Christmas in South Dakota, 1910

She unwrapped an unwieldy bundle, covered with newspapers. Out of it fell a giant tumble weed, its spiny leaves dried on its skeleton stalk; its bushy top mounted on a trunk made of a broomstick. “Do you think that would do fer a Christmas tree?” she asked.

Becky looked at the dry bush with softened eyes.

“I thought maybe I could use some plum brush fer a tree, went on the child. “But I just hate the switchey look of’em for Christmas. So when this whopper tumble weed came along last fall it stuck in our chicken wire, and I hung it up in the barn. It dried just that way, and I thought maybe the children would like it fer a tree. The little ones never seen no pictures of one, even, and they wouldn’t know if it wasn’t just like. I got a pail of sand to stick that broomstick down in. I could hang the popcorn and the light strings on the tumble weed, and put the rest around it. Do you think that would work, Miss Linville?”

“I’m sure the children would love it.”

~The Jumping Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely

Last night and today I have been enjoying this story, first published in 1929 and republished this year by the South Dakota State Historical Press for a new generation of readers. (The cover pictured here is from the older edition since the new paperback cover is not available at Amazon.) Little House on the Prairie fans who have exhausted Ms. WIlder’s canon and all its spin-offs, should try this story of a family of four orphan children who take up a homestead in South Dakota, determined to hold down their claim for fourteen months until they can gain title to the 160 acres of South Dakota farm left to them by their beloved Uncle Jim. Uncle Jim’s death at the beginning of the story gives the children a grief that is slow to heal, but the words and plans that he left them guide them in their new life on the prairie.

The Jumping-Off Place was a Newbery Honor book in 1930. (Laura Ingalls WIlder didn’t win her first of four Newbery Honors until 1938.) It’s a wonderful story of pioneering on the Great Plains in the early part of the twentieth century. Only one caveat: one of the characters does use the phrase “ni— work” to refer to the hard work of making a life on the prairie, a phrase I’m sure was common usage in that time and place, but offensive to modern ears nevertheless.

The book is for a bit more mature readers than those who first come to the Little House books. Ms. McNeely doesn’t sugarcoat the drudgery and suffering that those who settled the Great Plains had to endure. In one scene a baby dies of snakebite in a poverty-stricken dugout home, and fifteen year old Becky, the oldest of the four children, helps to lay out the body of the little girl and prepare it for burial. Some of the settlers are kind and helpful to the children, while others are mean and ornery. I think older children (ages 11-14 or so) who like this sort of tale will read anxiously to see if and how the children hold their claim and become part of the new Dakota society.

Other read-alikes in the pioneering children and young adults genre:

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. Another Newbery Honor book, reviewed here at Maw Books Blog.

By Crumbs It’s Mine by Patricia Beatty.

My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, A Prairie Teacher. Broken Bow, Nebraska, 1881 by Jim Murphy

West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory, 1883 by Jim Murphy.

Any other suggestions?

4 thoughts on “Christmas in South Dakota, 1910

  1. Pingback: Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Wednesday Highlights

  2. Hi, Sherry, I thought you were going to feature Charles Wesley’s birthday today. Anxiously waiting to post my link, Hopeinbrazil =)

  3. Thanks for this, Sherry. I’ll have to see if I can track down a copy up North :).
    And thanks for your “Christmas around the world and back in time” posts — they’re a wonderful reminder, and tonic. A very Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    Back to the gingerbread…

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