Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The most realistic children's literature about the Plains during the settlement period and into the 1920s can be found in family periodicals. Popular magazines such as St. Nicholas and weekly newspapers like the Youth's Companion highlighted the sense of adventure to be discovered on the Plains frontier as well as the uniqueness of the various Native American cultures.

Although these periodicals published works by well-known writers of the era, a large percentage of the stories were by lesser-known writers such as Kate M. Cleary, Elia Peattie, and William R. Lighton, who wrote fiction about Nebraska; Charles Askins, John R. Spears, Elizabeth Grinnell, and G. W. Ogden, who set their stories in Kansas and Oklahoma; L. Frank Baum and Franklin Welles Calkins, whose stories depict Wyoming and the Dakotas; and Canadian writers Nellie McClung and Edward McTavish, whose tales center on Manitoba, and Rev. Charles W. Gordon (aka Ralph Connor), whose best-selling fiction represents life in Saskatchewan. Many authors contributed only one story, usually based on personal accounts of Plains life. Serials were especially popular, like The Little Squatters by Hamlin Garland, The Boy Settlers by Noah Brooks, and A Banker's Judgment by Marianne Gauss.

The typical pattern in the stories of Plains settlement is of an initiation, beginning with a physical and emotional separation as the children withdraw into an unknown and often hostile environment. The innocent pioneer versus the complex frontier forms the conflict. Although the stories about boys reaching manhood have various plots and settings, the boys' tasks are mainly physical tests. Stereotypically, the girls achieve a moral rather than physical triumph.

Though strongly informed by this earlier tradition, children's literature of the Plains published since the 1930s has all but eclipsed these periodical writers. In 1932 Laura Ingalls Wilder, with the help of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, published Little House in the Big Woods, commencing a family saga now known collectively as the Little House books. The genius of Wilder's vision is its blending of adventure and domestic realism, its positing of a feisty, tomboy heroine, Laura, against the ameliorating influence of her gentle sister, Mary, and her firm-handed mother, Caroline. Along the way, readers receive moral lessons, learn songs, poems, and recipes, and gain an understanding of schooling, farming, and town building on the Plains during the late nineteenth century. Wilder's series provided a narrative pattern for many other children's writers of the Plains, including Carol Ryrie Brink (Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons), Lois Lenski (Prairie School), Barbara Smucker (Days of Terror), Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah Plain and Tall), Pam Conrad (Prairie Songs, Prairie Visions, and My Daniel), Laurie Lawlor (the Addie series), Celia Barker Lottridge (Ticket to Curlew), Kathryn Lasky (The Bone Wars), Cecil Freeman Beeler (The Girl in the Well), and Charlene Joy Talbot (An Orphan for Nebraska). Adventure writers like Texan Fred Gipson (Old Yeller) continue the tradition of the male initiation story, yet even Gipson's classic novel centers its dramatic plot around the stability of home and a strong mother figure.

Though the history of settlement preoccupies children's writers of the Plains, a number of other significant genres emerged in the twentieth century. In particular, this literature has attempted to provide a more accurate and humane depiction of Plains tribes than found in many settlement novels. Native and non- Native writers alike have worked to replace stereotypes and misrepresentations of Native American life with truthful, unedited retellings of oral tales and balanced portraits of life in biographies and fiction. Mari Sandoz (The Horsecatcher, The Story Catcher), Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Betrayed, When Thunders Speak), Maria Campbell (People of the Buffalo), and Paul Goble (The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses) have added immeasurably to children's appreciation of Native American/ First Nations history, oral storytelling, and art.

Some Plains children's writers focus on contemporary life with all its attendant problems and challenges. In 1967 Oklahoma writer S. E. Hinton changed the course of contemporary young adult literature with her gritty first novel, The Outsiders. Ivy Ruckman's bestselling Night of the Twisters re-creates modern Grand Island, Nebraska, during the hours of a natural disaster. To this day, literary realism defines children's literature of the Plains. Even the Oz stories of the great fantasist L. Frank Baum bear the imprint of realism. However, Native American writers for children are now adding the fabric of vision, myth, and legend to this tradition of realism, countering European American myths of settlement and creating new narrative patterns inspired by oral storytelling.

Susanne George University of Nebraska at Kearney Susan Naramore Maher University of Nebraska at Omaha

Previous: Cather, Willa | Contents | Next: Cowboy Poetry

XML: egp.lt.010.xml