Mini Newbery Review: The Great Quest

Despite a Treasure Island-esque story and interesting characters, this 1922 Newbery book is marred by racist ideas. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond

The story opens in fictional Topham, Massachusetts, in 1826. After con man Cornelius “Neal” Gleazen unexpectedly returns to town, he involves boyhood friend Seth Woods and Seth’s nephew, twenty-year-old protagonist Josiah “Joe” Woods, in a dangerous sea journey to retrieve a hidden treasure. Accompanying them are Seth’s two store-clerks, Arnold Lamont and Sim Muzzy, and farmer Abraham Guptil, on whose mortgage Neal forced Seth to foreclose in order to raise money to outfit the expedition.

When the travellers reach Cuba it is revealed that there is no hidden treasure, and that Neal’s actual intent is to kidnap native Africans from to Guinea sell as slaves. However, it is not until they reach Africa that Joe, Seth, and the others find an opportunity to take control of the expedition from Neal. (Summary via

The Great Quest is a Newbery honor book from 1922, the very first year the award was given. I just finished reading it, and I had mixed feelings about it.

On one hand, the story is great. It’s entertaining, dramatic, almost Treasure Island-esque. Joe, the main character, is a young man who finds himself swept up in an adventure with some unsavory characters and a couple of good friends on his side. They go through battles, shipwrecks, illness, and many other trials, all in search of treasure that may or may not materialize.

On the other hand… This book is pretty old, and, I have to say—it’s pretty racist. Although the main character and his friends abhor slavery and are horrified that the aforementioned unsavory characters are slavers, there are plenty of patronizing views of black people, especially the Africans they fight against when they land on the coast of Africa. At first I thought I could ignore the racism, as I have to do in many older books that I read, but since a large portion of the book takes place in Africa, it’s pretty unavoidable.

Because of this, I can’t fully recommend this book, despite its entertaining story and interesting characters. Proceed with caution if you’re interested, and don’t give this book to young children.

Rating: Skip This One

About Monica

I am obsessed with all things books. I'm a music teacher by day and a freelance editor by night.

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