cover image Bluestem


Frances Arrington. Philomel Books, $16.99 (144pp) ISBN 978-0-399-23564-1

In her evenly paced, often poetic first novel, Arrington mines the territory of Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder: the 1870s frontier of the tall grass-midwestern prairie. Here she explores the effect of a mother's fragile emotional state on 11-year old Polly and 9-year old Jessie. The only family within miles of theirs is the mean-spirited Smiths. At the opening of the novel, Polly and Jessie's mother goes off to pick wildflowers and tells them to stay near the Smiths' homestead. When the woman doesn't return, Mrs. Smith nearly chases them off her property (""Your ma 'spect me to feed you two?""), and the girls go home to discover their mother in a catatonic stupor. Gradually the author reveals that the woman has been undone by the absence of her husband (who went east to gather firewood and supplies for the winter and was detained due to an injury), the consecutive deaths of two infants and the isolation of life on the prairie. The novel is relentlessly bleak as the girls manage on their own as best they can, but it takes an even darker turn when Polly spots her mother in the distance one day, walking away from home (""Polly gasped and started to sob silently because Mama was walking away, just kept on walking and Polly knew there was nothing, nothing in the world she could do but let her go""). The Smiths threaten to cart them off to an orphan train, so the girls devise a plan to hide out in the tall grass until their father's return. Though readers will be quickly turning pages to discover the fate of these stalwart heroines, the only respite from their endless sorrow comes at the very end. Ages 10-14. (June)