HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Big Ditch: The Story of the Ohio Canals
Author and Illustrator: Jim Baker
Publisher: Ohio Historical Society, republished in1975
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Ages 6-10
Rating: ***** 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Baker, Jim. The Big Ditch: The Story of the Ohio Canals (originally published in 1965 by Pioneer Press). I am a native Ohioan, and we began our homeschool journey while living in Dayton, OH. When our older son Mark was studying Ohio history in fourth grade, we checked this book out of the library to accompany his curriculum. Dayton was located on the Miami and Erie Canal, one of two major canals running through the state, the other being the Ohio and Erie Canal. Both were begun in 1825. The Erie Canal was completed in 1832, the Miami Canal in 1845. The canals prospered until around 1855.This book explores the reasons for canals being built in Ohio, gives details of their construction and life on the canal boats, and relates their eventual decline due to the growth of railroads.
The Big Ditch is an early example of a “graphic novel,” which is another name for a fancy comic book. This is not a form which I prefer, but I found Jim Baker’s use of it quite interesting. Jim Baker (1926-1995), born in Kentucky and educated in Indiana, eventually settled down in Worthington, OH, and began working for The Columbus Dispatch in 1947. He drew such columns as Ben Hardy and The Ohio Adventure (1952-63) and its successor The American Journal (1964). The comic strip relayed the story Ohio’s settlement and rise to statehood. Many attempts at educational/historical comics rely very heavily on conveying facts and figures and end up being little more than illustrated textbooks. But Baker used the Ben Hardy and Tracker Dean characters as protagonists who witnessed unfolding events, although in addition to the comics there are sections of text which give further detail.
Beginning around 1965, Baker, who believed that history could be brought to life without sacrificing authenticity, authorized about a dozen books drawn from his comics, many of them initially self-published through Pioneer Press, all focusing around the American frontier in the late 1700s/early 1800s, primarily the Ohio and Mid-West regions. The Big Ditch was republished by Pioneer in 1971 as The Big Ditch: Small Stories of The Ohio Canals, and then republished again in 1975 by the Ohio Historical Society. It is book two of stories from “Ben Hardy and the Ohio Adventure.” Book one is entitled From Settlement to Statehood: The Story of Ohio’s Growth and book three is The Cabin in the Clearing. They do an excellent job of combining comic storytelling with education. I wish they were still in print today.