Children of the Western Plains: The Nineteenth-Century Experience.
Scholars for some time now have recognized that children actively participate in the world about themselves instead of being mere spectators. Beginning with insights packaged as part of women's studies and family history, this subject gradually has come into its own. The most recent advancement is a book series called American Childhoods from trade publisher Ivan R. Dee. A Kansas independent historian, Marilyn Holt, has written its initial volume.
The Ivan Dee company directs its products toward general readers of nonfiction as opposed to the scholarly market of university presses. A person therefore should expect lively prose and solid case studies in a Dee offering, but not heavy theoretical debate or deep probes into previously unexplored archives. Ms. Holt's narrative fits these expectations perfectly. She covers a wide range of material, writes extremely well, and creates a volume that will convince even a skeptic that study of children's perspectives provides an important enlargement of our understanding of the past.
Holt deliberately casts a wide net for her subject matter. Although she excludes Canada from her definition of the western plains and abruptly stops her investigations at 1900, she expands the mainstream base of Euro-American migrants with accounts from African American children and those who came directly from Europe. She explores life on the farms and in the towns, as well as that at army posts and missionary stations. I wish, however, that she also could have found enough accounts from Native American settlements to include this perspective. To portray the lives of these young people "in terms of what they saw, heard, believed, and lived," (p. 7) she diligently gathered material from diaries, journals, letters, autobiographies, and reminiscences. Especially rich sources included the Pichler Family and Humphrey Family collections at the South Dakota Historical Society and the Indian-Pioneer collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The book sorts children's experiences into seven broad categories that form the basis for chapters. Averaging about twenty pages apiece, these include perceptions and expectations, travel and settlement, family and community, education, work, play, and life and death. I expected to find numerous comparisons among the different ethnic groupings, but Holt has elected instead to stress their commonalities. Modestly more attention is given to rural-urban and gendered contrasts.
Ms. Holt is a gifted storyteller who has written four previous books on the experience of women and children in the West. I was impressed with how she was able to pack a great deal of specific information into a relatively brief text and yet keep the pace lively. Each chapter covers an amazing amount of ground, moving across a century of time and an array of ethnic groups, occupational niches, and residential settings. Before the generalizations about any one topic grow dull, she inserts an appropriate specific story to humanize the issue and make it memorable. We see the grasshopper plague of 1874 through the eyes of young Percy Ebbutt, for example, who daily had to descend to the bottom of a forty-five-foot well to clean insects from the family's water supply (pp. 66-67). Similarly, David Siceloff's recollections of the pure torture of churning butter day after day drive home the tedium that went with much household work (pp. 114-15), and Henry Norton's matter-of-fact diary entry that "Mr. Nicholson's little child died this evening" (p. 169) demonstrates how frequently death touched everybody's lives.
In a wide-ranging account such as this, every reader will find issues that resonate with his or her own experiences and interests. For me, I was especially impressed with Holt's stories about differences between "town kids and farm kids," especially the envy of the latter over the convenience of coal heating and relative knowledge of sophisticated behavior (pp. 53-54). Other tidbits that caught my eye included the tendency for territorial governments to favor legislation for high-profile colleges over that for mundane elementary schools (pp. 88-89) and the frequency with which orphanages made indentured servants of their charges (p. 122). I also was not aware how much Independence Day used to overshadow Easter and Thanksgiving as a popular holiday (pp. 143-44) and the extent to which the weaning of young children was a deadly affair in the years before refrigeration lessened the danger of spoiled milk and other food (p. 157).
Holt's book inevitably will be compared to Elliott West's Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier, published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1989. The two are similar in several ways. Both feature lucid, flowing narratives, have parallel tables of contents, and cover broadly equal time spans, region, and material. Holt, with her African American entries, has the advantage of a slightly wider base of coverage, but West's is the superior text from most other perspectives. Being some seventy pages longer, it offers more detail. More important, it also sets its case examples in a useful theoretical framework, including the idea that, because children lacked the burden of nostalgia for their former homes that often plagued adults, they adapted more easily to new physical and social environments.
Children of the Western Plains contains the raw material from which to fashion and test many theories related to gender, ethnicity, race, and class. That its author chooses not to do so certainly does not mean that the book is a failure, however. For its intended purpose of sensitizing a general audience to the importance of childhood experience in understanding the Great Plains past, it is a clear success.
James R. Shortridge
University of Kansas
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|Author:||Shortridge, James R.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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