West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, by Jim Murphy, was published in 1998 by Scholastic.
West to a Land of Plenty is the third or fourth Western expansion Dear America novel, this time telling the story of an Italian family going to Idaho Territory. It’s more like All the Stars in the Skythan like Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie (the best of all of them): less memorable, more boring, with too much emphasis on travel rather than on community and settlement (Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie did both).
However, West to
a Land of Plenty does do at least one groundbreaking thing: having more
than one person write in the “diary.” Teresa is joined by her sister, Netta,
and they both end up recording the journey. It’s a new thing for the Dear
America books, and it makes this novel stand out just a little bit more. Also
different is the fact that the family is Italian, so emigration and culture
play a small role, as well.
To be honest, I think I would have enjoyed this book
more if I hadn’t been reading the series in chronological order and hadn’t read
three other wagon-train books before this one. It’s really not that bad, and
the joint writers make the novel more interesting than some others. But in the
order I read them, I was already tired of wagon-trains and traveling books, so
unfortunately that affected my opinion of the novel and that’s why I gave it
such a low rating. I’m ready to read about a new topic in these Dear America
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.