Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Prairie School by Lois Lenski

Sometimes a kids' book is not just a kids' book.  I last read Prairie School by Lois Lenski almost 60 years ago.  It was 1954 and I was a Grade 2 kid in a one-room prairie school that my father had last attended some 20 years before.  The book came in a box of books from the school board office which had to be read and returned within the month. I never forgot the book. My kids found it on E-Bay for me for Christmas one year not long ago, 1951 hardcover, exactly as I remembered it, and I read it again just now.

In the Foreword, Lois Lenski explains that in May 1948 she received a letter from Maple Leaf School, a "one-room rural school in South Dakota, just west of the Missouri river and near the North Dakota state line".  The pupils wrote to tell her how much they liked Strawberry Girl which the teacher read to them when it was cold and they gathered around the large floor register over the furnace to keep warm.  Ms. Lenski received other letters from the students of Maple Leaf School in school year 1949-50, describing the terrible winter and their life on the Dakota plains.

She determined to write their story and inspite of delays of snow storms into May, she made the trip, met the students and their families, observed during class, slept in the teacherage.  Prairie School is a composite of their stories.  Maple Leaf School became the model for "Oak Leaf School".  The community was mainly German-Russians from the Odessa region of what is now Ukraine who settled there in the early 1900s. Their language and customs are captured by Lois Lenski's dialogue and also her wonderful pencil sketches.

 Eleven kids from 6 to 13 from six families came on horseback or horse drawn cart or walked in summer and winter.  Farm work interrupted school work for the older boys. The winter of 49-50 was long and hard; the Christmas Concert was cut short because of weather; school was closed often due to weather and once the children were caught and had to stay at the school. Spring was late but never-the-less arrived and the meadowlarks sang. The book ends (for me) with sadness and a feeling as empty as the school. Oak Leaf School (and Maple Leaf School) closed at the end of the year and the kids were bused to town in the fall.  As Miss Martin, the teacher, said "You must grow up and go on to better things".

Ten years later, the one-room rural schools were closed in our school district (which, by the way, was mainly German-Russians from the Volga who came to Saskatchewan in the early 1900s) and the kids bused to town.  I was in Grade 8 by then.  Prairie School described a piece of my own childhood and reading it was like a trip back in time.

Sometimes a kids' book is not just a kids' book. Sometimes it is a reminder of how life was.  Anyone who did not grow up on the prairies and who did not go to a one-room school will find the book interesting, even though it is intended for "8 to 12 year olds", but not nearly as meaningful as for those of us who shared the experiences.


  1. What a fascinating trip to the past! I was lucky enough to be able to record my Dad's oral history, and he vividly describes going to the little prairie school in 1937. I'm still working to pull together about 50 hours of recordings that will one day turn into something... book or multimedia, I'm not sure yet.

    It's a long process of editing poor-quality video and pulling together story threads, but I'll get there.

    Welcome back!

    1. I currently live on the ranch where Maple Leaf existed. The elevator is still standing. I would love to learn more about the people that lived here.

    2. Hi, Unknown, there should be local museums and history books in and around Maple Leaf school. Also local newspapers will have archives. I wish you the best in learning more about the people who lived there.

  2. The book Two Little Savages by Earnest Thompson Seaton (1903)that I found in the public library when I was eight or nine years old is the book that had a huge impact on my childhood (and perhaps my adult life.) Growing up without a father the book introduced me to the wonders of the woods: camping and woodcraft. It became my obsession during childhood - I was either in the woods or daydreaming about the woods. A few years after joining the Navy I became a Navy Survival, Escape and Evasion instructor and taught winter bush survival in the northern Maine bush to Navy pilots and SEALS and Army Special Forces.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  3. Diane, I'd go for the book rather than multi-media, but that is just me.
    Ol'B, those that grow up in the woods love the woods. I only read one of Seton's books, Wild Animals I Have Known, many years ago. Winter bush survival would be a great course to take, even now.


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