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Reading about Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave: A Journey Within a Journey

In her final post of the school year, Library Specialist Nancy Kiefer investigates the stages of exploration as students read and interpret stories. -Ed.

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Climbing into a deep hole leading into the unknown, exploring dark and damp tunnels, crawling through harrowingly tight spaces, narrowly missing falling into deep chasms, discovering rooms of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, crossing a bottomless pit with only a lantern and a wooden ladder as a bridge…The stuff of legends, myths, adventure stories, horror tales! You can imagine how excited the 3rd and 4th graders have been to hear this as a read-aloud in our library classes.

We started this year reaching into the depths of Mammoth Cave by reading Journey to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop & Mammoth Cave written by Elizabeth Mitchell and illustrated by Kellyn Alder. This book of well-documented historical fiction chronicles the life of Stephen Bishop, who was brought to Mammoth Cave for guide training in 1838. An innovative and adventurous guide, Stephen intrepidly explored the cave, discovering important aspects of it and creating an up-to-date map in 1842.

Stephen Bishop was a slave. Owned by Franklin Gorin, he was brought to Mammoth Cave to work for free.  Although this was established early in the book and referred to often, the students, at first, were too enthralled by his heroic journey and discoveries to truly process this fact. Then, something changed.

One day Stephen spent a long and dangerous time exploring, coming upon something new: a massive vertical shaft filled with beautifully colored stalactites, draperies, and other rock formations. With great excitement, he brought his master to the place he’d found.

‘“It’s beautiful. I’m calling it Gorin’s Dome,” the cave’s owner said proudly.’ My 3rd and 4th graders sat in silence, trying to absorb this sentence.

“You mean, he didn’t get credit?”

“Everything he worked for…It was owned by his master?”

“He discovered it and his name was not mentioned?

In that silence, and with those questions, the real journey began.