When a boy is sent to Mammoth cave to fight a case of consumption, little does he know he’ll also be fighting for the lives of a secret community of escaped slaves, who are hidden deep within the cave.
Twelve-year-old Elias has consumption, so he is sent to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave—the biggest cave in America—where the cool cave vapors are said to be healing. At first, living in a cave sounds like an adventure, but after a few days, Elias feels more sick of boredom than his illness. So he is thrilled when Stephen, one of the slaves who works in the cave, invites him to walk further through its depths.
But there are more than just tunnels and stalagmites waiting to be discovered; there are mysteries hiding around every turn. The truths they conceal are far more stunning than anything Elias could ever have imagined, and he finds himself caught right in the middle of it all—while he’s supposed to be resting. But how can he focus on saving his own life when so many others are in danger?
River Runs Deep Chapter One MONKEY’S FIST The fire popped behind the grate of the little stove, startling Elias awake. He reached over to scratch Charger’s neck, but of course, not finding the dog there, opened his eyes and remembered where he was. The room was similar enough to his own back in Norfolk. There was a bed topped with a faded patchwork quilt. A braided rag rug covered most of the floor. A table and chair sat tucked into another corner, Elias’s writing paper stacked on top, edges curling in the damp air. On the opposite wall hung a set of rough shelves holding a framed portrait of his family, his extra clothes and boots, as well as the razor and strap he’d brought along but would never need.
Above his bed was the window, just like his room at home. In Virginia the sun would stream in each morning with the call of shorebirds to tell Elias the day had begun.
But not here.
The sun never shone through this window.
How could it, when it was underground?
He sat up, tried to clear his throat, but fell to coughing instead. The spell was a short one, but all the same he was almost tired enough by the end that he was tempted to lie back down. Instead, he forced a swallow from the cup of water by his bed and grabbed the pencil off the table. He turned to the flat section of the wall above his bed and counted the hash marks there before adding one more. Nineteen. Had it been only nineteen days? He couldn’t be certain without the rhythms of a day to confirm it.
Still, nearly three weeks he’d been inside the cave. Three weeks of nothing but rest and waiting and reading and thinking inside this little hut, with its walls made of puzzled-together stone, its curtain hung across the doorway for privacy, the roof open to the ceiling of the cave, vaulting another twenty feet up.
One of the slaves had left Elias’s breakfast. Or maybe it was supper after all. There were no clues there, either. The doctor had put him on a strict diet straightaway.
“Eggs and tea,” Dr. Croghan had announced after Elias’s first examination, explaining that simplifying the diet would allow the body to concentrate on fighting the disease. Eggs, according to Croghan, were the perfect food, and he boasted that the horehound-dill tea was his own special concoction. The doctor seemed so pleased about it that Elias hadn’t the heart to tell him the tea tasted like sucking on a pickle boiled in honey.
It was harder to take than the eggs, but even those grew tiresome shortly. Still, he knew he should be glad. The treatments could be worse. They’d tried all kinds of remedies on his father back in Norfolk before the end. Elias had worried then that the treatments meant to cure his father’s lungs might only kill him quicker.
So if Croghan’s tea tasted foul and the eggs got old, at least he hadn’t worried about the doctor’s methods killing him. Yet.
No, the remedies he endured easily enough.
But the boredom he did not.
It was the stillness and the dark and the sameness of it all. Nothing to do but rest, no one to talk to but the slaves who tended him or the doctor who saw him every day. The doctor had encouraged him to visit with his nearest neighbors. The section of the cave where his hut sat was a good-size chamber, though not so big as some of the rooms he’d passed through on the way down. Two huts sat on the other side of a little courtyard, some forty yards away from his. Between them sat a sort of nurses’ station—a large fire ring, kettles, boxes of supplies, and provisions arrayed around whatever slave was on duty at the moment.
At first Elias had been keen to know the pretty lady with the golden hair in one of the far huts. Nedra. But not anymore. He visited with her once in a while, but the way he might have with a shut-in back home, or an old relation he was obliged to call on but couldn’t wait to leave as soon as he’d arrived.
And that made him feel even worse.
The hut next to hers was more of a mystery. Elias spent a fair amount of time watching Pennyrile’s cabin. He’d glimpsed the man only rarely and never saw him clearly or for long, as Pennyrile shut the curtain quick if Elias looked his way. He kept silent in there, not speaking even to Dr. Croghan or the slaves. But there were noises from inside, noises that spooked Elias. Cooing and warbling and flapping. The sounds of pigeons.
Pigeons. Down in a cave of all places.
Elias’s curiosity still hadn’t gotten ahold of him enough to find out why Pennyrile kept birds, or why Pennyrile was so secretive.
He’d written two letters home, filled with the kinds of things he felt he ought to say—that he was obeying the doctor, that the cave was interesting, that he missed his mother, grandmother, and sister. He’d received three letters from Virginia that he’d read until the pages had worn thin.
But there had been no new letter for a week, and the silence made it easy to slip into a sort of gloom, the kind where he almost let himself believe Mama and Granny and Tillie had given up on him, had sent him away to get rid of him. That that was the reason he didn’t hear from them more.
He’d felt it at home some, when his friends stopped coming. Before sending him to Kentucky, his mother laid him up on the sleeping porch where Gideon and Harold would stop by once in a while, lingering on the steps, biding a few minutes with him. But eventually they took to only waving as they passed the hedgerow, and not long after, they quit passing by the house at all.
Elias tried not to hate them for forgetting him before he’d even died. But it was hard.
Tying knots helped some; reading helped less. The book of poetry he’d borrowed from Nedra was a disappointment. The knights were barely in any of the poems, and there were no battles or magic, at least not in any he’d discovered yet. But he’d gone and swapped with her for his copy of The Death of Arthur, so it was all he had for now.
He reread a longish poem that Nedra had dog-eared. At least this one had Lancelot. None of the rest made much sense to him, though he liked the way the words felt when he whispered them to himself as he read, keeping time like bells on a horse’s harness.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half-sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.
That part—the bit about being sick of shadows—he understood fine. He was sick of weak candlelight, too. Not to mention eggs without bacon or a hunk of bread.
No halves about it.
Tossing the book aside, he took the coiled rope off the bedpost and set to work on a monkey’s fist, twisting the ropes and tucking the end through, over and over until he had a tight ball of a knot stopping up the end of the rope. Perfect for throwing. It was such a good knot, he hated to see it go to waste. Nedra across the way knit, and when she finished, she had something to show for it. But Elias could only undo his work and start anew. It was nearly enough to drive him to take up knitting. Nearly.
“What’s that ’posed to be for?” a voice whispered.
“Who’s there?” Elias jerked his head up and looked to the window. Empty. “I said, ‘Who’s there?’?” Elias repeated. He had heard a voice, hadn’t he? Or had his fever climbed again? Sometimes when it rose, he worried that he saw things . . . heard things.
“I ain’t nobody,” the whisper came again, even softer. “Jus’ wondered about that tying you do.”
Nobody? Elias thought. Had to be somebody. But it didn’t sound like anybody he could name. Living in the dark taught a body to listen. He could tell the doctor coming just by his walk, and a voice was even easier to recognize. But he couldn’t place it on account of the whispering. He reached for the lamp, began to pull it closer—“Far ’nough,” the voice whispered.
Who on earth was it? he wondered. Not the doctor, of course. Not one of the other patients who wouldn’t have reason or the energy to spy on Elias anyhow. That left only the slaves.
But this voice wasn’t Stephen’s. Stephen Bishop wouldn’t have lurked at a window for anything in the world. The man was squat and strong, with glossy black hair that curled out from underneath the edges of his slouch cap. When he’d brought Elias down from the entrance the first day, he’d proudly pointed out all the wonders of the cave, his voice carrying as smoothly as that of an actor aiming to be heard up in the cheap seats. He took too much care with his appearance to hide in the dark and liked the sound of his own voice too much to whisper. He’d been bossy to boot, telling Elias not to go wandering, no matter what.
And it wasn’t Nick’s voice either. Nick, who often brought his meals and more fuel for the stove, wore an old felt parson’s hat, shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck. His voice, when he cared to use it, rolled deep and rich, punctuated by pauses so he could spit short streams of tobacco off into the shadows. He was kind to Elias in both his few words and his manner, and was far too forthright to sneak around.
And though the voice was high and quiet, it wasn’t Lillian or Hannah or any of the other young women who served as nurses in the ward.
No, the voice was young, and it was certainly one Elias had not heard before.
But the eyes—he’d seen those eyes before.
He’d noticed them his second day, staring in as he read, but they disappeared before he could even call out. And he’d seen them twice since, both times appearing in his darkened window, far enough out of the circle of light thrown by his lamp. And there were countless times Elias had felt someone watching, but when he checked, saw nothing in the window.
They were back now, looming a few inches above the sill.
“Who are you?” Elias asked, clenching the knot in his fist.
The eyes blinked, hovered, like they had no face to belong to. “What you do all that tying on those ropes for?”
Elias swallowed once. “This one’s for throwing.”
The eyes blinked again as the voice made a sort of hmph sound.
“Who are you?” Elias asked again.
Elias nearly asked the voice if it were really there at all, or if he were only imagining it, his bored brain inventing a strange visitor. Maybe his fever had spiked after all. But if the presence at the window were the product of his imagination, he couldn’t very well expect it to confess. Elias chose his next words with care. “Are you a—” He cut himself off, tried again. “Nick said this place has haints.”
The voice laughed quietly. “You askin’ if I’m a ghost?”
“Are you?” Elias persisted. He’d pushed himself all the way up against the head of the bed, his spine pressing hard into the frame.
“Maybe I am,” the voice said. “What about you?”
“Well, naw, I ain’t a ghost.”
“You sure?” the voice asked. “You just like the rest of ’em. All y’all do is sit around and do nothing all day. Cain’t leave. And you’re so peaked, you might as well be one.”
“I’m sick,” Elias protested. “I ain’t dead. Not yet, anyhow.”
At that moment Nedra set to coughing, a fit that came on as sudden as a squall. Elias heard Lillian rush across from where she sat by the fire. And when he looked back at the window, the eyes had vanished. In a flash of courage, Elias leaped to his knees and poked his head out the window.
No one there.
But he listened closely, and in the ebb between Nedra’s racket, he heard feet running—bare, he reckoned by the soft slapping sounds—moving off down the slope, heading away from the huts.
He knew precious little about ghosts or haints, but he figured they floated more than walked. And in the light cast by the fire on the far wall, he could make out a shadow of movement, the faintest outline of a pair of arms extending for balance.
Jennifer Bradbury is the author of the middle grade novel River Runs Deep and of several critically acclaimed young adult novels: A Moment Comes, Wrapped, and her debut, Shift—which Kirkus Reviews called “fresh, absorbing, compelling” in a starred review. Shift was picked as an ALA and a School Library Journal Best Book for Young Adults and is also on numerous state reading lists. A former English teacher and one-day Jeopardy! champ, she lives with her family in Burlington, Washington.
A tubercular boy is sent to live in a cave that might heal him. Bradbury uses an odd historical fact to jump-start a story about the Underground Railroad. After his father dies from consumption, 12-year-old Elias, suffering from the same disease, is sent from eastern Virginia to live inside Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. This enormous underground labyrinth, already a tourist attraction in the 1840s, is also a sanitarium. Dr. John Croghan believes "cave vapors" can cure the disease, but he also tries restrictive diets, immobility, and horse-urine baths. Numerous slaves attend the patients and also lead tours of the caves; in their off hours they explore the cave's unknown edges. Bored and lonely, Elias begins to follow them, discovering that a far cavern actually houses runaway slaves—now trapped and running low on supplies due to guards at the entrances. Elias' family owns slaves, and he's never questioned slavery's morality, but in the darkness of Mammoth Cave he begins to change his views. Bradbury's plot falters a bit at the end, when a posse of men seems more bumbling than harmful, but she will hold readers throughout with a consistent third-person perspective focused through Elias and his gradual character development, not on the glories of the cave. Several pages of backmatter give insight into the history of the cave and the real Dr. Croghan, with suggestions for further reading. A solid look at a fascinating historical side note.
– Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2015
In 1842, Dr. John Croghan believed that patients suffering from consumption could be cured by special diets and the cool, damp air found in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. In this book, one of his patients is 12-year-old Elias Harrigan, who befriends slaves working in the cave and is unknowingly drawn into another patient’s (Pennyrile’s) dubious scheming. When Elias begins to feel better, he joins the slaves as they make their rounds delivering food and conducting tours of the cave. Finding himself deeper in the cave than he ever anticipated, he stumbles upon a shocking situation that links back to Pennyrile. Caught in the middle of a life-and-death circumstance, Elias must decide whether he will risk everything or walk away. Drawing upon the real-life figures of Dr. Croghan and three of Mammoth Cave’s slaves (Stephen Bishop, Nick Brandsford, and Mat Brandsford), Elias’ story makes history come alive. An adventure-laden celebration of nineteenth-century medical innovation and important African American contributions to the charting of the largest cave system in the world.
– Booklist, April 15, 2015
Twelve-year-old Elias is sent from his Virginia home to Dr. Crogan’s experimental hospital located within the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky, in the hopes that he can be cured of consumption (tuberculosis). In this pre-Civil War setting, patients are served by slaves, who also lead cave tours. When Elias surreptitiously follows a slave named Stephen into a tunnel, he discovers a network of secret tunnels that house a hidden community of runaway slaves. When a patient and former boat crew member, Pennyrile, gets suspicious and begins investigating, the runaway slaves must quickly hide their existence. The slaves forced to work at the Mammoth Cave protect their pride and dignity in multifaceted manners. Stephen and another slave named Jonah play jokes on the white tourists, such as making them believe that they have encountered a ghost. Descriptions of Dr. Croghan’s primitive medical treatments, such as intentional bleeding, forced vomiting, and homemade instruments, illustrate the painful and fruitless state of health care for tuberculosis patients at that time. A further reading section describes the author’s personal connection to the story, provides additional titles, and includes details about the real-life characters in the story and the treatment of tuberculosis. This work boasts richly developed African American characters and extraordinary settings. VERDICT Recommended for libraries wanting to expand their historical fiction collection.–Jennifer Schultz, Fauquier County Public Library, Warrenton, VA
– School Library Journal, May 2015
Twelve-year-old Elias awakens one day in a cave. Sent from his home in Norfolk, Virginia, to Kentucky, he is suffering from tuberculosis, and rumors of Doc Croghan’s healing powers—is it the cave, the diet, the water?—are spreading. But what is truth and what is fiction? Surely, the all-egg diet Elias is prescribed cannot be doing the trick, but he is healing. As he does, he befriends slaves Stephen, Nick, and Jonah, who tend to his needs and his spirit. There are secrets in the cave, and neighboring patient Pennyroyal seems determined to discover them. Does Pennyroyal have ulterior motives beyond his own failing health? And what are Stephen, Nick, and Jonah really up to? Bradbury’s River Runs Deep rewards readers who make the effort to plumb its depths.
Elias spends much of his time in the literal and figurative dark in Bradbury’s finely crafted novel. Set in the 1800’s, this is a period piece of literary fiction where form meets function. In the dark, Elias interacts with characters who are shrouded in mystery and hidden motives. They necessarily remain flat until the true mysteries of Mammoth Cave come to light. Then, events unravel at breakneck pace, and the reader’s patience is rewarded with an exciting story based on America’s real past. This is a novel for teachers to give their students to inform them of two of the biggest social issues of the nineteenth century.—Jim Nicosia.
– VOYA, June 2015
Inthe early nineteenth century, both cause and reliable cure for tuberculosiswere unknown, and any number of nostrums and treatments seemed, for desperatesufferers, to be worth a try. Thus twelve-year-old Elias ends up at the“hospital” of Dr. Croghan, deep in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, where the doctorbelieves patients will benefit from its vapors. Elias does, in fact, get betterquickly, but no thanks to the vapors. Rather, the slaves who work in the caveas hospital assistants and tour guides slip water from a cave river into hisdiet. While Croghan rejoices in his model patient’s rapid recovery and ponderswhy other sufferers aren’t experiencing the same success, Mr. Pennyrile, apatient in an advanced stage of the disease, suspects both the source of thehealing water and a community of runaway slaves hiding in the caves. Hepressures Elias into aiding his plot to secure his cure, capitalize financiallyon the remedy, and claim the bounty on the slaves, all in one high-stakesgamble. Although Bradbury’s tale is largely speculative, the possibility ofeach plot point is credible and the cast, from Croghan to the African-Americantour guides, is drawn from real life. Mr. Pennyrile’s schemes add a fair amountof tension to the intriguing story, and Elias’ grappling with the morality ofslavery is both thoughtful and realistic. The cave itself (map included) enjoysa featured role, and readers up for a satisfying fusion of historical fiction,conspiracy, and survival will want to explore.
– Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September 2015
Bradbury's newest novel juxtaposes a boy's fight against tuberculosiswith a historical tale of survival, all set against the magnificent backdrop ofMammoth Cave in mid-19th century Kentucky. When Elias is diagnosed withconsumption, his terrified mother sends him to a clinic in Mammoth Cave. Thecave is supposedly imbued with magical healing vapors. Elias’ three weeks inthe cave are filled with disgusting food and endless hours of boredom,occasionally relieved by his knot-tying practice. Everything changes when theghost arrives. Elias’ determination to uncover the mystery behind the ghostlyvoice leads him deeper into the caves and deeper into trouble. Bradbury'smeticulous research, both concerning the layout of the cave and the real-lifetuberculosis hospital that existed there, are deftly intertwined with acompelling story, creating a jewel of a knot for readers to unravel. Chaptertitles and an author's note round out the story. Michaela Schied, Teacher Librarian, Indian River Middle School,Philadelphia, New York [Editor’s Note: Available in e-book format.]