So last week we covered DC’s treatment of English settlers on the prairies, now let’s see what Dear America’s take on it is.
Land Of The Buffalo Bones: The Diary of Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers, An English Girl In Minnesota, New Yeovil, Minnesota, 1873, Marion Dane Bauer, 2003.
Right from the get-go you know this is going to be depressing. Just look at the title! It’s like calling it “Land Of Terrible Things: Now With More Terrible Things.” You just know that there is not a shred of happiness to be found within this book.
And it’s true. There is none. Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers (called Polly, because why not) is a fourteen-year-old English girl with four brothers, two half brothers, and two half sisters by her father’s new wife. Right off the bat she sounds irritating, as her mother has been dead for eight years and she still has a chip on her shoulder about his remarrying a new wife. She also is constantly irritated that her stepmother is constantly asking her to look after the younger kids and thinks she should look after them herself, but considering that her stepmother is a minister’s wife with four children under five, plus one sixteen-year-old and one nine-year-old stepson and a 14-year-old bratty stepdaughter….I am on Team Stepmom here. Also that she is on a sailing ship across the ocean to a place she’s never seen to settle a new land with her husband, who is a minister and has exactly 0 practical skills.
Polly’s best friend Jane is also along on the trip, with her parents and seven-year-old brother Timmy, but Timmy dies about fifteen pages into the book so no one is going to waste any energy on characterizing him. Jane’s father is a drunk, and starts blaming Polly’s father for putting them on all the disgusting ship to begin with. This is the first of many signs that Polly’s father may have some issues.
After they reach New York there’s the traditional long train ride to reach Minnesota, where they are greeted by the St. George Society, a society of English folks settling Minnesota, and apparently everyone in the Rodgers’ party has a poorly-thought-out plan for what they’re going to do. “Open a women’s seminary” or “work in a millinery shop” is not going to be the best plan when you are moving to a featureless wasteland. (Not that Minnesota is a wasteland! It’s a lovely place. Now. Maybe not in 1887, is all I’m saying.) They are all SHOCKED to find Minnesota covered in snow at the beginning of April. Oh dear. No town, no houses, no farms, no nothing.
As the snow melts over the next week, some of them decide to move onto the next town, some of the men sign on to work for the railroad, and some of them decide to stay and make the best of it. Even Polly is like “yeah, my dad can’t build shit, I hope one of his flock builds him a house or we’ll have to live in a tent forever,” and I’m getting less and less impressed with Polly’s dad with every page I turn. He says they’ll be grateful for whatever kind of house they decide to build him, and they build them a sod house. Nice. Mrs. Rodgers cries. I would, too, if I had a half-dozen children and followed my useless husband to a land full of nothing and then had to live in a house made of DIRT and nobody had ever suggested to me that was an option!
But Jane’s mother doesn’t wait to put curtains in her sod house or any other kind of house. Instead she kills herself by walking into the river. As the snow recedes and they prepare to bury her in the new graveyard, they discover that the ground is covered in millions of buffalo bones. What a cheery book.
More settlers arrive and are summarily displeased by what they find (i.e., nothing), and opt to leave or to work for the railroads. The ones who stay help to build the Rodgers their sod house, and I will note here that this book is so boring that I took a two-day break at this point and also saved the file for this entry as “mary ann blahde blah” which should tell you my true feelings about this book.
The settlers have a horrible time trying to farm the land—there are millions of bones everywhere, for starters, but there are sinkholes in the dirt and the sod is incredibly hard and no one has bothered to tell them OR they haven’t bothered to look up how to plant wheat (i.e., casting it, not poking it into the ground with a stick) so they’re having a rough time of it, to say the last. Jane’s father takes off for days and days at a time, and Polly keeps complaining endlessly about how they gave up everything and now they have nothing and reminiscing about their home in England and how lovely it was.
Jane and Polly go walking one afternoon and are encircled by wolves and rescued by an Indian, who speaks English, and basically tells them they are being morons and the wolves weren’t going to hurt them. The next day they go to see him again and he shows them the wolf puppies and introduces himself as Ozawa, which is the first hint he may end up being important.
More importantly, though, Polly’s father goes to a meeting of the congregation, and they vote to give him an annual salary of $240 per year, which HE REFUSES, saying he would rather live on what they would give him every week. This man is terrible. If he wants to live off the generosity of others for himself, that’s fine, but forcing his wife and innumerable children to uproot themselves and bring them to a new, strange land and live in a dirt house and live off the generosity of the congregation, week after week, indefinitely? That is cruel. That is awful. You have four children under the age of five, and they need to eat, buddy.
Anyway, as the summer goes on, that’s the last we hear of this precarious “whatever you give us is totes fine” arrangement, and Polly goes on and on about her drawing and hanging out with Jane and Ozawa. But in the fall (of 1873, stop me if you see where this is going) they’re beset by a plague of locusts. If you’re keeping track, this is exactly the same thing that caused the Ingalls family so much stress and horror in On The Banks Of Plum Creek (well, the Ingalls along with the rest of the population of the Midwest and prairies at the time). They eat everything—every bit of green thing there is—and Polly’s stepmother tells her father that they should have never come to such a cursed land. I do not blame her.
Polly is so busy trying to help her stepmother that she doesn’t have much time to spend with Jane, who is instead off gallivanting with Ozawa, since her father is never around. Polly tries to get her to make a vow that they won’t keep any secrets from another, since she knows damn well something suspicious is going on, but Jane doesn’t seem to be interested in talking about anything at all with Polly. Possibly because Polly is coming across like a nosy snoop.
In November the women of the congregation hear about a blind pig, or an illegal bar, some distance away and form a POSSE to go and break it down. It’s the only truly engaging part of the book, which should tell you something, because I feel like I need a drink just to get through it all.
The winter they spend mostly complaining about how brutally cold it is and how unlike England it is (shocking), and for Christmas Polly gets a new apron and her stepmother says she only wishes it could be new paper and paints for her to use. It’s sweet, really, because Polly has been wrapped up in her own misery and hasn’t noticed that her stepmother actually notices how unhappy she is.
After Christmas, Polly’s younger brother Cal comes down with a fever, and after they can’t find a doctor or anyone to come and look at him for a week and he hasn’t gotten any better, Polly goes over to see Jane. Jane gives her an herb to boil and give Cal as a tea, which works, and Polly figures out Jane is seeing Ozawa quite a bit more than she lets on. Cal recovers, and by March the snow begins to recede and Polly wonders why Jane won’t tell her anything more.
But in April, Jane turns up looking, um, dishevelled, and tells Polly they need to go to the reservation right away the next day, and Polly goes with her. Jane gets off the horse when they get there, tells Polly to go back and take her father’s horse back, and she isn’t coming back at all, ever. Polly is horrified and thinks Jane is going to be scalped, and Jane is basically like eh, I doubt it. Jane’s father doesn’t even notice she’s gone for a couple of days, and then he comes roaring over to Polly’s house demanding to know what’s happened. Polly’s father says that he had nothing to do with it, but Polly takes him to the reservation where they find Jane and Ozawa, who have been married in the meantime. Polly’s father pleads for Jane to come back, that the savage way of life is a terrible one, and Jane only shows them her back, covered in scars from where her father has been beating her savagely for some time. Polly’s father does nothing other than conduct an English wedding ceremony for them as well, and when they get home he tells Jane’s father that he won’t be able to get Jane for him.
The next day the congregation tells Polly’s father that they have no further need of his services. The following week the family leaves Yeovil, maybe to settle in the next town, and maybe not.
In the epilogue we learn that the story is based in truth—Dr. Rodgers really existed, as did his wife and ten children, as did Polly, who trained as a nurse but never married. They move around quite a bit, including to Ontario, before settling at last in southeastern Minnesota.
Rating: This is quite challenging for me. The story is incalculably boring and Polly is kind of a frustrating character, but the writing itself is very lovely and very well done. However, I don’t think the good writing is enough to really elevate the book all by itself. Like some of the books I review, this one suffers from Supporting Characters Are More Interesting Disease, where I’d totally read a book all about Jane or Polly’s stepmother, as they both have far far FAR more interesting stories than “teenage girl is unhappy in a new place.” So all in all, I’m giving this one a C-/D+. As much as I hate to rag on it because it’s about the author’s actual family history, the story itself is not written in an engaging manner—which sucks, because it’s an interesting story with a lot of meat to it.
Also notable is how different this one is from last week’s Dear Canada with a similar theme—English immigrants unprepared for the prairies come to a new land with their families. Granted, this one is set fifty years before DC, but the premise of the same, and the books are similar in that there’s not a whole lot of exciting-adventure-type plot. So what makes A Prairie As Wide As The Sea so much more entertaining than Land Of The Buffalo Bones? The writing, hands down. Sarah Ellis’s writing is engaging, funny, smart, and age-appropriate, without veering into kiddish sentimentality, or wavering into too-dark territory (though, as I mentioned, it flirts with some heavy themes). Land Of The Buffalo Bones, by contrast, has beautifully lyrical writing, but it’s not engaging in the same way, and doesn’t drive the plot with the same intensity, which is too bad! Sarah Ellis’s characters are also richer and more lushly imagined, while Marion Bauer’s languish in favour of lovely descriptions of the land itself. There’s room for both books in the discussion, but the Dear Canada book is in my opinion far superior.