Rumor has it that people are able to strike it rich in the oil business. Could it be that common men are made into kings in a place where liquid gold pours from the ground? This and the promise of adventure are what propel Titus to stow away in the back of his brother’s wagon in an effort to make it to Oil Springs, Ontario an oil boom town in Canada. His Aunt has already decided that he cannot go but he can’t bear to know that Lemuel will set out on an adventure while he remains within the clutches of his caring though overprotective Aunt. Though Lemuel finds Titus in the cart he does not take him back. Along the way the pair meets Mr. Longville and agrees to take him along to Oil Springs. It is not long before the boys become suspicious of Longville. They do however make it to their destination and take up with their uncle. Titus is not a likely hero, he is young, sickly and meek but this is his story about a series of events that have a great impact on his life and illustrate the tension present in a place and time like this one.
The story is set during the American Civil War, a time when states are fighting to maintain the right to own slaves and many slaves are daringly attempting to escape bondage and inhumane treatment. Both black and white families have settled in Canada with the hope of making a life for themselves.
One of the first young boys that Titus meets is Moses, the son of a former slave who, like so many other people, is in Oil Springs to make a better life. They become fast friends and quickly come up with their own scheme to make money and skip school in the process. Not everyone approves of this relationship but certainly not of Titus skipping school. Another agitator in the community is the misconception that former slaves are taking jobs from white workers by working for little pay. There are a group of laborers with Mr. Longville as their ring leader who believe that black laborers are intentionally working for little pay. It is not clear what others in the story believe but Titus is aware that blacks have no choice in setting their own wage. In a fit of ignorant rage Longville and his followers torch the cluster of shanties where black laborers live with their families. Moses lives in this community with his father, mother, and baby sister. Titus and his uncle are desperate to save them. What ensues is the reason Titus is telling his story. He wonders if such a small person can do big things, namely standing up for what is right.
Though this book is geared toward younger audiences, I think adults will enjoy it too. I read a good bit of young adult fiction and wasn’t particularly blown away but I did appreciate a young boy as narrator and I think young kids will appreciate a person reflective of themselves and hopefully will come away knowing that they don’t have to be great at everything in order to make a difference. While not earth-shattering, Grease Town provides a good moral but is not overdone or heavy.