Archive for the ‘Bonnie Bess Worline’ Category

When I was little, there was nothing I liked more than a pioneer story.  Tales of families crossing the plains in their wagons, braving the elements, and relying on their wits and one another to get through the storms, blights, and assorted perils they faced.  The main way to feed this love was with endless rereadings of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books but there was a steady supply of mediocre imitations around, many of them from my father’s own childhood bookshelves.  And that is where I found The Children Who Stayed Alone by Bonnie Bess Worline, originally published in 1956 (as Sod House Adventure) but reissued in the mid-60s when my father was just the right age for tales of young pioneers.  Coincidentally, my mother was in fact a young pioneer at this same time but it meant something very different by then (although she looked adorable in her communist kerchief).

The title leaves little room for doubt about the book’s main event: with their father away getting supplies and their mother tending to a neighbour struggling with a hard labour, Phoebe and Hartley Dawson are left alone to take care for their five younger siblings.  A fierce storm arrives just after their mother’s departure and so they are left alone for several days to care for the children, tend the animals, and, most dramatically, care for the Native American woman and her sick child who have stumbled out of the storm into their little sod house.

For a child, it’s the ideal fantasy.  There’s nothing really scary happening and Phoebe and Hartley grow in confidence as they prove how well they can manage.  They also – Phoebe especially, to whom the bulk of the work falls – gain an appreciation for how hard their parents work to keep everything running smoothly.  The way this is presented can be cringingly didactic but great style isn’t a necessity for a genre of books aimed at ten-year-olds.

The bulk of the book covers the events of those few days alone and it’s a puzzle as to why Worline continued the story beyond that.  This has the flavour of a family story written out for a larger audience so I suspect she wanted to do justice to the loved ones who lived the events.  She follows them out of the cold winter into the hopeful spring and summer, which sees the family moving into a new wooden house, new neighbours settling where there had only been lonely prairie a year before, and the children preparing to start at the newly formed school, a scary prospect for kids who’ve never attended one.  And there is a happy if improbable reunion with the Native American woman whom they sheltered in the winter, whose father-in-law is the chief of the local tribe and who gives a grand and highly appreciated reward to his family’s young protectors.

For a book written in 1956, I was prepared for some outdated attitudes but was surprised by how well Worline’s tale has aged.  Obviously, the Native Americans are referred to as Indians, but not in any derogatory sense, and Mrs Dawson, even when she thinks they are launching a raid on her home and have captured her husband, remarks “Perhaps we have no right to the land.  I’ve never quite felt the Indians got a square deal.”  That is some impressive sang-froid.  Mr Dawson shows his own progressive values in his determination that all of his children, girls included, should go not just to school but also onto college.  He believes all of these young pioneers, regardless of gender, have a role to play for which college will help prepare them.  He is proud that their state has higher education for women and extorts Phoebe, shy and nervous about school, that she must:

…help this state grow into a good state to live in, a state that takes care of its people as a family takes care of its children.  I don’t know just how; but that is why I want you children to have the best education you can get, so you can find out how.

But let’s be honest: the greatest thing about reading these tales as an adult is hearing about the handsomely stocked pantries, winter feasts, and communal meals.  It’s all about the food and this book excelled at describing everything that was on the table.  When Phoebe and Hartley want to cheer up the younger children during the storm, they put together a party with freshly made popcorn, nuts, and taffy, which is as much a treat to pull and form into candy as it is to eat.  Phoebe admires the family pantry – full of potatoes, onions, dried and smoked meat, dried fruit, and preserves – all the more for remembering how bare it had been in earlier years, when crops had been poor and the family unprepared for what was needed to get them through the winter.  And when the Dawsons host neighbours from all around to help build their new house, the tables are fairly groaning with the massive spread laid out for the mid-day meal:

Besides the many varieties of corn and corn-meal dishes, there were bowls of Dutch cheese, deviled eggs and creamed hard-boiled eggs, wild greens wilted in bacon grease and hot vinegar, dried beef with hominy, sauerkraut, raw cabbage slaw, and many kinds of potato salad.

There were kettles of stewed chicken, cold roast pheasant and partridge, fried rabbit, and Mrs Pfitzer’s rabbit stew with dumplings which she had carried across the fields in a big iron kettle.  There was a kettle of boiled ham and beans, and a big baked ham.  The special treat of the Dawsons was roast lamb with fresh mint sauce from Mother’s mint bed.  There was wheat bread, and soda biscuits, real treats for everyone, and of course the butter Phoebe had churned the day before, and many kinds of jelly and preserves.  Last of all were the pies, dried apple and dried plum and dried peach; and gingerbread with a big bowl of whipped cream to spread on it, and Indian pudding, and thin, sweet pancakes spread with jam and rolled up while they were hot.

Reading these sorts of books as a child, back in the pre-internet days, I could only guess at what things like hominy, taffy, and creamed hard-boiled eggs were (I am still, internet-enabled though I am, confused about hominy).  But that was and is part of the fun.

This is not great literature and the children are nauseatingly good all of the time (all of it!  How is this possible?) but I still thoroughly enjoyed it and am delighted we’ve managed to hold onto my father’s copy for all these years.

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