Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Jumping-Off Place, by Marian Hurd McNeely

I know exactly which kids at the Library I should recommend this book to! Imagine The Boxcar Children meets Little House on the Prairie, and you've got this book. Becky and her three younger siblings, Dick, Joan and Phil, have been raised by their Uncle Jim. He had staked a claim in the newly opened Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, but became ill and died afterward. With no other hope for a future, Becky and crew decide to "prove up" his claim as he had originally intended for all of them to do together.

Uncle Jim had set up the homestead and prepared canned goods for them, but when the children arrive they find that their windows have been smashed and their pump removed. After they settle in with the help of a kind neighbor from town, they go to draw water from the creek. This is where they meet two sons from the Welp family, and learn that in their absence another family has put up a shanty within their boundaries and is attempting to claim it for themselves. Additionally, summer drought puts their plants at risk.

What really sets this book apart from the Little House books is the slightly more mature perspective- coming from a town with a large social network, the four children know exactly what it is that they've left behind, and discover that there's a great deal to miss. "That's the one thing I don't like about Dakota," laments Phil. "There's never any folks for audiences."

Also, as four children having to survive alone, when tragedy strikes, they feel it deeply. There's no optimistic belief that Pa will somehow fix it. If they don't fix it themselves, it may just not get fixed.

The book is based on the experiences of the author homesteading with her husband in South Dakota, although in a slightly later time period than the Ingalls family. This book was also published quite a bit in advance of Laura's fictionalized memoirs, for those concerned about copycatting. The Jumping-Off Place was actually just republished in 2008 as a paperback with the original illustrations, and I'm glad a new generation will have access to it after such a long absence. The republished edition also contains an afterword by Jean L. S. Patrick explaining the context of the story and a bit about the author, which is a great addition (unlike the highly unnecessary "word list"- a glossary of the more challenging words tacked on at the end. No one looks for these anymore). I wish I could give this book more tags to increase its visibility!

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