Wiechman, Kathy Cannon. Not on Fifth Street. Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, 2017.
There’s something about natural disasters that have always terrified and intrigued me. Perhaps it’s the unpredictable fury of Mother Nature or the reminder of how small and vulnerable we truly are. Whatever the cause, my heart is always uplifted and warmed by stories of human beings persevering despite their extreme and dire circumstances.
That’s what drew me to Kathy Cannon Wiechman’s book Not on Fifth Street. Wiechman’s novel covers the flood of 1937, an event that devastated many areas of Ohio and Kentucky. As I’d never heard of the flood, I was intrigued.
Gus and Pete Brinkmeyer are brothers living in Ironton, Ohio. Despite their relation, the boys are extremely different. Older brother Gus is a romantic and a bookworm. He excels in school, reads Shakespeare, writes poems and short stories, and moons over his newest love interest, a girl named Venus. Pete, on the other hand, is practical and handy and enjoys repairing items around the house. After a squabble, a rift forms between the two brothers. Gus gives Pete the cold shoulder despite his many attempts to apologize.
The Brinkmeyer family is no stranger to flooding. Living near the Ohio River, they experience some degree of standing water every year. Houses closer to the river—such as their friend Richie’s on Second Street—usually incur damage, but Gus and Pete live on Fifth Street, where they believe the flooding will not touch them. But the year 1937 begins with torrential, unrelenting rain, then a melting, slushy snowfall. The boys watch in horror as the Ohio River creeps closer and closer. Gus goes to help his father fill sandbags in an attempt to slow the water’s approach. Will they be successful? Will he be able to help Venus and her family across the river in Kentucky? Pete is left in charge of the rest of the Brinkmeyers—his mother and two younger siblings. How will he keep them safe as the water rises? Will his knack with repairs matter without the aid of electricity or running water?
This novel is obviously well-researched. Small details, like the newly invented rotary phone, make the setting feel authentic. And Weichman makes the flood water predatory and ever-present. Readers will feel as though their own clothing is soaked, their hands and feet numb with cold.
The dialogue can feel stilted and unrealistic, though I have little knowledge of slang or speech patterns from the 1930’s. Because of the language, simplicity of writing, and short chapters, Not on Fifth Street would likely be of little interest to high school or teenage readers. It is more suited for late elementary or middle school students.
Excerpts from this novel would be a smart inclusion in a history class, especially within classrooms near the Ohio River area. Young Pete’s task of caring for his family make this a perfect example of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Excerpts from Wiechman’s book would be a great way to drive this concept home.