Book Review: Dear America: All the Stars in the Sky, The Santa Fe Trail Diary of Florrie Mack Ryder (Santa Fe Trail, 1848) by Megan McDonald

allstarsIn this charming book, Florrie and her family set out from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico where her step-father, Mr. Ryder, holds a successful trading business. This story is told in the true, authentic voice of a Southern thirteen-year-old girl, making Florrie a delightfully humorous and colorful protagonist. What makes this DA diary stand out among the others that are about pioneers migrating west (such as Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie or West to a Land of Plenty) is that the Ryders were not taking common families’ trails, such as the Oregon Trail, but rather the traders’ and merchants’ route. So instead of reading about Florrie’s relationships and socializing with other families in their wagon train, we get to read more about the grown men with whom they travelled– complete with their talk of business, tall tales, swearing, and tobacco-chewing, and the antics of Florrie and her little brother Jem as they are dwelling among such characters. The heart of the story is the Ryders’ stay at the Colorado trading post Bent’s Fort, where Florrie befriends the Fort’s diverse mix of visitors, including a mountain man, a Spanish boy, a cook, and a Cheyenne girl.

This book was a joy to read and is one I strongly recommend. There are some very sad parts, but it gives our Florrie and her story more depth. What’s more, I was pleased to learn that the topics of Bent’s Fort and the Santa Fe Trail are very near and dear to the author’s heart. McDonald is somewhat of an authority on the subject matter, having lived for a summer at Bent’s Old Fort National Historical Site (and kept a diary herself during this time), as well as closely studied the diary of Susan Magoffin, who was the first woman to have ever travelled the Santa Fe Trail.

Book Review: Dear America: Land of the Buffalo Bones, The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, An English Girl in Minnesota (New Yeovil, Minnesota 1873) by Marion Dane Bauer

buffaloIn this unforgettable DA tale, Mary, her family, and others from her English hometown and church, led by her father– their pastor–, are duped into purchasing land and settling on the plains of Minnesota. They are promised rich soil, fertile ground, beautiful weather, and the tools for prosperity and a good life, but instead are met by deadly snowstorms, disease, pestilence, and a severe lack of resources to build their town. Their ordeals were eerie and haunting, particularly one disturbing scene involving the infamous grasshopper plague.

On the personal level, Mary struggles with being her father’s child from his previous marriage. After her mother passed away, he remarried and had more children with his new wife, Mary’s step-mom, who is more or less a bland or cold figure towards Mary in the beginning (but for whom, by the end, Mary develops a genuine, albeit rather subtle, respect and admiration). Also memorable in this book is Mary’s little half-sister, Laura, a cruel and vindictive little child always jealous of her older sister, and who is interestingly based off of the author’s actual grandmother. As well, Mary has a friend in this story who develops a romance with a Native American man. I have also read about some controversy regarding the damage Mary’s father, the preacher, and his poor leadership, did to his people, most of whom gave up everything they had in England to come there to die, or worse. Yet Mary is still faithful to her father and feels sorry for him throughout the book. This is one of the better books in the series and I learned a lot from it.

Book Review: Dear America: My Face to the Wind, the Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher (Broken Bow, Nebraska 1881) by Jim Murphy

myfaceSarah Jane is dragged all the way to Broken Bow, Nebraska by her father who was planned to teach there. Tragically, her father dies, leaving her an orphan with nothing, stranded in Broken Bow. The innkeeper with whom Sarah Jane and her father had stayed knows that Sarah Jane will soon have no money to pay room and board and does not want to take care of the girl, so she and her priest try to send Sarah away to a workhouse for girls. This idea mortifies poor Sarah, and she is determined to keep her independence in Broken Bow. With the help of a quirky and talkative new girlfriend, Sarah realizes that she has all of her father’s books, can read and write, and has watched her father teach for years. She begins to consider taking her father’s place as the schoolteacher of Broken Bow. This idea is met with much opposition from some of the adults and officials in the town, but she is eventually successful in persuading them.

Unfortunately, Sarah has to put up with the innkeeper’s and the priest’s scathing words and judgments about her, because they would have preferred to send her away. Sarah tolerates this cruel and unfair treatment rather politely and patiently, which was infuriating to read at times. To make matters worse, the schoolhouse is hardly habitable as a filthy, dilapidated wreck of an unfinished hut. But Sarah tries her best to recruit, teach, and discipline her new students through much trial and error, and eventually becomes a great teacher, demonstrating her skill with and care for her students. A very good book in the series. 

Book Review: Dear America: Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild (California Territory, 1849) by Kristiana Gregory

seeds-of-hopeSusanna, her parents, and her sister set sail from the U.S. east coast to the west in hopes to reunite with family in Oregon. However, on their voyage, their mother is taken by the sea when a giant wave sweeps upon deck. Susanna, her father, and sister are devastated by their loss, but must continue on. When they finally make it to the coast, the girls’ father, a doctor, decides to stay in California awhile in this midst of the gold rush, in hopes of trying out the rugged lifestyle and striking gold. The girls must adjust to life in a rather crude and makeshift town in a land without law, which is full of rough men and criminals. Memorable scenes include an invasion from a bear, and the injured boy whose life is saved by Susanna and her father, and whom Susanna grows to love. This book is educational and well-written.

Book Review: Dear America: Valley of the Moon, the Diary of María Rosalia de Milagros (Sonoma Valley, Alta California 1846) by Sherry Garland

valleymoonRosalia is a servant girl for a wealthy Spanish ranchero family in Alta (upper) California. She and her little brother Domingo are orphans, though it is apparent through the color of their skin that they are of mixed Native American and Hispanic descent. They and their fellow servants are treated surprisingly kindly by the hospitable Medina family whom they serve. However, when Americanos start to arrive in their area under the pretense of surveying the land, suspicion arises that the Americans will try to steal Alta California for their Union from Mexico, who is not doing too great a job of governing them from so far away, which is indeed the setting for this book.

Rosa is a sweet and likable narrator, and I loved reading about all of the Mexican Catholic customs, festivals, and traditions, as well as the colorful and mostly good-hearted Medina family. Detailed descriptions of other Mexican traditions, such as cock fights and bull fights were prevalent in this book, too. Solid historical fiction with a protagonist worth rooting for.

Book Review: Dear America: A Coal Miner’s Bride, The Diary of Anetka Kaminska (Lattimer, Pennsylvania 1896) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

coalminerThis was an unforgettable book in the series. Anetka and her brother, with the assistance of a soldier friend, must travel from Poland to the mining town of Lattimer, PA, U.S., where she will meet her new husband to whom her father ‘traded’ her for the tickets to bring her there. However, Anetka finds that her betrothed is a bit older, and already has several children by his former wife, who passed away. This is possibly the only DA book where the narrator has sexual relations, which are subtly mentioned, since she indeed marries the coal miner. The narrator also has quite a blunt, angry, and harsh personality, which is the Italian author’s way of depicting the Polish, and sometimes rubbed me the wrong way (I’m a ‘-ski’, after all). At the same time, the author meant it as a compliment, as she states in the author’s note how she believes Polish women to be tough and strong.

I learned a lot about the coal mines and what those poor men and their families went through, and it helped me gain tremendous understanding and sympathy for the history of workers’ unions. Memorable in this book are the lovable soldier with whom Anetka travels and his crush on her, as well as Anetka’s kindly grandmother back in Poland. This is one of the books in the series that I recommend to adult readers as well.

Book Review: Dear America: The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, A Navajo Girl (New Mexico, 1864) by Ann Turner

sorrowThis is a sad story about the forced relocation and concentration of the Navajo people, who were forced to leave their homes and walk hundreds of miles in the snow, many dying on the way. The book is sad from start to finish. I do remember one scene in which a soldier takes a liking to the main character. Like all of the DA books, it is hard to put down. This was a particularly tragic chapter in American history.

Book Review: Dear America: A Light in the Storm, The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin (Fenwick Island, Delaware 1861) by Karen Hesse

lightstormTaking place during the onset of the Civl War in Delaware, a border state where both Union and Confederate sympathizers dwell among one another, this story follows sixteen-year-old Amelia (“Wickie”) Martin, assistant to her father, an Assistant Light Keeper. Amelia is content with her life and her many chores and duties among family, school, and the lighthouse, but the strong cultural and political differences between her abolitionist father and Southern belle mother begin to drive a devastating, irreconcilable rift between them, casting her father into darkness and her mother to severe illness and misery, eventually leading to their divorce.

On top of being depressing, virtually two thirds is about weather (literally), which became a bit tedious (unless one is interested in the temperature, amount of precipitation, and direction of the wind on Fenwick Island in 1861, information which this book does provide quite liberally). Amelia kindles a potential romance with a young soldier; however, their relationship ends up  being unfruitful.

The author attempts to draw parallels between the two plot lines of light keeping and the Civil War, but they never truly intersect. While we read some of Amelia’s fears and discomfort regarding the civil disagreements and pending war, the war never affects her light-keeping duties and ambitions, which is what her personal story is really centered around. I would recommend this book to lighthouse enthusiasts.

Book Review: Dear America: My Heart is on the Ground, The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl (Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania 1880) by Ann Rinaldi

heartongroundNannie Little Rose leaves her home and family to become educated and integrated into white society among a diverse student body of other Native American tribes at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. In current culture, this is a controversial depiction of this sad topic.

Throughout this story, Nannie tries to fuse her Sioux upbringing, beliefs, and family’s values with her new experiences at the Carlisle School, including seeking wisdom from her spirit helper, a mouse in the school kitchen, and a fierce rivalry between another girl, Belle Rain Water. Nannie learns lessons of love and forgiveness. It is an engaging read, but may fail to fully express the harm that was done to the Native communities by taking children from their families and “integrating” them in this way.