic/Supernatural: 

  • There is one reference to “lucky” in a song.
  • There is an “Invisible Girl” in The Great Western Museum. The voice of the Invisible Girl tells them that she is in an Egyptian burial chamber.
  • In “The Infernal Regions” of The Great Western Museum: “A man dressed in a red devil’s suit greeted us… ‘Do you like the smell of sulfur?’… This room was more horrible than al the others. Skeletons were everywhere, Their bony hands reached out, begging for help. A figure at least seven feet tall sat in a wooden chair under a sign that read, ‘Minos, Judge of Hell.’ Behind Minos was a painting of a frozen lake. Rising, floating in the lake, were doomed people, their faces twisted in anguish. There was a devil seated on a rock, dangling the head of an awful, hairy, bulging-eyes monster with large scales hanging from his cheeks. We heard voices crying out for peace, begging for forgiveness for the evil lives they had lived. Then all lanterns went out. The sounds came in horrid shrieks, unearthly groans, and terrible cries.”
  • A letter describing the cholera outbreak in New Orleans described the city at that time as “a hellish place.”
  • The captain called the man who snuck into Littsie’s room a “demon.”
  • Dr. Gilbert’s children ask Littsie if she knows any “ghost stories.”

Morality: 

Potentially Offensive Behavior:

  • Native Americans are referred to as “Indians” throughout the book. There are no actual interactions between Littsie and Native Americans, but there are many references to “Indians” being a danger.

Romance/Sex:

  • It is mentioned that the slaves going to be sold were naked: “Their heads were bent low. Their naked black bodies glistened with sweat as they moved.”

Scary Themes:

  • Littsie and her friend Tommy visit “The Great Western Museum” in Cincinnati. They hear the voice of the “Invisible Girl,” and visit the Chamber of Horrors” and “the Infernal Regions.”
  • In “The Infernal Regions” of The Great Western Museum: “A man dressed in a red devil’s suit greeted us… ‘Do you like the smell of sulfur?’… This room was more horrible than al the others. Skeletons were everywhere, Their bony hands reached out, begging for help. A figure at least seven feet tall sat in a wooden chair under a sign that read, ‘Minos, Judge of Hell.’ Behind Minos was a painting of a frozen lake. Rising, floating in the lake, were doomed people, their faces twisted in anguish. There was a devil seated on a rock, dangling the head of an awful, hairy, bulging-eyes monster with large scales hanging from his cheeks. We heard voices crying out for peace, begging for forgiveness for the evil lives they had lived. Then all lanterns went out. The sounds came in horrid shrieks, unearthly groans, and terrible cries.”
  • The description of cholera epidemic of Cincinnati is not graphic, just feels urgent. It might be scary for young children. There is a letter describing the cholera outbreak in New Orleans that seems a little more graphic. It mentioned “rigid, blackened corpses, awaiting the arrival of a hearse to take them to their final resting place…The constant firing of the cannons, the corpses, the fires, all made the city a hellish place.”
  • After Littsie buries her parents, she realizes that her little sister, Megan, is missing. When she goes looking for her, all of the neighbors shun her because they don’t want to catch cholera. Littsie wanders into the woods, half-crazed, looking for Megan. She gets lost, is hungry and dehydrated, and nearly dies before a group from a riverboat rescue her.

Violence:

  • Littsie and her sister meet Anne Bell Bailey whose husband died in the Battle of Point Pleasant, and she “swore revenge.” “I would never live as the ‘grand lady’ again, no matter what.”
  • During the cholera epidemic, a man tells Littsie “Go away, or I’ll get my gun!”
  • Littsie’s father dies of cholera while she is gone, trying to get a doctor. When she gets back, her mother is sick with the cholera and doesn’t know that her husband is dead. Littsie tries to save her mother with the medicine she got from Dr. Drake, but her mother dies as well.
  • Wilkins, the “gambler,” would “slash a man’s throat with a dinner knife than take supper with him.”
  • A man comes into Littsie’s room in the night “A man’s voice whispered words that sounded evil and angry… ‘Tell me where you stashed it or you’ll be saying howdy-do to your maker!’…He put his hand over my mouth to keep me from screaming and held the long blade of his knife to my throat… He angrily plunged his knife into my bed. Backing out of the room, he whispered, ‘Not a word of this to anyone, not a word to a living soul.'” The captain said later he would catch the man and give him a “lashing,” but Littsie asks that he not. “He threatened to slit my throat if I told a ‘living soul.'”
  • “Cockfights” are mentioned once in passing.
  • “Dueling with swords” is mentioned once in passing.
  • Two steamboats race, and one steamboat explodes. “… passengers jumped into the water to keep from being burned alive… We heard the anguished cries of those still on the burning boat. We watched in horror as we saw people drown.”

From a ten-year-old’s perspective: “This was an easy read. Very educational, entertaining, and fast-paced. I think 8 year olds that liked The Indian in the Cupboard or the Little House books would probably like this book.”

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