Adventure Underground: Caving Books


In Shiloh Cave, Indiana

I may be “That Library Guy” when hanging out at the Decatur Public Library, but away from there I do have other identities.  I am sometimes Camping Guy (and have even written a book  about that) and Hiking Guy.  And for quite a few years I’ve been a Caving Guy.  I love exploring caves, crawling, climbing, hiking underground, getting wet and muddy, wondering if each new passage will lead to beautiful formations, a cool waterfall, or just a place few people have ever been.

Caving is great fun, and even a bit adventurous — so how about some books that include caving?  You don’t have to be a caver to enjoy these.

One of the great cave explorers of history was Stephen Bishop, a slave who was among the first tour guides at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, in the early years when it was commercialized.  With just a hand-held lantern (and none of the fancy gear cavers use today), he discovered and mapped miles of passages by himself.  Two recent historical fiction books about him:

bottomless_pitJourney to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop & Mammoth Cave, by Elizabeth Mitchell (lexile: NA; AR book level: 5.3; 99 pp)

The year is 1838, and 17-year-old Stephen Bishop, an African-American slave, has been assigned a unique job by his master, Franklin Gorin: to learn the tour routes and lore of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, so he can guide tourists through the cave.  Gorin has just purchased the cave, and hopes to make money from it.  Bishop soon learns the limited area of the cave that was then known, but his relentless curiosity leads him to discover miles of new passages, exploring by himself areas no one had dared to go before.   I’ve been to most of the places in Mammoth Cave described in the book, but it was still exciting to walk, crawl, and climb with Stephen as he became the first human being to ever set foot in many of them.  Lots of caving action in this historically accurate portrayal of a true adventurer.

undergroundUnderground, by Jean Ferris (lexile: 770; AR book level: 4.6; 167 pp)

Ferris tells the story of Charlotte Brown, a slave assigned to work at the Mammoth Cave hotel.  She eventually meets and falls in love with the guide Stephen Bishop, and they are married, all of which is historically accurate.  At the same time, the Underground Railroad was helping escaped slaves flee to the north, and Ferris adds the story of Mammoth Cave serving as a stop on the way.  Though there is no evidence for that, it’s an intriguing idea, since the cave would have been an ideal place to hide slaves — no one knew it better than Bishop and the other African-American guides.  At the end of the story Stephen and Charlotte make a daring trip through Mammoth Cave and out neighboring Flint Ridge to help a slave escape.  Though the connection between those two cave systems wasn’t discovered until 1972, the author notes that conditions would have made it possible for Bishop to discover that route himself.

If you like the books, you should see the real thing:  Mammoth Cave National Park.  There are excellent cave tours of varying lengths, including “wild” caving tours for kids and adults.  You can even see Stephen Bishop’s grave in the old guide’s cemetery.

Want to know more about caves and caving?  Here are some great non-fiction titles in our library system:

Mammoth Cave: The World’s Longest Cave System, by Brad Burnham (24 pp)
The Creation of Caves, by J Elizabeth Mills (64 pp)
Caves, by Isaac Nadeau (24 pp)
Radical Sports: Caving, by Chris Howes (32 pp)
Caving, by Maeve Sisk (24 pp)


One response to “Adventure Underground: Caving Books

  1. Stephen’s wife, the former Charlotte Brown, was reunited with her brother Jim Brown prior to her death in 1897. As a widow, she became the wife of cave guide Nick Bransford, who died in 1894.

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