This column goes out to all the bookworms who are no longer of YA age but occasionally find themselves back in that section of the library, slowing down in front of a pile of Sarah Dessen books and sneaking several into their grown up book pile in their hands, somewhere between Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and a heavy coffee table book on Swiss architecture. Though if you could, you’d dump the pile of NY Times approved bestsellers for a slew of fictional hardcover diaries about girls throughout history that you read an obscene number of times from the Scholastic Book Order forms… which is what I did. And will continue to do, for the sake of this column, and for all readers missing (and needing) that Dear America fix once more.
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie was one of my very favorite Dear America books growing up. As a former Little House on the Prairie obsessive, I had cabin fever – literally. The book chronicles the journey of Hattie Campbell, who grew up in Missouri (like I did!) and travelled West (like me!) to settle in Oregon (okay, not like me, but still close!) with her family. It’s all about the covered wagons, Manifest Destiny and a whole lotta travelling folk stealing each other’s stuff in this one and upon rereading it, I realized I missed out on a whole lot more than I recall the first time around…
1) How the Campbell’s Got Their Tickets
About four pages in, there is a funeral held for Hattie’s Uncle Milton, who died by falling off of a roof. During his funeral, his coffin falls out of the wagon carrying it, slides down a river bank, and despite Pa’s best intentions to hang onto the coffin; a St. Louis steamboat nearly sucks them both into its paddles in the river. Pa survives, meanwhile the coffin goes under and the lid and Milton are both gone. The riverboat captain strikes a deal with Pa that on account of y’know, almost killing him, the family may ride the boat anywhere they like for free. WOOOOOO! Float trip, here we come! Pa says yes and turns a potentially fun weekend getaway into an actual “We’re settling into Oregon, NOW!” moving day.
What stunned me was how nonchalantly the family treats Uncle Milton. “Where he went, we don’t know,” Hattie dismisses. Dude. I know this is your diary, but that was your uncle! He died fixing your roof! Six pages later, Aunt June describes the whole coffin sinking ordeal to be “Splendid! The best amusement in months.” Milton, get on that whole becoming a ghost and haunting the family plan, ASAP.
2) Hattie Literally Didn’t Get to Pack Anything
On a trip that will last for months upon months, Hattie is only allowed to bring “a folded dress, leggings, my hairbrush, two petticoats and this-and-that.” Meanwhile, Ma brings along too many quilts, her wedding dress, picture frames and an entire trunk filled with things that had previously belonged to Hattie’s four deceased sisters. I’m assuming that Jake and Bennie, Hattie’s two brothers, get to bring some stuff too but first we gotta sit through several paragraphs of Ma getting her pack rat on and stuffing more and more into the family’s covered wagon. Which (spoiler alert) she later winds up dumping in the mountains. It’s like an 1800s version of the show Hoarders up in here.
3) On the Road, Yee-Haw!
From here on out post boat ride, it gets good and grim all at once. Kids are shooting each other with rifles, there’s a mention of cannibalism on page 16, a crazy old woman named Mrs. Kenker is playing klepto on the covered wagons, some suicides occur, a very kind woman drowns and Hattie makes a friend named Pepper who is 14 and winds up getting married to a 17-year-old. And pregnant much later on too, while Hattie later bitches and moans that Pepper’s brother Wade will never think of her as anything but a friend. Even though they’re 14.When I was 14, I was… rereading these books. Good talk, everyone, good talk.
4) “Skeeter Cakes”
How I missed this the first time is a mystery to me. Back then when someone made pancakes, bugs used to land in the batter in droves to the point where it was “black with mosquitoes.” Aunt June urges Hattie to keep the batter and cook up a batch of “skeeter cakes” for the whole family. “No one ever died from such,” is more of Auntie June’s sage wisdom. Uh huh. No malaria or the potential taste of other people’s blood or nuthin’ June.
5) I Would Probably Die Out There
Midway through the book, Hattie’s lips become so chapped that they “bleed when I talk” and the only solution is to rub something called axle grease all over them every hour. Dust sticks to her skin and her cheeks and hands peel from being sunburned. As a very pale person who carries a tiny vial of sunscreen at all times, you have no idea how much reading this shakes me to the core. For all intents and purposes, I would have probably stayed behind in Missouri and skipped the six month long road trip with the family. See ya on the flip side!
6) The Best Four Sentences in the Book Period
“’Oh, Hattie, you are such a dear. Marriage is, well, it’s the most wonderful of wonderful. Someday you’ll understand.’ I wish Pepper would tell me exactly what she means, what it’s really truly like to be loved by a man.”
-Pepper attempting to explain marriage to Hattie and Hattie just not getting it because Pepper isn’t detailing a single thing, since they’re surrounded by small children 24/7. We need a full on followup to this book.