by Ann Turner. Illustrated by Erika Meltzer. Novel. 176 pages. Grades 3-8.
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This novel is the story of a family: each member a distinct and interesting personality, set in the time just after the Civil War, and the Westward Movement as seen through their eyes and their experiences.
Sam White likes living in Kentucky with his grandparents. He loves the big old house, the comfort and his grandmother's peach pies. He is appalled when his father decides to move west. Sam idolizes his grandfather, the former Colonel, who thinks of the Civil War as a time of gallantry and honor, even if their side did lose, even if he did lose a precious chunk of bottom land which has been given to ex-slaves. His brother Billy is teaching an ex-slave, Harold, to read, much to Sam's disgust. Billy hates the way his grandfather blows a bugle for meals. He hates the rules and safety here that Sam loves. Billy's looking forward to the move. His father, Walter, chafes at living with his father-in-law. The Civil War held no glory for him. He wants to forget the bloodshed and start fresh, homesteading in Dakota Territory. Sam's mother, Ellen, loves the old homestead, but a woman goes where her husband goes, at least they did in that day, and, after shedding many tears, she climbs onto the covered wagon with the rest of her family.
The trip west is not easy: crossing the Mississippi is perilous and results in the drowning of a young colt belonging to another family. That drowning haunts the boys. It makes the journey seem even more ominous. Joining up with other wagons leads to some sociability and the women and children revel in that. One family, the Grants, will settle near them in Dakota territory, although neither family knows that at the time of first meeting.
Their section of land in Dakota Territory is reached at last and the family works together to build the sod house, even the mother, Ellen. Her husband is taken aback to see his lady-like wife working by his side digging and placing the sod bricks. When it is done, much to their surprise, everyone loves the sod house, and there is much hope. There are even neighbors, the Grants, only two miles off. The corn crop is planted and doing well, and then come the grasshoppers.
Turner's account of the awfulness of the grasshopper plague is enough to set your skin crawling, and the destruction the insects leave behind is devastating. Somehow the White family pulls together enough money and gumption to try again, but not so the Grant family who pull up stakes and head for home. We leave the Whites with a crop of winter wheat laid in which won't draw grasshoppers and we hope with them for better years on the prairie.
The book is not difficult to read and should be within the reach of most fourth graders. There is so much to work with within these 166 pages that it could launch a whole year of study and further reading or you could just savor this one novel together.
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Things to Talk About and Notice
- Talking about who wants what in this book might be the first direction. At one point Sam's mother says, " Women don't want opportunity. They want family and safe homes and gardens and friends living just down the road." Does she get what she wants? How is it then that she is happy on the prairie? What about Walter White? Why is he so unhappy on the homestead in Kentucky and so happy on the prairie? What about the two boys? What does each of them want and do they get it?
- The role of the animals in the book is a strong one from the oxen chosen to pull the wagon to Jake, his grandfather's dog, who joins the party at the last minute. And don't forget that colt. The boys can't.
- There is a common thread of ritual that runs through the book: rabbits' feet and lucky stones, funeral rites and wishing on footsteps. Can you find and list them and decide why the rituals are so much a part of the book?
- The grasshoppers, of course, are the most vivid creatures in the book. Turner, speaking through Sam, says, "I hit at them with the shovel, but for every ten I squished, another twenty fell from the sky. Brown bodies hanging on green leaves. Brown jaws tearing into unripe corn. Billy struck at them with the spade, but nothing made any difference. All the time we raced around, trying to scare them off, no one said a word. Their crunching filled our ears." You'll want to find out more. Are these the same grasshoppers you can find in a field? Are they cicadas? locusts? Do we still have such creatures? What do we do about them? Is insecticide the only answer? Are these the same creatures that plagued Egypt in the Bible?
- The building of the sod house takes up a lot of space in the book. Careful directions are given for cutting and placing the bricks. Can children cut a piece of sod of those dimensions? Can two or three be piled up in the way Turner describes? Will they stay together?
- The signs on some of the wagons are the bumper stickers of their day, " West isn't best." "Broke going home." and "Pike's Peak or bust" can lead to composing others for westward travelers in books.
- The ex-slave Harold, although a minor character in Grasshopper Summer, is intriguing. His thirst for knowledge is apparent and he's the first to tell the boys about the move to Dakota Territory. What is his story? What happened to other ex-slaves? Were they "better off slaves?" Why were they deliberately kept illiterate?
- The government steps into the grasshopper disaster on the plains with an offer of loans. Did it help the slaves? Does disaster relief still occur? Who gets it?
- Ann Turner wrote a picture book about Dakota settlers called Dakota Dugout (Macmillan, 1985 ISBN 0-02-789700-1.) Compare the two books. Which did she write first? Do you think the research for the first book inspired the second? How does the content vary? Why are the illustrations black and white in both books? What would color have done?
- Bunting, Eve and Greg Shed. Dandelions. Picture Book. Library Binding Grades 2+.
- Look at Pam Conrad's Prairie Visions (Harper Collins, 1991 ISBN 0-06-021373-6 ) for a look at photographs of sod houses and their occupants as well as further information about the time, the land and the people.
- Read Pam Conrad's novel Prairie Songs (Harper, 1985 ISBN 0-06-440206-1) for a different view of the same time and place as experienced by two other families and compare the characters and their reactions to the prairie.
- What about Laura Ingalls Wilder's books? Are they the same era? area? Which family is most like the Ingalls?
- The Civil War, of course, leads you in a different direction. Maybe to the wonderful novel Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder (Macmillan, 1989 ISBN 0-02-775810-9) which also deals with the time directly following the war and its lasting effects.
- Look at Diane Sieber and Wendell Minor's Heartland (Crowell, 1989 ISBN 0-690-04730-4.) This gorgeous book with its poetic text gives us an update on the area, capturing and describing today's Great Plains.
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