The prairie was like a giant plate, stretching all the way to the sky at the edges. And we were like two tiny peas left over from dinner, Lester and me.
Louisa loves the Nebraska prairie, the only home she's ever known. It's a lonely place, surrounded by miles of wild, flat grasslands, but it's the wonderful kind of loneliness that comes of stillness and open sky and oneness with the land. A different kind of beauty enters Louisa's world when the new doctor and his wife, Emmeline, move to the prairie from New York City. Emmeline is the most beautiful person Louisa has ever seen, and she teaches Louisa to love poetry. But she is also frail and unsuited to pioneer life. Louisa wonders whether Emmeline will ever come to love the prairie as she herself does.
About the Author
Pam Conrad wrote many award-winning books for children, including the immensely popular The Tub People and The Tub Grandfather, both illustrated by Richard Egielski. She is also the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels, including Prairie Songs, a 1986 ALA Best Children's Book of the Year and a 1985 ALA Golden Kite Honor Book, and Stonewords, winner of the 1991 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Juvenile Mystery.
Read an Excerpt
The prairie was like a giant plate, stretching all the way, to the sky at the edges. And we were like two tiny peas left over from dinner, Lester and me. We couldn't even see the soddy from out there just nothing, nothing in a big circle all around us. We still had Cap then, and he stood very still, shaking his harness now and again while we did our work, throwing cow chips into the back of the wagon, me singing all the while.
"Buffalo chips, buffalo chips, won't you marry me? Oh, come on out, buffalo chips, and dance all night by the sea."
Lester smiled and kept up a complicated clicking sound with his tongue and throat.
"Come on, Lester," I told him. "Sing! Nobody can hear ya out here. Oh, buffalo chips, buffalo chips," I sang louder and louder. "Come on, Lester."
But he just shook his head and even stopped his noises.
"Ah, you're no fun at all, Lester, I said, tossing a paddy of hardened dung into the wagon. I stood glaring at him, my hands on my hips, and tried to bully him. "You know something, if you practice talking and singing with me, and pretend I'm someone else, you might be able to really talk to strangers one day. You know that, Lester? Are you listenin' to me, Lester?"
Lester just smiled. "Leave me alone, prairie dog," he said. "Momma says leave off about that. It's none of your trouble.
None of my trouble, ha! He would never talk, and then I'd have to do all the talking. It was always up to me to answer questions that anyone would ask. I used to think I'd try nottalking, too, like Lester. I clamped my mouth shut and folded my arms across my thin, bony chest. But it was too hard, and too hot to keep all those words inside with that sun beating down on me like hard rain.
"Come on, Lester," I said, breaking my silence. "Let's take a short rest before we start back." I got down on my hands and knees and crept beneath the wagon, the only patch of shade for miles and miles. Lester kept on tossing chips into the wagon, and with each thud the wagon would shake a thin sprinkling of dust on my face.
"Lester! I said, have, a rest! I don't like dung dust in my hair!"
The tossing stopped, but I could see the backs of his brown dusty ankles standing slightly apart, very still.
"What are you doin' now,, Lester? Would you get under here, please."
"The doctor and his wife."
I had forgotten all about that, and from my low place in the prairie grass, I looked around, through the wheels, between Cap's hooves, and saw nothing. "Which direction do you think they'll be comin' from?"
Lester dropped down and peered in at me. "New York is east, prairie dog."
"Lester," I said, with teeth-gritting patience, "they are comin' by railroad to Union Pacific Depot at Grand Island. And Grand Island is south, isn't it?"
"Oh." Lester sat down and leaned back against the wheel of the wagon, facing south. "What'll they be like?" he asked.
"Momma says they're probably very refined, and I heard Mrs. Whitfield say that they probably won't make it through the winter."
I stretched some prairie grass between my fingers and blew on it, making a high piercing whistle.
"Won't make it! Why!" Lester was looking at me, his eyes wide and troubled under his straw-colored hair.
"I don't know. I don't think people from back East are very strong, like we are. I think it's hard for them out here the cold, the hot, the wind, the snakes. They're weak."
"You mean like Delilah?" His voice was soft.
"Yeah, like Delilah, I guess." I thought about our baby sister then, her round flushed cheeks and her blue eyes like store-bought marbles. "Remember how she used to finish her oatmeal and throw the bowl and yell 'all gone'?"
"Yep. " Lester smiled and turned his face away. "You think the doctor and his wife will die, like Delilah?"
"Maybe," I told him. "Either die or go back East."
Lester was quiet. The prairie rang with silence, and Cap snorted and pawed the ground.
"Come on," I said. "I'm hungry. Let's go back."
We mounted the wagon and turned it around to face our house, or all we could see of it from that distance, the red flower of a windmill, beckoning us home.
Cap plodded on, rhythmically and slowly, and when Lester spotted some more chips, he jumped down from the front board. He gathered them up and sailed those pancakes into the back.
"Oh, darn! I never picked any flowers." I gazed off to the east where a thin mist of purple tinted the prairie grass. "Don't you think it would be nice to have flowers for the doctor and his wife when they come?"
Lester jumped up beside me. "Momma says get right back.
"Well, what difference does it make if we stop for a minute just to get some flowers? I think it would be nice, I think maybe they would like the prairie better if they could see the flowers."
Lester frowned. "I don't want to."
"'Fraid of snakes?" I taunted, watching him out of the comer of my eye. "You know, there are snakes out by the chips, too, just like there are snakes by the flowers."
"Never seen any by the chips," he answered. "Just that time by the flowers. Maybe snakes like flowers."
"Oh, they're all over, Lester, even the one that was in the house that time."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is admittedly a rather strange book. It's the story of a woman who hates the prairie and is driven crazy by it told from the point of view of a young girl who loves the prairie and has lived there her whole life. She's attracted to the woman's learning and delicacy, but is also very different. This book won a whole slew of awards, but it just doesn't seem like something most children will relate to.
Prairie Songs is a tale of prairie life as seen through the eyes of a girl growing up in the almost barren plains of Nebraska in the 1800s. The book has some inclusion with poetry with the poem Eagle: A Fragment (Tennyson). The story has a dark side tale in which it presents not only the wonderful place the prairie is, but also the solitude it brings to new unsuspecting settlers.
I had never heard of this book or this author before, but when I saw it for $2.99 in a discount bookstore and noticed that it was historical fiction for children, I picked it up. Since then, I have seen it on several historical fiction lists for children's reading. Set in Nebraska in the mid to late 1800's, it is Conrad's second book and won the 1986 Children's Book Award (IRA). The main characters are Louisa Downing, who narrates the story; her parents and brother Lester; their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Whitfield and their son Paulie; and the new doctor and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Berryman. I suppose that one purpose of this book was to explain how hard and stark life was on the prairie and how the inhabitants came to cope with it. The Downings' youngest child has died, and the experience has left Lester almost autistic. When Mrs. Berryman agrees to provide schooling for the Downings and Paulie, Paulie rebels and aims a rifle at his own mother. Mrs. Berryman's baby dies in childbirth, and Mrs. Berryman herself later freezes to death when she is scared by Indians and runs outside into the freezing cold. The one thing missing in all this is any mention of religion. Historically, the western pioneers were generally characterized by a strong faith in God to help them through their troubles. Yet, the only mention of religion in this book is the fact that Pru Whitfield reads her Bible regularly while also criticizing, complaining to, and gossipping about her neighbors. This story could have used a good dose of godliness. So far as language goes, there are some common euphemisms, the word "hell" is used once, "God" and "Lord" appear occasionally as interjections, and Mr. Downing quotes some "racy" poetry that shocks his wife (mild by modern standards, but still questionable for young children). Also, there are references to smoking a pipe. This is not necessarily a bad book, and it does make for interesting reading (I read it aloud to Jeremy, then age 10, with some editing, and he enjoyed it), but I think that the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder are infinitely better descriptions of prairie life.
If you enjoy reading about pioneer life then you will love this book. It's about a family of pioneers living in Nebraska. A family, the Berryman's, move from New York to live on the prairie. Mr.Berryman is a doctor. His wife Emmeline is with child when they arrive. Everyone thinks they won't make it. New York is so different from Nebraska and they will never adjust is what everyone said. But, with the help of Louisa and her family, the Berryman's prove some people wrong. This is a good book with good moral lessons along with inspiration and hope. It's a book I'd reccomend to anyone who has time to read it. :)
Even though I started out thinking this book would be a bore, I enjoyed it in the end. Drawing its drama from that of the old Pioneering days this novel captivated me with its plot and strong wording. I would recommend this book to you if you're wanting to learn about the days of the frontier of the western U.S. or youjust want to read a good book