Wonder at the Edge of the World


By Nicole Helget

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In this captivating quest that spans the globe, a young girl who wants to know everything challenges her assumptions about family, loyalty, and friendship as she fights to save her father’s legacy–and to begin creating her own.

Hallelujah Wonder wants to become one of the first female scientists of the nineteenth century. She knows every specimen and rare artifact that her explorer father hid deep in a cave before he died, and she feels a great responsibility to protect the objects (particularly a mesmerizing and dangerous one called Medicine Head) from a wicked Navy captain who would use it for evil. Now she and her friend Eustace, a runaway slave, must set out on a sweeping adventure by land and by sea to the only place where no one will ever find the cursed relic….

In this captivating quest that spans the globe, a young girl who wants to know everything challenges her assumptions about family, loyalty, and friendship as she fights to save her father’s legacy–and to begin creating her own.


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On days such as today, when the wind blows over the flat Kansan plain, I like to amble out to the slow slope of the clover hills and wheat acres to explore and to think.

"Keep an eye on Mother," I say to my sister, Priss.

Mother lifts her head as though she's about to say something. Priss and I both wait and hold our breath, but Mother closes her eyes, rocks in her chair, and returns to her muted world. Priss sighs. She favors our mother, who used to be known as the Beauty of New Bedford, in looks, delicate and fair. I favor Father.

"Make sure she eats something today," I add. Even though Priss is older and more responsible in some ways, I like to tell her what to do every now and then. Surely she doesn't need me to give her anything more to do, though. Priss does all the cooking and the mending, and the cleaning and laundry, too.

"Stay out of town," Priss says. She wrings out an old rag in a bowl of water mixed with vinegar and lemon. She's trying to wipe the soot off the windows, but all she's doing is leaving smears. It's not her fault. Ash from the fires in Tolerone floats on the air always, even though our farm is a couple of miles from town. It settles on the windows. It creeps up beneath the cracks between the floorboards and doors. There's a skim of ash on the surface of the water in our drinking barrel. There's ash on the blade of the bread knife. We drink ash. We eat ash.

I pull the hairpins out of my bun, put them in my mouth, and finger the snarls out of my hair. Ash from my scalp gets under my nails. It's a constant reminder of the tempers in town and in the whole territory of Kansas between the abolitionists and the slave owners.

Earlier this week, an abolitionist set fire to Carson's livery because Carson's a slave owner. And last week, a slave owner set fire to the schoolhouse because the teacher is an abolitionist. It's summertime, so no one was there and no one got hurt, thank goodness.

Anyway, I don't care if Tolerone ever rebuilds that school. I never learned a thing there. Since Father's been gone, I learn everything on my own, and that's the way I like it. Priss, on the other hand, thinks rebuilding the school is very important. She has designs on being a teacher, I think. As prim and proper as she is, she'd probably make a wonderful teacher.

"Hallelujah Wonder!" Priss says. "Are you listening to me? Stay away from Tolerone."

"I heard you the first time," I say, still holding the pins in my mouth. I try to twist my mop back into a proper bun at the nape of my neck.

Priss wipes the window again. She won't stop until she hears a squeaking sound. "It's dangerous in town with everybody fighting all the time," she says. A squeak. She turns to face me and raises her eyebrows, which means she's serious. "It's dangerous."

"I know that," I snap. I don't like her telling me what to do so much, but she can't help that, either. She thinks she's responsible for me because she's older. I tell her all the time that I can take care of myself. I wasn't planning on going into Tolerone in the first place. In the second place, it's none of her business if I was planning on going into town.

"All right, then," Priss says. Her eyebrows drop, and she smiles a little bit. "Let me help you." She puts the rag in the bowl and comes to me. She pulls the hairpins from my mouth. With a yank, a turn, and a tuck, she tames my hair into a bun. Then she spins me around to take a look at her handiwork. "Now, that's better," she says. "Go. Enjoy yourself."

Everyone has always said that Priss will make a fine wife and mother someday. To my knowledge, no one has ever said either of those things about me. Lots of ladies in Tolerone are trying to get Priss, who's fifteen, to marry one of their kin. One noteworthy thing about Kansas is that there are two men for every woman.

Before I go, I straighten the blanket over Mother's feet, which are always cold. Mother remains thin-lipped, and she exhales. I know she's thinking about our old home and old life in Massachusetts. I know she's imagining salty air, seagulls, and fish stews. In her gray eyes, I can sometimes see the bay where we used to live. "Poor Mother," I say. She isn't well. She's not sick, though. She's heartbroken, which is just as awful.

Mother rarely says a word. Most of the time, I feel sorry for her. But sometimes, though I don't mean to, I get angry with her for sitting in a chair quiet as the grave. I want her to stand up and talk and do the work that Priss does. Sometimes I want her to be a mother again. When she can't, or won't, I have to get away from her. Once in a while, I'm afraid that if I don't, I might shout at her. Today is one of those days.

I walk outside into the beige-white light of the sun.

"Be back for supper!" Priss calls after me. "And put on your bonnet!"

I don't answer, and I don't put on my bonnet, either. Priss says the sun is the reason my face is so red and why I've got freckles all over my nose and cheeks, but I don't mind. I raise my face to it instead. The smoke has made the big skies strange with colors, like pinks and purples.

I walk for a while. My skirt hem brushes against forbs and shrubs, most blooming with tiny flowers. Wherever I go, bees and grasshoppers scatter. I choose a spot and sit to listen to my own breathing for a bit. In. Out. Whoosh high. Whoosh low. I inhale the hot, dry air. I exhale the hot, dry air.

From somewhere across the plain, a voice seems to be calling to me. It's like that sometimes out here. Ghost calls float on the never-ending wind. More than one Kansas housewife has gone batty chasing the calls of specters. One lady got so lonesome that she started talking to her chickens as though they were people.

I'd never do something silly like that. Not me. I know ghosts aren't real. There's no scientific evidence that supports the existence of ghosts. Still, I think I hear it, a strange call I know I can't be hearing. So I tell my brain to think about something else. One thing I don't want to be is a senseless Kansas lunatic. That wouldn't be very scientific at all.

For a time, I study the ground, until my eyes adjust to the workings of the tiny world of ants. Once I spot one, it's suddenly easy to see them everywhere, scurrying in their efforts to carry grains of dirt out of their burrows to make room for eggs and food.

If it's a new type of ant that I've never before seen, I'll very carefully disable a live one (meaning squish it firmly and then stick it onto a paper) so I can study it again later. Today, all these ants look the same. Instead of ants, I pick up rocks and look underneath them for sow bugs or grubs or worms. I check the rocks for specks of gold or ribbons of copper or maybe even fossils. But there's nothing new to find.

Finally, I lie down in the grass. For a while, I think about Massachusetts, where life was a lot better. I hold my breath until a noise like the swooshing of water fills my ears. Soon I can almost feel the earth rocking beneath me. I pretend I'm on a ship and the sea is dipping and bobbing. If I squint, the thin streaming clouds against the sky are the sails that guide a ship. On the windward side, the waving wheat glistens like gentle waves. On the leeward side, the curve of a rocky limestone outcropping is the breaching of a sperm whale, coming up for air.

I go on this way for as long as I can, trying to beat however long I held my breath yesterday. Eventually, though, I have to breathe again. And with the oxygen filling my lungs comes back reality, comes back Bleeding Kansas, comes back Father, dead and gone, and comes back the great responsibility I have of carrying on the Wonder name.


One thing you should know about me is that even though my name is Hallelujah, I like to be called Lu. I can hold my breath longer than anyone I know, a full two minutes. And you should know that even though I'm a girl, I'm smart, or as Father used to say, "Lu, you've got a good knot in your skull."

I'm going to be a scientist. As far as I know, that'll make me among the first lady scientists in the whole world, and certainly the first lady scientist in Kansas—maybe the only scientist at all in this sunbaked, thorny-plant, tree-lonely, dirty-water, skinny-animal, dusty-air, grasshopper-happy, God-forsaken place. Have you ever been to Kansas? I wouldn't come if I were you. For one, it's dangerous. For two, there's nothing to do here.

When I'm a scientist, I will sign on with an oceanic expedition and travel to the far reaches of the earth, just like Father did. I'll call myself an oceanist, a person who studies everything in the ocean, from the currents to the largest whales. On my expedition I'll discover new species of birds, fish, and plants. I'll sketch their likenesses and write careful entries in a journal about their behaviors and dwellings. I'll take samples of these specimens and preserve them. That way, people everywhere will be able to enjoy them and imagine what life is like somewhere else, which is a thing everyone is wont to do at least once in a while. I know I do all the time.

One nice thing about Kansas is that it's so boring that nothing is likely to interrupt you when you are imagining about living somewhere else. Lots of times, I just sit and imagine for hours and hours. I imagine what life would be like if our family had stayed in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the most beautiful and interesting city in America. It is the city where Father was born and Mother was born and Priss was born and I was born. Since staying there wasn't possible, sometimes I imagine what life would be like if we had stolen a boat and sailed away from America rather than come here to Tolerone, Kansas, where nothing remarkable or scientific ever happens, except for a cyclone once in a while. I've never seen one yet, even though the folks here talk about them as if they happen all the time. If I did see one, I'd probably run right into it and hope it would fly me away from here. Until then, I guess I'll just have to make do with my imagination.

I imagine what life might be like among the island peoples or the African tribes or in the Orient or the Mediterranean. Sometimes any place in the world seems like it would be better than Kansas. Probably even Antarctica is better, though only whales, seals, and penguins live there. I'm sure it's a very interesting and scientific place, even if no one really knows much about it. One day I'll see that frozen continent. When I'm a scientist, I'll study the hunting behaviors of killer whales and document the migratory routes of sperm whales. I'll feel the spray of their spouts and fluke splashes on my cheek if I have to follow them all the way to Antarctica.

Do you know anyone who has seen Antarctica? I bet not. Well, it was my father who first discovered it, before the British, the French, and everybody else in the seafaring world out looking for it, as though it were lost. My father explained to me that Antarctica is buttressed by an iceberg fortress and barbed with frigid gales and nearly impossible to penetrate.

But my father did it. He was like that. Persistent and brave and strong. And I am, too.

I have to be because I have a secret. I know the whereabouts of a treasured item. My father trusted me to take care of it, and I intend to be persistent and brave and strong enough to do him proud.


Most girls would fly into a frenzy if a cricket crawled on their leg. But not me. I hold very still so I don't scare it away. Because of the dry weather, the grasshoppers and crickets are thick in Kansas. I let the cricket crawl all the way down into my boot, where I suppose it's looking for a dark place to hide. Then I pick it off my calf, bring it to my eyes, and study it. I hold it gently by the abdomen between my fingers, and its legs kick.

Did you know that the noise crickets make is called stridulation? Everyone thinks crickets rub their legs together to make that chirping sound, but that isn't true. A cricket uses one wing and rubs the top of it alongside the bottom of the other wing. The wings have ragged edges, kind of like a comb. The friction is what causes the sound. If you could catch one and watch it, you'd see for yourself that I'm telling the truth.

I have dozens of this type of cricket, so I toss it back in the grass. I wonder if there are any crickets in Antarctica. Or any insects at all. Someday I intend to find out. Here in Kansas, no one ever talks about places like Antarctica. Most people just converse about the drought, the fires, and slavery.

The only person in the entire territory of Kansas who is slightly interesting is my pal, Eustace. He's busy a lot of the time, helping his ma and taking care of his animals and whatnot. He can't have an afternoon recess for thinking, exploring, and talking any old time like I can. So I'm alone a lot.

Mostly, I don't mind. But sometimes I do. Sometimes being alone feels like being underwater. Everything looks hazy. Everything sounds muffled. And it feels like my throat is closing, like I can't breathe. That's when I miss my father the most. He knew lots of interesting topics to talk about.

Up in the sky, the moon glows dimly. Have you ever seen the moon in the middle of the day? As I look at it now, it seems like I could jump up and touch it. The moon seems closer than Antarctica. The moon, by the way, is what Antarctica looks like, according to my father.

I imagine I'm on a ship sailing right to the moon. I can feel the air turn cold. I can see my breath. I can hear myself telling the crew we must press on. Though the sun is so strong I can feel my cheeks and nose burning red, I shiver as though I'm really on that ship. I put my bonnet on and a shadow falls over my face as I think about my father, frost-bitten and half starved, climbing up into the slippery rigging of the ship Vivienne, many years ago.

The Vivienne, a small vessel that had been at sea along with another American vessel, the Saint Mary, had meandered through a dangerous field of jagged icebergs in an ocean bay about to freeze and doom my father and the ship's sailors to a glassy tomb. Most of the crew wanted to turn around toward warmer winds and familiar routes. The Saint Mary, led by Captain Cornelius Greeney, had already suffered terrible destruction and had to turn back. Captain Greeney had wanted Father's ship to assist the Saint Mary back to New Bedford, but Father refused. He was confident that his ship could make it to the frozen continent and claim the discovery for America.

The Vivienne pressed on. And after a few more days at the top of the rigging, Father squinted and saw in the distance the shadowy shape of solid land, the continent of Antarctica. On his map, my father wrote WONDER'S LAND to mark his discovery and achievement.

Have you ever looked at a map of the world? If you do, you'll see that the words WONDER'S LAND are right on there, on the continent of Antarctica, which is at the very edge of the world. Whenever I look at a map and see the name "Wonder" down there, pride fills up my chest like a big gust of wind.

One person whose chest did not fill up with pride upon Father's discovery was Captain Greeney. He was very angry with my father.

The same day as Father's important finding, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, after three days of labor and chills, my mother pushed my sister out into the arms of a midwife, who wiped her off, kissed her forehead, and said "Praise Be!" which became her name, but everyone calls her Priss.

My father stayed at sea for two more years, visiting strange islands and living among the cannibal kings of Fiji and the bare-chested princesses of Tahiti. He collected all kinds of specimens and treasures. When Captain Greeney said to hand them over to the government, Father said "Absolutely not," which made some people mad and got him in a lot of trouble. But he didn't care. He hid the artifacts and returned to sea before anyone, Captain Greeney included, could do anything about it.

Some people might call what Father did stealing. But I don't. He risked his life to get the treasures. He said he was the only one in the world qualified to care for and research them. If you saw the collection, you wouldn't call it stealing, either, probably.

When he returned home to my mother, Priss was almost two years old.

Father stayed only three months, enough time to raise Captain Greeney's ire some more and to plant me in Mother before he raced to sea again. When I was born, the midwife wiped me off, kissed my forehead, and said "Hallelujah!" which is what my name is. But I go by Lu, like I already said.

When Father came home in 1845, he planted in Mother the first of our three little brothers, none of whom survived longer than a few months. With each one, Mother grew more and more watchful. I remember waking up to see her leaning over each of my little brothers in their turn at life, and I remember her putting an ear to their chests to see if they were breathing. But all her attention didn't matter in the end. They died anyway.

You don't have to be a scientist to figure out how the deaths of those boys made Mother feel. Father finally slowed down his world travels and scientific study and stayed home to be with Mother. Captain Greeney was on him like a dog on a pig bone.

Do you know what a court-martial is? I wish I didn't know. I'll just tell you that a court-martial is not good. And in Father's case, it didn't seem fair, either, as he was only doing what he thought was best and protecting his good name and preventing his artifacts from getting into the wrong hands. But it was impossible to convince the court that Captain Greeney, a man dressed in a decorated navy uniform working on behalf of the government, was "the wrong hands."

After the court-martial, we had to sneak away from New Bedford practically in the dead of night.

Now we don't talk about those days much. Though Father was a smart and brave man, he left a lot of loose ends for us to tie up. Mother's too fragile to handle it all, which is why I try to do the things the head of the household would do, as if he were still here.

I lie back and twine my fingers together under my head like a pillow. I stare up at the thin white clouds. Things go hazy. They go muffled. My throat gets thick and I feel like I'm underwater. I close my eyes and drown in the loneliness.


The wind blows. It sounds like whistling through a cracked window.

Then I hear far-away yelling. "Fob!" On these plains, it's sometimes hard to tell if I'm really hearing what I think I am or if it's just the wind being tricky. I flick an ant off my dress, an old hand-me-down of Priss's. Not that I mind wearing hand-me-downs. I don't like fussy clothes and prefer a dress that I can get dirty without anyone yelling at me about it. Priss will do it once in a while when she tries to act bigger than me. Even though she's older, I can look her right in the eye, my feet are bigger, and I'm still growing. I'm what a lot of ladies call big-boned.

"Fob!" I hear it again. Then: "Get back here!"

It's Eustace yelling for his dog. I sit up. The haze seems to have cleared. Before long, the lankiest, longest-eared specimen of a yellow dog known to man lopes through the grass toward me.

I put out my hand. "Whoa, Fob," I say. He springs at me with his tongue lolling out of his watery maw. He slobbers and licks. Fob walks like the back half of his body wants to be in the front. I'd never tell Eustace this, but when this dog dies, I'd like to cut him open and see whether he's got some nature of crooked spine causing such a strange manner of mobility. Eustace, my best and only friend in this place, walks up. He's picking his way with a long stick.

"Nice to see you, Lu," says Eustace.

"You, too, Eustace!" I say. I stand. I'm happy to see him, but I don't want to go whole hog with excitement. I don't want Eustace to know how lonely I was. "How did you get away today?"

He kicks some grass. A galaxy of grasshoppers and crickets fly in all directions. Fob goes wild chasing them. "Ma wanted me to come over and ask you if you need help this Saturday," he says. "She can spare me, she says to tell you." Eustace snatches a grasshopper off his pant leg and pops it in his mouth. He eats anything.

"Blech," I say. I stick my tongue out.

"They're good," he says. "If you were starving, you'd try it."

"I doubt that."

"Ma says they're as good as eating meat," he says.

Eustace's ma, Ruby, is the house slave of the Millers, who live on the north end of Tolerone. Mrs. Miller and Mother used to be friends before Mother took to her rocking chair. They used to spend long hours paging through their Bibles, looking for passages that approved or disapproved of slavery. They listened to each other and didn't argue the way all the other folks around here do.

Do you know what abolitionists are? Well, they're knotty people who fight for the freedom of slaves, which is good. But some of those abolitionists are making life dangerous around here. They are always riling up the slave owners.

My mother was an abolitionist before Father died, and a quiet, mourning pall fell over her. She was a nice one and didn't condone violence. She certainly didn't start fires everywhere. She preferred to talk with people calmly and try to get them to change their minds and their evil ways. Sometimes her abolition talk bored me. But I'd give about anything to hear her talk again now. I'd also give about anything for people to stop fighting all the time. If they don't quit it pretty soon, the whole country will be at war.

Mrs. Miller is awfully old. About a hundred, probably. She's from Missouri, and slavery has been in her family for years. She talks a lot about white responsibility and guiding black folks as God guides his followers. Her talk is real boring, too. Sometimes I've seen Ruby, Eustace's ma, roll her eyes at Mrs. Miller or groan real loudly when she goes on that way. Mrs. Miller can barely walk and hardly see, so Ruby would always come along to our house to take care of her when she and my mother got together. And Eustace would come with Ruby. That's how he and I became friends.

The Millers inherited Ruby and Eustace, their only two slaves, from a relative who died after getting snake-bit. Eustace was just a baby and doesn't remember, and he doesn't really work for the Millers yet because he's too young. Most of the slaves around here don't go to work until they're fourteen, unless they're girls. Then they can do housework or baby-rocking when they're eleven or twelve, but white girls have to do that, too.

Around here, no matter whether the girl is white, Negro, or Indian, as soon as she's old enough to churn the butter, someone's trying to get her married and make her a mother. The white ladies, especially Mrs. Miller, are the worst culprits. They're always ready to plan weddings and knit baby blankets. If I think about getting married and having babies, I shiver all over.

"You cold?" Eustace asks.

"No," I say. "I'm just thinking about something."

"You've always got interesting things going on in your head. That's for sure."

I smile a little bit. Sometimes Eustace says things that remind me of the way my father used to talk to me. And that makes me happy.

"Hot today," I say. I think about Eustace eating that grasshopper, and suddenly I feel thirsty.

"Surely is." He pulls a hankie from his overalls and wipes his face. Eustace's cheeks have a ruddy tone to them, like he's always blushing.

"I'll ask Priss if she needs work done," I say. "I'm sure she does."

"I saw your sows have gnawed at the fence posts you got on the south end of the sty. I can fix that so they don't run away, which they'll do if you give them the chance." He shakes his head. "That is the sorriest fence I ever saw. Pigs are real smart. They're going to walk right on out of there one of these days."

Eustace is forever talking about how smart animals are. "I guess they're entitled to their freedom like everyone else." I pick my teeth with a thorn I found in the grass. "If I were going to be an abolitionist, I'd be an animal abolitionist," I say in a way between serious and jest. Eustace knows I'm talking about the collection of animals he keeps in his mother's backyard. He has trapped every species of critter imaginable—raccoon, possum, fox, bobcat, and turkey, to name a few—and keeps them in cages.

"You're not funny," Eustace says. He reaches down and gives Fob a scratch behind the ears. Then he looks out over the plains. His face is stony, like there's something the matter with him. I nearly ask what, but then I remember that Eustace comes and goes, talks and doesn't talk to me in his own time. No use rushing him.

I sit back down in the grass and pat for Fob to sit next to me, which he does. Fob lifts a leg and scratches himself. I giggle a little. I'm hoping that our sitting will encourage Eustace to sit, too, and stay awhile. I don't want him heading back home too quickly. But I know it's not really up to him. Sometimes his ma needs his help getting her work done.

Eustace is on the side of the abolitionists because he's a slave and wants to be a freeman. But for the past couple of years, the abolitionists have been coming here and starting fights that scare everybody. The town is full of threats and agitation. I wish they'd figure out a way to free the slaves without force. Violence doesn't seem like a very scientific solution to the problem.

Eustace says it's the slave owners' own fault the abolitionists have had to get tough with them. He says the slave owners have been stealing, beating, and even killing black people for centuries. It's time for that to stop, even if it takes fires, violence, and war.

I understand what he's saying. But war talk scares me.

Eustace stands there, fidgeting around and staring off.

"Anyway," Eustace says as he finally sits down next to me, "sows and peoples aren't the same.


  • A Bank Street College Best Children's Book
  • * "If ever a girl could make her mark on the world, it is Hallelujah Wonder.... With [her] at the helm, Wonder is full-blown adventure tinged with mysticism, intelligence, and the spirit of discovery."—Booklist, starred review
  • "As in Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Lu's main focus is scientific exploration, and her informative musings will have readers wanting to do scientific research of their own.... An informative and richly detailed historical adventure."—School Library Journal
  • "Pulse-quickening exploits and taut descriptions will keep readers riveted.... Helget's tale celebrates the curiosity and mystery of life."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Readers looking for a plucky heroine may find it a good fit."—VOYA

On Sale
Apr 4, 2017
Page Count
400 pages

Nicole Helget

About the Author

Nicole Helget is the acclaimed author of the middle grade novel Wonder at the Edge of the World and The End of the Wild,as well as three adult novels, The Turtle Catcher, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, and Stillwater. She has also co-authored a middle grade novel, Horse Camp, and she invites you to visit her online at nicolehelget.blogspot.com and @NicoleHelget. She lives in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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