As I read about the adventures and struggles of Louisa Brody – determined to prove her beloved pa’s innocence after he’s accused of stealing from their only neighbors on the vast prairie where they live – I knew exactly the expressions my imaginary class would make. I knew just the sort of indignant protests I’d hear at the injustice of it all. My imaginary class is like most classes; they know what’s right and what’s wrong. And making a girl stay with a family like the Smirches, the very family that accused her Pa in the first place… well, they’d know by the end of the first chapter, that’s simply wrong.
But as the story goes on, Louisa has her own hard choices to make. Tough ethical decisions always make for compelling classroom discussions.
The Prairie Thief is a bit of a genre mash-up. It’s historical fiction with enough details about the frontier lifestyle on the prairie to keep fact collectors intrigued. Woven into the story, the details about the work (like kids collecting buffalo chips), clothes, food, bedding, and animals that make up life on the prairie are enough to set the imagination rolling. But, on top of the historical details, there’s a whiff of magic. Louisa’s one and only friend, Jessamine, the Smirch’s niece, shows her the mysterious hole in the hazel grove where something – or someone – lives. Louisa is the one who comes eye to eye with the Brownie. He’s a magical creature immigrated from Scotland, eager to work hard and help as long as he receives the proper pay and appreciation (a “nice smack o’ cream.”) Before long, the fantasy elements blend right in with the facts and Louisa discovers the niftiest louse removal ever and even gets to ride a pronghorn antelope – who can travel up to 60 miles per hour – and snuggles down to sleep in the middle of a wolf pack.
So, there’s something for the readers who want true facts, there’s magic for the dreamers, animals for the animal-lovers – all wrapped up in a worrisome plot with high stakes. We feel Louisa’s love for her Pa and we start to miss her mother right along with Louisa and the brownie, Mr. O’Gorsebush.
The plot works for a read aloud too, both in the classroom or to one single child. Important and surprising twists take place in manageable chunks, with light humor woven throughout the vivid scenes.
And then, the must of all musts for reading a story aloud… the language. The Prairie Thief is rich with gorgeous, evocative language that begs to be heard as well as read. We feel as though we’ve been transported back in time when we listen to expressions like, “He was wailing loud enough to curdle milk,” or “Ye look like last year’s scarecrow.” Even the simple “Balderdash!” sounds better out loud. Wiley uses big words too – words that some kids will latch on to and roll around in their minds and mouths – like audacious, gesticulations, rapscallion, scrutinizing – they add to the mood and help us sink into this world.
Amazingly, just when we think Louisa has no right choice to make, the ending wraps everything up in a surprising and satisfying way. Each and every person, animal, and detail feels crucial to the solution. Everyone can cheer.
So gather round, and listen up.
Sarah Wones Tomp
WRITING ON THE SIDEWALK