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posted: 8/11/2012 3:37 AM

Living off the river probed in teen novel

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  • Author Kenny Salwey weaves in true-life tales about living in the Mississippi River backwaters in his semi-fictional "Muskrat for Supper," written for 12- to 15-year-olds.

      Author Kenny Salwey weaves in true-life tales about living in the Mississippi River backwaters in his semi-fictional "Muskrat for Supper," written for 12- to 15-year-olds.

  • "Muskrat for Supper" by Kenny Salwey (Fulcrum Publishing, 2012), $12.95, 145 pages.

      "Muskrat for Supper" by Kenny Salwey (Fulcrum Publishing, 2012), $12.95, 145 pages.

 
By Terri Schlichenmeyer

It was hard staying focused in school this year.

The problem was the window in the classroom. In the fall, you watched birds fly south, and you imagined them calling to one another. Winter teased you with outdoor challenges and fresh, brisk air. And in the spring, when wildlife is most active? Well, you might as well not be in school at all.

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You wonder what it might be like to live closely with nature. Your forebears did it -- could you? In the book "Muskrat for Supper" by Kenny Salwey, you'll find out by reading the story of a "river rat."

It was quiet along the Mississippi River, with nothing to disturb the river rat as he sat and listened to the wind and the birds. The swamp was his favorite place to be, and he waited for his visitors. He'd known the parents for many years and as they pulled up in their car, he was eager to meet their children.

The kids, of course, were full of questions.

There was a hollowed-out stump of a tree over there, and skeletons hanging from the side of the tiny cabin. What were they? The river rat was happy to explain that the tree is now a bathroom and the bones were gifts from friends and from nature.

The river rat told the children stories of his own childhood. His father and grandfather were river rats, which meant that they lived off what the Mississippi gave them. From those old-timers, the river rat learned to feed himself and make shelter; to whittle a good, sturdy walking stick; and to fill his "possible bag" before every walk.

The best way to learn about the world around you, said the river rat, is to go outside and listen for birds and wind. Watch, and you'll see ants and mice. Get down on the ground, and you'll see a spider web that most adults wouldn't notice.

Then he told the children this: If you want to be a river rat, "plan on working harder than you would for any regular job." Plan on not much money, but expect riches beyond anything you could imagine.

Can't get enough of the outdoors? Wish you could live outside 24/7, year-round? Then "Muskrat for Supper" was practically written with you in mind.

With gentle common sense and a self-taught naturalist's eye toward preservation and sustainability, author Kenny Salwey weaves a semi-fictional story in with his own exciting, true-life tales about living in the Mississippi backwaters. Salwey, also known as The Last River Rat, romanticizes his life but includes plenty of honesty: it's not easy to share space with a snake or to pull yourself out of broken ice, but the rewards and the beauty outweigh those small inconveniences.

While this book is meant for 12- to 15-year-olds, I surely think that environmentally concerned, like-minded grown-ups will get just as much enjoyment from it. If you're the kind of person who'd rather be outdoors any day, in fact, "Muskrat for Supper" is a book you'll eat up.

• Terri Schlichenmeyer, aka The Bookworm, has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 12,000 books.

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