Seeds of Hope by Kristiana Gregory

Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

Susanna Fairchild and her family are on board a ship sailing from New York to the West, where they plan to start a new life in Oregon. But tragedy strikes when Susanna’s mother is lost to the sea. Hearing stories of great wealth, Susanna’s physician father decides he wants to join the hordes of men rushing to California to mine for gold.

Rating: 4/5

While I wouldn’t call Seeds of Hope a sequel to Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, Gregory does connect the two books together by having the Fairchilds be related to the Campbells. It isn’t necessary to have read Prairie, of course. The inclusion of the Campbells is more of a bonus to readers who have read Gregory’s Oregon Trail entry first.

This is another of my favorite Dear America books (I really am a fan of Gregory), partly because of the purple cover, partly because it’s well-written and goes into a lot of historical detail. I learned more about the Gold Rush in this book then I did in Rae Carson’s Walk on Earth a Stranger, which is also about the Gold Rush. The book definitely doesn’t pull any punches; it opens with a death, and includes amputation, hangings, betrayal, and theft, as well as veiled clues about prostitution. What I like most about the Dear America series is that it does not sugar-coat or hide anything that could have happened in that time period, it merely mentions it in ways that are appropriate for children.

The novel also conveys how atypical and dangerous it was for two young women to be on their own during the Gold Rush, yet also takes the time to describe not only the kindness of strangers, but also the steps Susanna and Clara took to protect themselves. And there’s never any underlying threat that makes one worry about their safety throughout the book; again, this is a book for children, so while it’s mentioned what Susanna and Clara do to protect themselves from prowlers and thieves, there’s never anything too dark that is hinted at.

I have a feeling that Gregory’s Dear America books will be the stand-outs for me in this series; she seems to have achieved the knack of writing memorable characters and conveying the historical time period accurately and interestingly. Seeds of Hope is another great addition to Dear America, one I remember fondly.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ywNYc3

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All the Stars in the Sky by Megan McDonald

All the Stars in the Sky: The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder, by Megan McDonald, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

Florrie finds the adventure of a lifetime along the Santa Fe Trail, meeting new challenges and dangers, after her mother decides to move her family from Missouri to New Mexico. Starting their journey from their home in Missouri, Florrie Ryder and her family are headed towards the promise of a new life in Santa Fe. As they cross the Great Plains of the Midwestern prairie, fording rivers and climbing mountains, the Ryders encounter endless hardship as they undertake this great adventure.

Rating: 2/5

Dear America loves its Western Expansion stories, and All the Stars in the Sky takes us to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail. This book is slightly unique in that it’s the first (of what I’ve read) that features a stepfather, and McDonald actually demonstrates the tension and confusion that can result from having a new father rather well. It also has some good historical details and the mixing of Mexican, Native American, and American is done well enough that it gives a good picture of the mixing of cultures.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the book reads a lot like a copy of Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie—except not nearly as memorable or as well-written. It’s another “on the trail” story, one that’s not really necessary. I think it would have been better to have something much more similar to Seeds of Hope (a review to come),which has a minimum amount of traveling and describes more of what happens at the destination. I think that format also would have emphasized more of the culture and the environment at the time. I do like that McDonald featured what she did, but I think it could have been more successful in a different fashion.

Because of its similarities—and inferiority—to Wide and Lonesome Prairie, and its lack of truly memorable or stand-out events, All the Stars in the Sky is, sadly, forgettable. I liked the different depiction of the family unit, and I felt McDonald was mildly successful in imbuing her story with cultural aspects and historical details, but I just felt as if it could have been even more successful if McDonald had chosen to emphasize more of Santa Fe and less of “trail life.” However, I did really like the font used for the title and for the diary entries. I am a sucker for appealing, sharp font.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LQMYlw

So Far From Home by Barry Denenberg

So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

In the diary account of her journey from Ireland in 1847 and of her work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, fourteen-year-old Mary reveals a great longing for her family.

Rating: 2/5

So Far From Home recounts not only the Irish potato famine that ravished Ireland (that killed about one million people), but the harsh work environment and living conditions that awaited the Irish immigrants in America. Denenberg also offers a look at the “cradle” of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowell textile mills.

Denenberg only superficially sketches a picture of the desperation and determination of some immigrants—desperate to work, determined to send money home for the families—and how business owners used that to their advantage. He does capture this well, though this Dear America book is weaker than others. I wish he had also focused on the way the Irish were treated beyond work environment—there is next to no mention of Catholicism (a strange religion to Protestant New England) and though there is some mention of Mary being bullied by other girls, there is no indication that it is her ethnicity that is prompting it.

Denenberg mostly focuses on the textile mills and their dangers, though I feel he could have done much more. It seems in his determination to portray as much as possible of that time period, he missed out on depth and richness. Mary is a phlegmatic protagonist, there only as a vehicle for the viewer to experience the time period. She has no characterization, no “body,” no memorability. This is further accentuated by the epilogue, which is the most depressing and least developed epilogue of a Dear America book so far. It seems even Denenberg didn’t know what to do with Mary.

It’s hard for me to believe that So Far From Home is written by the same author who wrote One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping (one of my absolute favorite Dear America books). So Far From Home is good for a general look at the Irish potato famine, Irish immigration, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, but Denenberg misses many opportunities for lasting impressions and Mary is a forgettable character.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2KD61iE

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie by Kristiana Gregory

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.

Thirteen-year-old Hattie Campbell’s father dreamed of a new life in Oregon. He dreamed of free land, mild winters, and good soil. He wanted to leave behind a life in Missouri marked by an increased population, high taxes, and sad memories of young children dead from swamp fever. Reluctantly, Augusta Campbell agrees to join her husband, and Hattie and family find themselves on a wagon train traveling the Oregon Trail. Hattie’s diary entries tell a story of daily encounters with death: a baby, an old man, river drownings, dead oxen. Such sadness is countered with Hattie’s observations of love, the miracle of new life, and the kindness of people who help each other through desperate times. The Oregon Trail and Hattie’s fellow pioneers help her to face her fears and emerge a stronger young woman. Hattie’s exciting journey to Oregon is one marked by geographic peaks and valleys as well as the peaks and valleys of emotions the pioneers experienced on their grueling trip.

Rating: 5/5

I believe Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie was the first Dear America book I owned, and, as a result, it’s the one I’ve read the most. Hattie’s trip across the Oregon Trail never grew old for me, and with each read I grasped some aspect that had alluded me the previous time.

There’s lots of tragedy and death in this book, as you might expect from an account of the Oregon Trail. There is not much on the actual incentive to go West—there’s a brief mention of “manifest destiny”—nor is there a whole lot on conflicts and tensions between the Native American tribes and the travelers, but Gregory’s extensive historical notes in the back of the book do address these issues. First and foremost, this is simply the diary of a young girl on her way to Oregon, and it reads exactly like that. The voice of Hattie is perfect, and the voice of the author is distant, if it’s even discernible at all.

Tragedy aside, there’s lots of heartwarming instances in this book, as well as a valuable lesson on forgiveness and friendship. In a day and age where novels that feature bitter people getting their “comeuppance” by the people they’ve hurt, Hattie’s interactions with Mrs. Kenker, the grieving hoarder, is a welcome relief. The people around Hattie help her understand, and she uses that understanding to show compassion. It’s a beautiful message, and one that is badly needed today.

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie is one of my favorite Dear America novels. It is seamlessly integrated, pulls no punches in terms of historicity, and is memorable, exciting, tragic and heartwarming. There’s a reason Gregory’s Dear America novels are some of my favorites—she’s captured the appropriate balance and atmosphere of these books perfectly.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2I1a8nF

Valley of the Moon by Sherry Garland

Valley of the Moon: The Diary of María Rosalia de Milagros, by Sherry Garland, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.

María Rosalía is a Mestizo servant in a Spanish home. Orphaned years ago, she and her brother Domingo work on a ranch run by the stern Señor Medina. María’s writing captures the intense tradition and culture of the Spanish as she observes the war that Alta California ultimately loses to the Americans.

Rating: 4/5

I love the time period of Western Expansion and the pioneering age, but I’ve rarely gotten to read about what it was like in those territories before people from the East started moving there. Valley of the Moon fills in some of that missing information. I knew from my American Girl doll books growing up (Josephina) about the strong Mexican/Spanish culture that stretched from Texas to California, but it’s not really something I consider when I read books about the Gold Rush or whatever. This Dear America book fills in all those gaps, and also addresses the plight of the Native Americans to an extent.

María is half-Indian and half-Spanish, and although most of the book depicts the Spanish culture, some aspects of it address the declining Indian population. The book is vibrantly, unapologetically Spanish (what today we would call Mexican, but that term is never used in the book—Spanish is the word used to describe the californios). That may seem like an exaggeration, and maybe it is, but I haven’t read many books set in that time period that really describe the Mexican culture of the time, especially not for this age group.

This is a long Dear America book, but for the most part I didn’t notice the length. Garland does a good job of interspersing tension, historical information, and continuation of plot so that the pace is even throughout. While most of the book is dedicated to everyday activities (a combination of cultural and religious events and María’s own development), a bit of it is dedicated to the moment when California, briefly, became a republic and then was claimed by the United States. That part may be the weakest part of the book, actually, although the revelation of María’s father is also pretty weak, in my opinion, if only because of how convenient it is.

I’m not sure if Valley of the Moon is the best book for describing how California became part of the United States, or even if it’s a good book for describing the Mexican-American War. However, it’s a great book for describing the way the Mexican way of life infused the culture of California at the time, how the Indian population dwindled because of the settlers, and is a great starting point for a discussion on what aspects of the Mexican culture we can still see today, and what has been lost over time.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction

Lupita does not trust the norteamericanos. She says they are supposed to become loyal Mexican citizens, learn to speak Spanish, and become Catholics in exchange for land. But not all of them do as they agreed. She especially dislikes the foreigner Johann Sutter, who encourages other foreigners to come to California illegally without permission from the Mexican government. There are already squatters on Señor Median’s lands. Lupita thinks they will take over Alta California before long.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HMATfA

A Line in the Sand by Sherry Garland

A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, by Sherry Garland, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.

In the journal she receives for her twelfth birthday in 1835, Lucinda Lawrence describes the hardships her family and other residents of the “Texas colonies” endure when they decide to face the Mexicans in a fight for their freedom.

Rating: 4/5

Having lived in Texas for the past 4 ½ years, I’ve come to a better appreciation of the history of Texas, especially the Alamo. And it was nice to read A Line in the Sand and be able to identify the landmarks and visualize the basic area in which the story takes place.

As the topic might suggest, this is not, at its heart, a happy story. It’s a retelling of a time when families struggled to live off the Texas land, struggled to reconcile their Tejano neighbor with their Mexican enemies (which Garland conveys superbly, by the way, by detailing how intermingled the cultures were and how Mexicans fought alongside “Anglos” to repel their own leader, whom they feared), and struggled to hold back the Mexican forces at the Alamo—a fight they failed at, with devastating loss of life.

The end of the book cannot be described as happy. It does depict the final victory of the Texans over Santa Anna at San Jacinto, but the news comes after the horrifying details of the Texans’ flight across Texas in front of the advancing Mexican army. If anything, the ending of the book is a bittersweet resolution as the Texans realize the fight is over, but realize how much they’ve lost. It’s a survivor’s ending, basically.

A Line in the Sand does a great job of depicting the culture of the time as well as the various tensions and opinions of the people. The buildup is slow, and the ending is quick, but it matches the bewilderment that the settlers must have faced when they heard the news of the Alamo and had to flee for their lives—a flight which cost many more lives. It’s not a happy story, but it’s sorrow is countered by the hopeful note sounding at the end in the determination and relief of the Texans. This is one of the Dear America books I had never read growing up, and I’m glad that I got to finally read it now, especially as someone living in Texas now.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

This evening, about one hundred and fifty Texians crossed the river by ferry. They decided they would not wait for Mexican soldiers to attack Gonzales, but would find them and attack first. With heavy hearts we said farewell to Willis and Uncle Henry. I think every woman was silently weeping, though we cheered and tried to show courage and act like ladies. It is eerily quiet now. After she fed Papa, I saw Mama go behind the smokehouse to Baby Mary’s grave. That is where she always goes to be alone with her thoughts and to have a good cry.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IKuMYH

Cannons at Dawn by Kristiana Gregory

Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 2011 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Winter of Red Snow.

Abigail Jane Stewart returns in this brand-new sequel to The Winter of Red Snow. The Revolutionary War toils on, but the Stewart family can no longer avoid getting involved. Abby’s father joins the Continental Army, while Abby, her mother, and her siblings become camp followers. They face daily hardships alongside the troops and continue to spend time helping the Washingtons. Filled with romance and adventure, Abby’s frontline view of the war captures the heartache and bravery of the soldiers, as well as the steep cost of freedom

Rating: 2/5

Cannons at Dawn is part of the reboot of Dear America, where Scholastic revamped the covers and commissioned several new stories. It’s the sequel to The Winter of Red Snow, and as far as I could tell/remember, it accurately recounts the further adventures of Abigail Jane Stewart as told in the epilogue of the first book.

That’s really the main problem with this book—The Winter of Red Snow, and any Dear America book in general, are ill-suited for sequels since each book has an epilogue that tells what happens to the characters after the events of the book. Cannons at Dawn is a useless book in terms of characterization; since we already know what happens to Abigail and her family, the book gives us nothing new. The only purpose the book serves is to describe more of the Revolutionary War: the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, the French support, the Battle of Yorktown. It’s puzzling as to why Scholastic chose this book to serve as a sequel and why no other book was given one. It also highlights the weaknesses of sequels in a series like this in the first place.

The best part of Dear America is its “day-in-the-life” quality. Extending that in as forced of a way as Cannons at Dawn lessens the impact and makes each book less special—especially the sequel, since there’s nothing special about a story that we already heard at the end of the first book.

I don’t know if I’m making any sense as to my feelings, but basically, I think that for a series such as Dear America, sequels are a bad idea. Needlessly extending one historical event to tell us the continuing story of someone for whom we already know the continuing story makes for a slow, dull book. Not even the historical aspects make Cannons at Dawn appealing to me—not when it goes against the “one and done” aspect of the series in general, as well as makes everything long and drawn-out. Gregory is one of my favorite Dear America authors, but I’m going to pretend this book doesn’t exist in the series.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Abigail becomes pregnant, but the book ends before she delivers the baby. Children’s books don’t usually include things like this, so that’s why I’m stating it as a warning.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Were you with the soldiers at Stony Point?” I asked.

His green eyes flashed with pride. “Drummer, first class. From the court of King George.”

We stared at him. It took a moment for us to understand.

“You’re a Redcoat!” Sally cried.

He seemed surprised. “You are loyal to the King, yes?”

“No. Never. We are Patriots!”

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2uBLpTW

The Winter of Red Snow by Kristiana Gregory

The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1996 by Scholastic.

Eleven-year-old Abigail Jane Stewart records the despair and hope of the difficult winter between 1777-1778—when she witnessed George Washington readying his young soldiers on the frozen fields of Valley Forge.

Rating: 4/5

The Winter of Red Snow is the sort of Dear America book that I think about when I think of Dear America: the story of a young girl whose ordinary life is being touched by the historical events going on around her. This book is much less random than, say, Standing in the Light or even Look to the Hills (which was more pointedly about slavery than about any particular historical event), and the combination of historical event and fiction melds nicely. Kristiana Gregory is also quite experienced at writing Dear America books, so perhaps that also is the reason why I felt The Winter of Red Snow meshes better than other Dear America books.

I grew up near Philadelphia and visited Valley Forge, so The Winter of Red Snow touched the nostalgic part of my heart while reading. I thought Gregory hit a nice balance of the sort of awe and patriotism that Abigail might feel for the soldiers, coupled with the frustration and anger as the soldiers looted the homes around them for supplies. And while the story today might smack of a bit too much hero worship to some people, I think the depiction of George Washington and other famous historical figures and Abigail’s reaction to them are accurate for the time period.

The thing I perhaps most appreciate about the Dear America series, especially one so nicely melded as this one, is the combination of history and narrative that it gives. It’s so much easier to remember history when there’s a story attached to it, as opposed to random dates and names. Perhaps that’s why I know so much about history despite having stopped taking history classes after my sophomore year of college. I don’t remember much about what I learned in those classes, but I remember all the books I’ve read that describe the events that I learned about.

I’m very familiar with The Winter of Red Snow, both in terms of setting and the book itself, as it is one I read many times growing up. Perhaps that’s why I feel so favorably towards it (although those feelings pale in comparison to my two favorite Dear America books, Seeds of Gold (Gold Rush) and One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping (World War II)). I think that Gregory depicts the setting accurately, down to the reactions of the people and the descriptions of the hard winter of 1777-1778. I also think the story of Abigail integrates well with the historical event itself; it seems much more cohesive than other Dear America books.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“Who are these dear children?” said one of the women coming over to greet us. She was about my height, extremely plump, and had a friendly, smiling face, though I must admit she was not at all pretty. (I did not like her wide nostrils nor the mole on her cheek.)

“Ma’am,” said Billy Lee, “these here are Missus Stewart’s girls, those that keeps your husband’s shirts, ma’am.”

This was Lady Washington!

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2CDwbwz

Love Thy Neighbor by Ann Turner

Love Thy Neighbor: The Tory Diary of Prudence Emerson, by Ann Turner, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

In Greenmarsh, Massachusetts, in 1774, thirteen-year-old Prudence keeps a diary of the troubles she and her family face as Tories surrounded by American patriots at the start of the American Revolution.

Rating: 2/5

Love Thy Neighbor retells the tension between the colonies and England leading up to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War—from the point of view of a Tory family. It’s a little bit like recounting the Civil War from a Confederate standpoint—it’s not something you see often and it takes a little getting used to.

The book, like many other of the Dear America books, has more substance as a narrative historical account than as a story with a plot. There’s a bit of one, but mostly Turner is concerned with showing the tension between Tory and Patriot as neighbor turns against neighbor rather than developing her characters. Prudence is definitely merely an onlooker, a vehicle to show certain attitudes, and nothing more.

One thing I appreciate about this book is that I had forgotten about Christmas being outlawed by the Puritans, and this book reminded me of that. That ideology takes centerstage in the novel, as Prudence and her family secretly decorate for and celebrate Christmas and get attacked as “papist.” It’s something that I don’t think a lot of people know—or a lot of people would like to forget, maybe—and in the research I did afterward, it really wasn’t until the 19th century that Christmas really took hold in America.

Love Thy Neighbor seems weak to me, not only because of the lack of a strong character presence, but also because it seemed to me that Turner didn’t have as much research to lean on as some other D.A. books do. I understand that this is a children’s book and footnotes or endnotes are not really things that appear in those, but I really would have liked to have seen some of her research on some of the things she mentioned in the historical/author’s note at the end. It’s probably my least favorite Dear America book I’ve read so far.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

In school today, Abigail did not even return my greeting. When we left Mrs. Hall’s house, I asked if I had done anything to offend her. She choked out, “Papa says we Patriots must stick together,” and ran away. Again.

I would not cry. I took a deep breath, grabbed Verity’s hand, and marched home to tell Mama. She was very kind and made strong cups of tea to cheer us.

I fear it will take more than tea to do that.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2DxXRUE

Look to the Hills by Patricia C. McKissack

Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, a French Slave Girl, by Patricia C. McKissack, was published in 2004 by Scholastic.

In acclaimed author Patricia McKissack’s latest addition to the Dear America line, Lozette, a French slave, whose masters uproot her and bring her to America, must find her place in the New World. Arriving with her French masters in upstate New York at the tail end of the French-Indian War, Lozette, “Zettie,” an orphaned slave girl, is confronted with new landscapes, new conditions, and new conflicts. As her masters are torn between their own nationality and their somewhat reluctant new allegiance to the British colonial government, Zettie, too, must reconsider her own loyalties.

Rating: 3/5

Look to the Hills describes a period of time not too often depicted in historical fiction, at least from what I can tell—the French and Indian War. Or at least, the time period between that war and the Revolutionary War. McKissack deftly describes the tension between the colonists and the Indians, and the struggles of those who try to keep the peace. There’s also a good balance between the two opposing sides: the characters who want to drive off the Indians and the ones who want to let them be, or even integrate into their society.

Lozette Moreau is an interesting protagonist, in that she’s a slave, but a French one, so that she has to deal with the inevitable clash when she arrives in the colonies, where slaves are treated much differently than in France. McKissack does a good job of describing Lozette’s relationship with Ree and Lozette’s frustration with feeling like an object rather than a person. It’s a good thing to remember that cruelty towards the slaves, exhibited in places such as Haiti and the Southern United States at the time, is not what makes slavery so terrible. McKissack emphasizes how it’s the mere act of “owning” another human being that is wrong, regardless of how well that human is treated.

Look to the Hills was a bit long and boring in places; the middle, especially was something of a trudge to get through. That’s the problem with the Dear America books in general, I feel—in order to fit all the events they want to fit in that meet that historical time period, the authors have to waste some time with fiddly things, like chores and random conversations and sometimes one sentence entries. The ones that can grab you from start to finish are the ones that stand out, in my opinion. Look to the Hills is almost there, but loses ground because of the middle.

Look to the Hills is a unique, and rare, look at the aftermath of the French and Indian War. It also has an interesting look at different forms of slavery and the tension that can result when different forms meet and clash. I like the perspective and the historical information, but the middle of the book is too slow to make it a particularly engaging read.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“What’s a companion do?” Sam asked.

“Compan,” Sally answered, shrugging. We all laughed in good spirit.

In a short while we were talking like old friends. I shared my story from my birth on Captain Moreau’s ship to the adventures that had brought me to Fort Niagara.

“You’re lucky,” said Sally. “Being a companion isn’t like being a slave.”

“A slave is a slave,” I said. “I want to be free.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2DaswaI