The spring of 1753 was an exciting time in American history. More than two million British subjects lived in the American British colonies, and 60,000 French, closely allied with the Native Americans, occupied the Ohio Valley and present-day Canada. Scientific discovery, community progress, and a spirit of self-determination ruled the day. This era provides the background for The Lost Kindgom, Matthew J. Kirby’s fascinating and tremendously satisfying road trip westward across the American frontier.
In the 1750s Philadelphia was emerging as a center of commerce and progress. The Pennsylvania State House – better known as Independence Hall – was the center of political life, and the Christ Church sanctuary, at 196 feet, was the tallest structure in the colonies. An ambitious public service-oriented man named Benjamin Franklin had recently founded the Union Fire Company, and obtained a charter for Philadelphia’s first university. There was a new hospital, and mail was delivered on paved roads illuminated by street lamps.
Although not as prominent as the Renaissance man Franklin, John Bartram was the preeminent botanist of the era, carefully harvesting, cataloging, and cultivating newly-discovered plant species. His son William (Billy) assisted his efforts and eventually followed in his father’s footsteps. As The Lost Kingdom begins, Benjamin Franklin recruits the elder Bartram to join a team of scientists on a secret mission to the American frontier. Bartram sees an opportunity to discover even more plant species and brings Billy along as his assistant, and our first person narrator.
The scientific team – all members of the American Philosophical Society – learns the true nature of their mission shortly before their departure. The philosophers will use all available resources to find the descendants of the Welsh prince Madoc. Widely-accepted legend of the day says Madoc led a group to the New World hundreds of years before. The team will solicit the help of Madoc's descendants against the French and their Indian allies in the predicted upcoming conflict (The French and Indian War.) The group’s transportation: The de Terzi, a schooner-based airship buoyed by large copper vacuum spheres attached to the masts. When all the air is vacuumed out of the spheres, The de Terzi floats, allowing the philosophers to glide swiftly and effortlessly westward over peaks and valleys.
The Lost Kingdom is a non-stop adventure. The group meets a colorful French fur trader and a young British major named George Washington. They explore ancient ruins, escape the jaws of the fierce bear-wolf, and have a too-close experience with a herd of stampeding mastodons. There’s not a dull spot in the book, and the philosophers use their wits and survival skills to escape several predicaments that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Readers experience this adventure through the eyes of young Billy, a capable and likeable narrator. Billy’s growth and maturation, and his inevitable conflict with his father form a satisfying subplot. In the beginning, he’s seen as nothing more than a tag-along boy. By the end of the story, he’s proven himself in battle, and is recognized as a full-fledged member of the team.
While the action continues, author Kirby educates us about some of the conflicting opinions of the era. Attitudes about Native American culture vary greatly among the team members, and form the groundwork of the conflict between Billy and his father. The need to tame the wilderness is also explored. Every philosopher has strong opinions, but Kirby never preaches. Instead, he uses the characters to explore the conflicting ideas. The reader can draw his or her own conclusions.
It’s also refreshing to read about a boy’s graduation into the world of men. The Lost Kingdom isn’t a “kids save the world” book. The adults are the leaders, and the source of all knowledge. Billy doesn’t possess any talents or insights particularly useful to the philosophers. He’s there to learn, and help any way he can.
There are more research starters in this book than I can list. Is the Madoc legend reliable? Thomas Jefferson thought so. Can a ship really be lifted using vacuum spheres? Students can research Francesco Lana de Terzi, the 17th century Italian mathematician, and decide for themselves. Did mastodons really roam the western plains during that time period? Fossils have been found from Alaska to central Mexico, and archaeologists argue about the dates.
Is The Lost Kingdom a fantasy? Not really. Alternative history? Only to those who believe history books have all the answers. Science fiction? No, not if you believe in possibilities.
So what is The Lost Kingdom? A truly imaginative tween novel that’s part Indiana Jones, part Wild Wild West, and entirely enjoyable. Include it in your upper-elementary or middle school library or classroom collection, and recommend it to readers who love adventure and aren’t afraid to challenge their own assumptions about science and history.