Read an Excerpt
“Hurry Anna,” Papa said. “Fire’s almost out.”
Anna picked up the bucket. She was careful not to spill fresh milk on her way to the house. Brutal winds raced across the prairie, stinging her face as she struggled in the February dawn. On most days the ten-year-old did not mind being Papa’s right-hand helper, but today she wished her older brother Lenny was home.
Mama held the door and took the milk. Anna opened the lid of the wood box and saw it was almost empty—two pieces of wood and a shovel scoop of coal. By noon it would be gone. Her fingers wrapped around two small pieces of coal. She lifted the lid of Mama’s cookstove, careful not to wake her three-year-old sister curled up behind the stove. Both pieces fell quietly into the fire.
“The wood is almost gone,” Anna said at breakfast.
“Yah. Coal’s low too.” Papa passed the biscuits to Mama.
Anna squirmed in her chair. Spring was at least six weeks away. It was too soon to do without heat.
“Papa, does Uncle Ed have extra coal or wood? I could get some. Next summer we’d pay him back.”
“Nah. Need heat there too. Not enough to share.”
“Should we sleep at Grandpa’s tonight?” Anna prodded.
“Ach, too far.” Looking worried, Papa’s voice trailed on, “Just one thing . . .”
Thrilled to realize another choice, Anna knew she’d try whatever Papa suggested. This winter of 1926 had been long. Now the family was very close to the end of their heat supply.
“Go to the pasture, and pick up all of Bossy’s dung.” Seeing Anna’s startled look, he continued. “Did that in the old country, when I was a boy. Called ’em buffalo chips. Burned plenty hot. Used ’em in place of wood back then. It’s the only way.”
Cowpies! Anna was horrified. She’d seen Bossy drop those nasty piles. She was sick at the thought of looking at manure, let alone picking it up. A frown froze across her forehead.
Her cousins Rebecca and Rachel had been teased at school when an English classmate had seen them walking out in their pasture. Cowpie collectors! Come see the Rooshian cowpie collection! Pee-ew, they stink! The girls moved away from him but could not hide from the teasing. Dresses come out of da’ rag bag. He had laughed and mocked their accents. Rooshians have cowpies!
What if that same classmate saw her? He knew Papa had come to America from Russia too.
“Papa,” Anna pleaded, “is this really the only way?”
Prairie Anna, historical fiction for young readers by Peggy House, tells the story of Anna, the middle daughter in a family of Russian immigrants. Most of Anna’s life is decided for her—what to study, which chores to do, when to eat and sleep. Everyone in her family works hard to survive the bitter winters and blazing summers of the prairie. But when hardship takes her away from familiar places and loved ones, Anna must decide what to do with the one choice she is given.
“In 1936, storms left snow banks so high that I could touch the telephone wires when I was on my pony.” One-liners like that from Dad’s childhood memory, left me determined to recreate for my own grandchildren the legacy that had been handed to me. True accounts of a mischievous aunt, an industrious cousin, and a grieving orphan melted together to create Anna. All of the ingredients used in this chapter book are the “guts” of what was real. It’s what the German-speaking families emigrating from Russia to the Dakotas lived through in the early 20th century. My inspiration was my own family stories; my goal was to show their life through the eyes of ten-year-old Anna, without shying away from the truth of its harsh realities. I have seen that inspiration fulfilled every time I read a chapter to my granddaughters. Prairie Anna lends credibility to the pioneer experience for any young reader.
What was your favorite part of creating this story?
Even though I love writing, I enjoy re-creating history for kids every bit as much. When I go into a classroom of eager learners and step back in time with two very large Anna dolls, it’s the thrill of a lifetime. Kids’ eyes light up when they see a soap stone, a cow patty, and Anna’s favorite “security blanket.” My favorite part is sharing who Anna was, how she lived, and reading about the choices she made. When kids discover they are faced with similar decisions (although living in a different era) they see the human condition we are all a part of. Helping kids navigate change through wise choices is what Anna is all about.