This book for young readers (upper elementary), Trapped in Death Cave, surprised me in its timelessness, believability, and appeal.
Bill Wallace, the author, was a fourth-grade teacher in Oklahoma who couldn’t find suitable adventure books to read to his students, so he decided to write some himself. He became a well-known writer in this genre in the 1980s. His works have won nineteen Oklahoma book awards, including the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award for Children's Literature.
Trapped in Death Cave would definitely be enjoyed by boys and adventurous girls from ages 8-12 (of course, certain younger or older individuals might be included). There isn’t anything in this book that particularly dates it, since there is no real use of technology in the story– the only thing is one reference to early video games such as Pac-Man.
The basic story involves two 11-year-old boys who get to see each other when Brian’s family goes to their cottage. Gary’s house is right across the road. They are best friends. As they meet up for this vacation week they are both feeling sad that Gary’s grandfather has recently died in an accident where he slipped into the river while fishing. But Gary doesn’t believe that it was an accident, and he wants to follow up on a legend that the old man used to tell them. In fact he left a note for Gary with an overlay of a trail that goes with a map book. But Gary can’t find the map anywhere.
The legend involves a treasure of gold coins that was stolen in the 1800s from a stagecoach that was carrying the payroll money to Fort Sill. The white men who stole the gold hid it in a cave that was sacred to the Indians, and as a result they died from the curse of the Snake Dancers. Since then, two people had turned up with a few of the coins in their pockets, and both had died soon after, which prolonged the legend of the curse.
Gary’s grandpa and his best friend, Chancy, had been searching for the gold since they were boys. In fact, Chancy was one of those who mysteriously died. The note says that Chancy’s widow still knows the location of the cave where the gold is hidden. But the widow has become a recluse, and has a local reputation for being crazy.
The boys set about to try to find the gold (of course)! But it turns out that another local person has also been close to finding it, and he is the one who stole Gary’s grandpa’s maps, which are useless without the overlay. He is a source of real danger to the curious boys. In the course of the adventure, the “crazy” woman turns out to be their ally. They all end up in a cave with wall paintings, an underground river, and experience a hair-raising, but plausible ending.
There were only two things in the whole book that didn’t ring quite true. First, the boys didn’t seem to know how to add up the cost of a bottle of pop and a candy bar. The other has to do with part of their predicament in the cave, so I don’t want to give that away. But despite these two points, I found that the story held together well, and wasn’t so fantastic that you just want to roll your eyes.
Trapped in Death Cave seemed to me to have just the right balance between fright/ adventure and common sense to make it suitable for young minds. There was nothing in the book that violated the laws of physics or was geologically improbable. The type of cave and the terrain is just what one will find in Oklahoma.
This copy is paperback, 151 pages. I got mine from a pile of free books, but it is still in print, so it can be purchased new. Plenty of used copies are available for very little cost. My edition has no illustrations. I don’t know if newer editions might.