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Tony L. Turnbow
E. Z. and the Chikasha Warrior
In Book 2 of the Fighting Devil's Backbone series, as the boy E. Z. Perkins struggles to survive the mysterious, frontier road known as "The Devil's Backbone," a Chickasaw warrior offers him a home. E. Z. must learn the skills of an Indian hunter and warrior to save his own life . . . and the lives of his brother David and his best friend Isaiah. Enemies multiply to test E. Z.'s new skills as he discovers that one of his worst nightmares has become the world in which he must live.
Turnbow’s second page-turning middle-grade frontier novel in the Fighting Devil’s Backbone series continues to follow E. Z. and David Perkins’s fight for survival along the Natchez Trace, dubbed the Devil’s Backbone, in the early 19th century after the death of their mother. Trying to escape Mr. Burton––the mysterious man their mother supposedly trusted their lives with if anything should happen to her but who may have ulterior motives––E. Z. and David attempt to earn acceptance from the Chickasaw Nation and local Chickasaw warrior Tashka. But when their friend’s family is taken by Muskogee (here dubbed “Creek Indians”), Mr. Burton is tracking them down, and the games of boys turn into the wars of men.

A break from non-stop action, this well-written and well-paced second book gets more into characterization of the main characters and slows down the plot, taking readers through several indigenous rituals as the boys prepare for hunting and battle and centering on themes of bravery, selflessness and self-sufficiency. New readers should know this follow-up does not entirely stand alone, but it is still easy to follow the overarching story. Turnbow’s depiction of indigenous peoples is non-stereotypical, sometimes even contesting familiar adventure story tropes, with respectful treatment of Chickasaw culture and rituals and Native American characters playing significant roles. That said, the plot ultimately casts as the bad guys the Muskogee, indigenous people who don’t want white men “buying” their land, and the Chickasaw as the good guys––indigenous people that cooperate with white men.

A pressing conversation about the Muskogee perspective (“This is our land. We do not want to change.”) gets cut off by a well-aimed Chickasaw arrow. That moment exemplifies the challenge of updating frontier adventure storytelling for contemporary readers who reject the term “Indian” (which appears in both dialogue and narration), which weighs over the book, including elements like the treasure map that E.Z. holds and Mr. Burton seeks. Readers today are likely to ask “whose treasure is it, actually?”

Takeaway: A well-paced coming-of-age frontier adventure that doesn’t fully update the genre for contemporary readers.

Great for fans of: Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Journey of Little Charlie, Stan Applegate’s The Devil’s Highway, Gary Paulsen’s Tucket Adventure series.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: B