My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher, by Jim Murphy, was published in 2001 by Scholastic.
Dear America picks some odd topics to focus on. My Face to the Wind is about teaching school in the West. And it’s about as interesting as it sounds.
I’m sure that topic could be made interesting—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story in These Happy Golden Years comes to mind—but the book takes way too long to get to the actual teaching part, and there isn’t enough conflict or tension to keep things interesting. Oh, sure, Sarah Jane has some problems with her pupils, but not that much, and there’s very little of the novel actually focused on teaching. Most of the time Sarah Jane is only briefly describing what she does, while expounding on the tension at her boarding house or on brief clashes with the students.
There’s also such a strange inclusion here of a Reverend character. In the Historical Note, Murphy talks about religion, so it’s not strange to have a Reverend. What’s strange is that the Reverend’s actions are contrasted with that of the boarding house owner, Miss Kizer, and there’s an odd scene where Sarah Jane observes Miss Kizer reading her Bible and thinking and smiling, and Sarah Jane thinks, “Hmm, I wonder what she’s thinking about.” Then it never comes up again. So whatever comparison Murphy was trying to make falls a bit flat amidst all the other preachiness.
A lack of conflict in My Face to the Wind, coupled with a lack of focus on the actual teaching and weak student confrontations, makes it very boring. What saves it from a 1/5 rating is some interesting revelations about state law, hiring teachers, and other historical details. Yet, it’s still another random topic, uncompelling Dear America book to throw on the pile.
My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, by Ann Rinaldi, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
My Heart is on the Ground is probably the most controversial Dear America book, and perhaps reportedly the most historically inaccurate. It’s the story of a young Lakota girl at the Carlisle Indian School and her experience there, and unfortunately it’s really not the best representation. That’s really a bit of an understatement, but since I don’t know much about the Carlisle Indian School (or any of those schools), I can only surmise from what I’ve heard people say about the book, as well as from the book itself.
I’m of the opinion that any book is useful for learning and teaching, which is why I didn’t give this book a lower rating. If anything, this book is a good stepping stone for a discussion on Indian schools and the treatment of the children there. It’s also a good lesson for how simplifying material to fit the audience can distort at best, and mislead at worst, other cultures and beliefs.
The story is…not great. Even I can tell the tone is tone-deaf, at best, and I only know little bits of Indian history from books such as I Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee. Just like in The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow, the tone is completely wrong. Nannie Little Rose is way too happy about the school, even in the midst of describing how the Carlisle Indian School is visibly eliminating most everything to do with her culture.
Plus, the author’s note is so lethargic, and so vague, that it makes Rinaldi seem as if she’s deliberately downplaying the history that she must have researched, or not willing to go into more depth and nuance in a children’s book. It is possible that the audience and nature of these books pressured her, or perhaps Scholastic did. I won’t really speculate as I can’t know for sure. But it seems odd that some of these books seem so well researched, and others not at all (or the research ignored).
I think many works of historical fiction have benefit, but it’s hard to talk about any benefit to My Heart is on the Ground beyond “how to enrage people with inaccurate history.” I’m really not sure what Scholastic, or Rinaldi, was thinking. Letting children know about that time period: good. Doing it in the way they did, when any amount of historical research will reveal the opposite of what this book is saying: bad.
Behind the Masks: The Diary of Angeline Reddy, by Susan Patron, was published in 2012 by Scholastic.
Dear America has always been one of those book series that stood out to me for several reasons. The first is that they portray important moments in American history (or events that have global effects, such as the sinking of The Titanic). The second is that they portray those moments from the eyes of someone who lived in that time period, so it gives us a sense of what it might have been like to live in that time period. The point is that Dear America is not your average historical fiction, and, I’ll argue, at its best it was never intended to be.
I’ve read two books from the revamped Dear America, and I still don’t get it. Why revamp it? Okay, I get that they want to “pretty it up” and make it appear “more” fictional (as if being in the fiction section wasn’t enough) by putting the author’s name on the front. But so far, of the two I’ve read, I haven’t been impressed. At least Down the Rabbit Hole detailed the Chicago fire. Behind the Masks is basically just your average historical fiction, detailing the life of a mining town right around the time when mining towns started to get in trouble financially, as well as degrade socially.
The story revolves around the actually-real mining town of Bodie and its actually-real citizens. The only prominent character who doesn’t have a real-life counterpart is the narrator, Angeline. Now, usually in Dear America books, the plot revolves around whatever event that book is portraying. This one, though…this one reads like a standard historical fiction. I almost couldn’t believe it was a Dear America book when I read the back. This literally could have been any historical fiction book for children. There’s no event the book revolves around. It only revolves around a place, the town of Bodie. There’s a melodramatic murder mystery of sorts, and Angeline also spends a lot of time thinking about plays and hanging around vaudevillian characters.
I really like books to have purpose, especially historical fiction, and I feel as if this book has none. Why was it written? To tell people about this old town of Bodie? Who cares? To tell people about how to make linen masks? Okay, boring. To tell people about the attitudes towards the Chinese? Okay, but why leave most of the information in the historical notes, which most readers probably don’t read (I didn’t, as a child)?
The thing I liked best about Behind the Masks is the pretty gold design on the front and Angeline’s portrait. The story itself was disappointing, and not what I think Dear America should be. But maybe I’m expecting too much out of the series since it’s so dear to me.
Land of the Buffalo Bones: The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, an English Girl in Minnesota, by Marion Dane Bauer, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.
Land of the Buffalo Bones is a “special edition” of Dear America, though at first I didn’t know why. However, it became clear at the end—this Dear America book was based off of real people. And I don’t mean that real people showed up as side characters within the book, as happened in previous Dear America books. I mean that the protagonist herself was a real person—though not much is known about her.
Bauer relates the story of Reverend George Rodgers, who took his family and a large group of people from England to Minnesota, filling their heads with talk of fertile soil and beautiful land. The reality, of course, is harsh winters, hot summers, grasshoppers, and bleached buffalo bones everywhere, not to mention Indians. Rodgers soon leaves his “colony” in disgrace, moving his family around after that. Polly is the protagonist and the voice of the story, though, as the author’s note reveals, not much is known about her at all, so most of the information given in this book is made-up by the author.
The struggle of immigrants in a harsh land may be a tale that’s interesting to some, but Polly is such a disagreeable, passive protagonist that it’s hard to find anything compelling about this book. As is the problem with many Dear America books, there is too much observation and not enough plot to sustain the novel. Polly is merely a passive observer to all around her—even her friendship with Jane is seen at a distance, and Jane’s ultimate decision to leave the colony is marred by Polly’s blunt language and bewilderment at the entire affair. If more had been given for Polly to do—if Polly had interacted with people beyond her family and Jane, done more than gripe at her younger sisters and exclaim at the extreme weather conditions—this might have been a more interesting book.
Land of the Buffalo Bones was obviously a labor of love for the author, who is chronicling a fictionalized version of her family’s history, but it’s not particularly exciting and it adds nothing to the Dear America canon. Polly is too bland of a character, and the book too observational. It has a little historical value in its exploration of religious freedom, but very, very little—and almost nothing to contribute in other areas. Dear America books are so much better when they are focused on significant events, rather than on vague periods of time.
Down the Rabbit Hole is the first of the revamped Dear America books I’ve read. Scholastic prettied up the covers, added the author’s name to the front, and placed a summary, rather than an excerpt, on the back of the book. I think the official reasoning behind it was that it made the books appear more like fiction (the old Dear America books did not have the author’s name at the front, and the copyright page was in the back of the book), but the complaints of “How are we supposed to know it’s fiction?” towards the old Dear America books always seemed thin to me. It’s in the fiction section, people—it’s fiction!
Anyway, my first experience with the revamped books wasn’t that bad. To be honest, I would have rated this book higher if it hadn’t been for the ending. The ending seriously annoyed me. I also didn’t like the titles of the sections, as it really disrupted the diary feel of it. And though I found the constant going back-and-forth in time annoying at first, I soon got used to it.
I would probably rank this book in the middle of my imaginary Dear America rankings. It seems more useful and historically integrated than A Light in the Storm, but it’s not as compelling as I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly. Bartoletti talks about labor unions, Down’s syndrome, and the Chicago fire well enough, but a lot of her plot hinges on convenience. Cager arriving at the Pritchard’s house was when everything turned awry for me. There was too much convenience, too many things being revealed, and several out of character moments. The ending was a letdown.
I don’t really understand the reason for the revamped Dear America books, but at least Down the Rabbit Hole promises somewhat good additions. Everything in the book was strong until the ending. I don’t know if I like the stylistic choice, but I’m glad to see that the change didn’t lead to a significant drop in quality.
The Great Railroad Race: The Diary of Libby West, by Kristiana Gregory, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
I’ve mentioned before that I think Kristiana Gregory’s Dear America books are some of the best in the series. Seeds of Hope and Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairieare among my favorites. Gregory seems to understand a balance of slice-of-life and history is needed in order to make these books shine.
That being said, The Great Railroad Race is a bit of a downer. While an important period of time, there just aren’t enough things that happen. It’s certainly very informative, but it’s lacking a little sparkle, in my opinion. There’s too much of Libby blushing about Pete and not enough about the politics and culture of the time. Gregory does include some things about the conflict with the Indians, as well as mentioning the Chinese that worked for Central Pacific, and there’s a great deal of information about what it was like near the railroad. But it’s too much in the background, I guess—it reads too much like information and there’s not enough immersion.
I did like Libby, though, with her matter-of-fact comments. Gregory did a good job of inserting the sort of opinions a girl would put in her diary, such as her thoughts on the President, the Indians, and the culture of the time. I’ve complained before about the protagonist simply being a vehicle for historical information, or for not being present enough in her own story, but there’s none of that here.
The Great Railroad Race definitely isn’t the worst of Dear America, but it’s not really near the best. It’s a good, average book in the series. The historical information is interesting, but not as immersive as others. Libby is a great protagonist, although she spends a little too much time talking about her feelings for Pete. It’s not my favorite of Gregory’s books.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, by Joyce Hansen, was published in 1997 by Scholastic.
I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly is a delightful story about Patsy, a freed slave who is struggling to find her identity and place in society. I knew very little about the beginning of the Reconstruction era that took place in the South after the Civil War, such as the government’s dealings with the freed slaves, so it was interesting to read this book to find out a little more.
Historical details aside, the heart of this book is Patsy’s story, as it should be. The best Dear America books are those that aren’t just there to give information about a particular time period, but actually tell a story through the diary entries. It seems pretty straightforward when I say it like that—why wouldn’t these books tell a story? But A Light in the Storm and a couple other Dear America books that I have read failed to move beyond the diary entries as a mouthpiece for the setting. I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly makes Patsy, rather than the setting, the center.
I always have a soft place in my heart for protagonists who outwardly appear weak or are looked down upon, but have inner strength that shows itself in various ways (that almost never has to do with physical strength). Patsy, with her stutter and her seemingly “slow” mind, outwardly appears slow and weak, but inwardly she’s sharply intelligent—which shines when she’s doing what she loves. Patsy overcomes not only her stutter, but also her former status as a slave, and chooses for herself a name and a position the process of which is truly heartening to experience.
After so many disappointing Dear America books, I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly was a delight, with a character-driven plot, a delightful protagonist, and a timeless message. It sheds light on an era that I didn’t know much about, but still remembers that it should also be a story, not just a mouthpiece for history. This book will likely remain a stand-out for me among all of the Dear America books.
When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, by Barry Denenberg, was published in 1996 by Scholastic.
After the Native American books, I think When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is the next most notorious Dear America book. This one, though, is notorious for reasons that I don’t quite agree with. The main reason people seem to be up in arms about this book is the narrator’s, Emma’s, treatment of her family’s slaves. See, Emma actually treats the slaves well and even teaches the children to read and write. However, there’s still a chilling underlying inferiority applied to them, stated quite matter-of-factly and spouting “Christian” reasons for it. The main outcry against this portrayal is that people are upset that the author portrayed Emma as educating her slaves and being “nice” to them, which implies that the author is saying that slavery really wasn’t all that bad.
However, that interpretation is pretty nonsensical if you think about it. This is a Civil War diary of a Confederate girl. If Denenberg chose not to have the family abuse their slaves (presumably because of the audience), that does nothing to undermine the fact that Emma’s opinions about slavery are wrong. It does nothing to hide the way Emma talks about the slaves around her as if they were worth less than her, or how she thinks about them as if they were an alien species.
And if people are upset that children reading this book would absorb Emma’s thoughts and think slavery is fine or that the South was justified, then again I point out the words “Civil War” on the front. If the child doesn’t know about the Civil War and the different sides that were fighting, and that Emma is wrong, then that’s not the book’s fault.
And if people are upset that children reading this book might feel sympathetic for what happened to the South and to Southern families during the Civil War, then those people are unfeeling and heartless. Just because the Confederates were wrong does not mean they did not suffer during the war, and that does not mean we can’t feel sympathy for the people whose lives were upended and who lost family members.
I’m getting off my soap box now and moving on to the actual mechanics of the book.
So, When Will This Cruel War Be Over? is plagued by similar problems that plagued Denenberg’s other Dear America book, So Far From Home. The protagonist is whiny, too verbose, and does almost nothing except mope for the entire book. There is very little action in the book—all Emma does is react to the things happening around her. In addition, Denenberg’s choice to make the Simpson family religious is irritating, as he doesn’t explain the topic with nearly enough nuance or information and merely perpetuates stereotypes. I’ve already talked about Emma’s attitude and the portrayal of slavery as a whole, so I won’t address that, but that was by far the least irritating thing of the book in comparison to the pacing and the plot.
It’s a shame that both Civil War entries in the Dear America series are terrible. It’s like both authors were too nervous to actually delve into some good material. And now I’m scared that Denenberg’s One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping isn’t as good as I remember it being, based on his track record so far.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Confederate view of slavery and of the Civil War.
The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, by Ann Turner, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
The narrator describes her experiences as her Navajo tribe is forced to relocate by the U.S. Army in 1864 New Mexico.
The Dear America series is fairly historically accurate at times, but I know there are a few entries that are panned widely for their inaccuracies. The most notorious is My Heart is on the Ground, which I’ll be covering when we get there, but I’ve also heard that The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow has its problems. And there are certainly others besides those that have been criticized for their portrayals of history (such as When Will This Cruel War be Over?, which, again, I’ll be covering when we get there).
I won’t really go into the cultural or portrayal problems with this book; that has been done far more extensively in other places by Native Americans. From my perspective, Turner does a fair job portraying some cultural aspects of Navajo life (in comparison to books that have perpetuated bad stereotypes), but there are others where even I can tell she either glosses over them or twists them entirely. It’s interesting because the notes in the back indicated she did research, and even consulted a Navajo artist about the book. I’m wondering if the audience of the book put some sort of limit on what Turner thought she could and should portray, which is a shame if true.
My main problem with this book—and most people’s, I would argue—is that it is simply a poor depiction of The Long Walk. I know this is a children’s series, but Turner was far too nice in her portrayal. The inclusion of a kindly soldier, while perhaps true to history (though anyone that kind who is in that position needs to explain why he’s even taking part at all), softens the atrocities that happened on the trail, such as leaving the elderly, the ill, and the pregnant behind (if not downright shooting them, as is portrayed—“off page”—in the book). Sarah Nita’s “grin and bear it” attitude (more like “tell a story and bear it” attitude), which may actually work for some instances, only serves to make it seem as if the Navajo eventually became content with their situation. It seems to me as if Turner completely changed the entire tone of the Long Walk.
That’s really the problem—the tone seems off. The Long Walk was something terrible, but Turner’s approach makes it seem as if it really wasn’t all that bad. Even when she portrays things like pregnant women being shot, and the vague “the men can be cruel to our women” comments, there’s too much kindness, too much happiness, too much softening of events. Stories hold a lot of power, and can help in troubled times, but using that idea makes it seem as if Turner is proverbially patting people on the head and saying, “There, there. It wasn’t all that bad.” The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow is simply an unrealistic presentation of the Long Walk, one that is inaccurate, far too happy, and, yes, disrespectful to the people who had to go through it.
A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin, by Karen Hesse, was published in 1999 by Scholastic.
A Light in the Storm is very reminiscent of Standing in the Light or All the Stars in the Sky—an interesting look at the historical time period, but overall seemingly unnecessary. It’s interesting to read about the conflict in Delaware, a slave state that didn’t join the Confederacy, and the way that conflict is mirrored in Amelia’s parents is well done, but this book doesn’t really deserve the title of “Civil War Diary,” in my opinion. It’s more about lighthouses than anything else. Of course, there is that north/south tension that exists, as well as some other issues (common-law marriages, abolitionists, runaway slaves, etc.) pertinent to that time, but I felt as if the epilogue taught me more about the Civil War than the actual diary did.
Sometimes it does feel as if these Dear America books are a little random in terms of setting and material. I really don’t think this story about a girl who helps with the upkeep of a lighthouse during the time of the Civil War is particularly inspiring or memorable. It does tell you a little bit about the attitudes in Delaware, which is perhaps what Scholastic and the author were trying to highlight, but all the same, A Light in the Storm feels like a particularly useless, unmemorable book in the Dear America series.
In addition, much like So Far From Home, the epilogue of this book is strange. Mostly because Hesse marries off the protagonist, but then has the husband go west while Amelia stays at home, never to see him again. Why? Is that supposed to be representative of reality? Or is that just to reiterate Amelia’s dedication to the lighthouse? Why not have the husband work side by side with her? What is even the point of an epilogue like that?
Anyway, A Light in the Storm details a little about the beginnings of the Civil War and the tension that tore the nation apart, especially in border states like Delaware, but as a story it fails to hold on to that historical setting and instead tells a jumbled tale of lighthouses, divorce, and vague conflict. It’s a book I forgot as soon as I finished reading, and it’s definitely not a standout in the series.