Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dandelions by Eve Bunting & illustrated by Greg Shed

Eve Bunting is an amazingly prolific writer. Her writing is enjoyable, but it doesn't often move or excite me. This book changed that. Reading it before deciding if it should go in the donation pile, I got weepy. I decided it deserved a spot on our overcrowded shelves. 

Dandelions (I totally got this book because I liked the title--I love dandelions.) is about a family settling on the plains of Nebraska. The nearest neighbor is three hours away and Zoe's mother is expecting another baby and not at all sure about leaving their life in the east to move to an empty land. 

The pictures are gorgeously evocative of the rolling plains.

Clearly this Bolton family is moving because Papa decided they should move. When I think of pioneer women, I often think of hardy, adventurous, fearless women. This book paints a somewhat different picture. In that day, and in that time, men made plans. Men sometimes discussed the plans with their wives, but it was generally expected that the wife would say "You'll do what is best for us." 

Probably a good number of the women of the west were there against their wishes. But they made the best of it. They did what needed to be done and they (most often) flourished. Emma, Zoe's mother is still adjusting to the plains. She isn't complaining, but you can sense her hesitancy and longing for the east. This wide empty land frightens her. 

On the other hand, her husband feels completely right about what he is doing. God is mentioned several times, lending a sense of Manifest Destiny to Papa's actions. He is moving west and God is leading him. How could he doubt himself?

But he is so excited and thrilled with it all, you like him. He also is gentle with his wife, so he isn't totally heartless. 

They drive three hours to see their closest neighbors.

Mama and Mrs. Svenson met and hugged and cried. 
"Does Mama know her already?" I whispered to Papa.
"No. But they are happy to see each other. It has been a long time since either of them has seen another woman." He sounded sad, but Papa is never sad for long. "It will be different soon. Other settlers will come."

The Svenson's soddie

Papa had taught Zoe and Becca the stars and told them they were the same stars they saw from their window at Grandma and Grandpa's back in Illinois. The girls name the stars for the Svenson boys, who are are unimpressed. Only people and animals have names, they said.

Heading back to the homestead after their visit.

With a plow borrowed from Mr. Svenson, they plant crops before building their soddie. One night Zoe overhears her father talking to her mother--
"Don't you see? I could never have made a life for us in Illinois. It will be good here." It was as if he was pleading with her, and I felt sorry for him though I wasn't sure why.

He does care about his wife.

The finished soddie--
Mares- tail clouds waved in the sky and the grass sang around us.
I'd never seen Papa so happy or Mama so sad. 

Mama thought the soddie disappeared like a prarie dog burrow as soon as you moved away from it. She constantly worried that the girls or her husband would get lost in the vast prairie. 

Mama would stand for hours looking at the curve where the grass and sky met. "Always nothing." she'd say. "Always the sameness." 
I was glad when she spoke, even to herself. It was her silences that scared me. Sometimes I felt she'd gone away and I couldn't find her.

As summer came to an end and Mama's birthday approached, their supplies ran low. Since Mama was very pregnant, Papa drops her and Becca (the younger sister) off at the Svensons. 

Zoe and Papa set off for town. Mama hurries after them to ask if he is sure he can find his way back to her. I'll mark our path with breadcrumbs he tells her.

Papa worries a little out loud about Emma-I pray God I have done right by her.

He tells Zoe that there is a little extra money and they will look for a present for her.

In town they stock up and get a bottle of lilac scent to make Mama think of the lilacs back east. Zoe hopes it will make her happy and not sadder.

As they are leaving town, Zoe spies a clump of dandelions and decides they must be her present to her mother. If the dandelions could cover the roof of their soddie, Mama wouldn't be so afraid of getting lost because their roof would stand out like yellow sunshine for miles around.

Okay, I love this whole part. They dig up the dandelions and tenderly care for them while they are carting them home to transplant. Maybe Zoe is responsible for all the dandelions all of Nebraska is pulling of their lawns now. 

Papa puts the dandelions on the roof after dark. In the early dawn, Becca and Zoe creep up to the roof to plant them.  

Mama thinks an animal is on the roof and comes out to see what is happening. The Dandelions are limp and unimpressive looking much to Zoe's disappointment. Papa consoles her--"They'll cover the roof and they'll shout: 'This is home!' But their roots have to take hold first. It isn't easy being transplanted."

Maybe they'll never bloom," Mama said. "Maybe they'll just die of loneliness." Then she squeezed my hand. "Oh Zoe! I didn't mean... You were such a dear girl to think--"

I interruppted."They'll bloom, Mama. They're strong, like us." I was almost crying and I didn't know why. 
Mama and Papa were looking at each other. This was about more than dandelions.
Mama gave a shaky sigh.
Mama pulled me close. "Don't expect a miracle Zoe. It will take time."  

I love Zoe thinking she can fix her lonesome, worried mother with a dandelion plant. The childish desire to help in some way and the practical approach--if Mama is scared of getting lost, we will make her a landmark. Mama's worry of getting lost is about a lot more than just needing a landmark, but I love how she responds to what Zoe had done for her. It wasn't just a dandelion. It was all Zoe's worry and concern and love for her mother. Zoe doing what she could even though it was inadequate. And because of Zoe's efforts her mother was touched in a way that brought a little hope to their lives. Maybe Mama could take root and bloom in this place. 

Because she is strong--like a dandelion. She just needed to be reminded of her strength.

So here is to all the amazing women and mothers who settled the west. Who settled the west in fear and trembling, but learned to bloom in their wide, lonesome spaces.

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