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Little Blog on the Prairie: 05/09/13

cover art

Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell is about Gen Welsh and her family spending a grueling and frustrating summer living in the "frontier" for their summer vacation. They are forced to compete against other families and are graded on their progress. Meanwhile Gen uses her smuggled in cell phone to micro blog about the experience in texts she sends to a friend.

Gen and her family are a typical tween/YA dysfunctional family thrown into an unusual situation. Their part of the story, while by the books, is rather well told. The few blog posts we get to read from Gen are actually hilarious. Had the entire book been written as a series of texts — such as the internet girls series by Lauren Myracle, or the diary posts from the Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennisen, I would have given this book five stars.

Although the book is still told from Gen's first person point of view, it's told not through her writing, but more from an internal dialog. This gives Bell more time to show off how Camp Frontier works and it's in these details that the book falls apart.

The camp is set in rural Wyoming. No problem. Wyoming is still the least densely populated state with 5.1 people per mile (compared to a national average of 79.7) (2010 U.S. Census data). The owners claim that their camp is reproducing life as it was in 1890. It is here — this date — that things fall apart. 1890 is the year that the U.S. census reported the need to draw a frontier line (defined as having a population density of less than 2.2 people per square mile on average) on its maps. Thus the frontier was proclaimed "closed."

Bell in the Afterword credits inspiration for her novel on two things: The Little House on the Prairie television series and PBS's Frontier House. While the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were semi-autobiographic (with details simplified and infant deaths removed), the television series is a far cry from anything close to actual rural life on the American prairie in the 1870s-1880s. Frontier House, while also contrived, was based in an earlier, but legitimately late frontier year — 1883.

One of things the camp owners try to drill into their campers' minds is the importance of self reliance, yet they offer no training (beyond what their daughter offers in an off handed way). The families are told that these were life skills that anyone in 1890 would have. Not necessarily. Those with the means (meaning money) would have hired help in the form of maids or farmhands. Those who didn't want to bother at all with rural life (which were at least two of the families described in the book) would have lived in town.

1890 had a lot more technology than Camp Frontier was either willing to admit or provide: photography, motion pictures, telegraphs, telegrams (Western Union was already 44 years old), telephones (party lines were making it out to rural areas), washing machines (not electric yet), a well established train system (better so than today in some regards) and mail order catalogs. Trains and catalogs made it much easier to import the finer things of city life.

To sum up, then, my biggest complaint with the book is that enough wasn't done to highlight how contrived Camp Frontier was as described. Choosing whether by accident or on purpose the closure of the American frontier as the date to recreate and completely ignoring this piece of history is a HUGE MISSED opportunity.

Three stars

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