This autobiographical novel begins with one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve found in more than 100 books of early frontier fiction. Eleanor Gates begins her story with the birth of her central character on a remote Dakota homestead during a raging blizzard. The family waits with growing dread the return of the newborn girl’s father, who has ventured into the storm for help.
The man’s remains are not found until the spring thaw, only a short distance from the family’s cabin. Told from the distance of a few childhood years, the girl thinks of her birth as the time she was brought by the stork—which chose the same day to take away her father. The raw realities of frontier life are thus embedded early on in a story of growing up on the prairie.
Plot. The novel is a rarity for its time, as it takes for its subject the emergence of a character’s consciousness during 15 years of childhood. Each chapter is a separate episode during those years, and each illustrates how the conditions of life on the prairie give form and shape to the girl’s personality and identity.
Heroine is actually not the right word for her, as she does nothing that requires heroism. Yes, she shows spunk, independence, curiosity, and a reckless daring at times, but what we are witness to is her gradual absorption of what’s to be learned from life’s limitations and contingencies.
|Map of Dakota and nearby territories, 1864|
Sometimes they are harsh, as when drought nearly destroys her family’s livelihood and prairie fire wipes out the little that is left of it. Sometimes they are trivial, as when an uncooperative chicken refuses to sit a nest of eggs and then refuses to lay altogether.
In a comic turn, a visiting botanist discovers a petroglyph he believes is evidence of an earlier form of human life on the plains. We learn instead that what he’s found are the little girl’s initials inscribed on a rock face by a favorite playmate, the son of an officer from a nearby fort. More menacing is her night’s stay in an outlaw-infested hotel, where she and an older brother, with cash from the sale of a small herd of cattle, come perilously close to being victims of foul play.
There are further episodes involving Indians, a pet badger, a pet cowbird, gopher hunting, and a bout of near-fatal typhoid. One of the most detailed and revealing chapters of frontier social history is an account of a wedding held at the homestead of a Dutch family. While the adults enjoy a night of music, food, and dancing, the children amuse themselves with a flirtatious game of hide and seek.
|Prairie, north of Vermillion, S. Dakota|
Storytelling style. For reasons of her own, Gates does not give names to her characters. At the center of her story is “the girl” and her three older brothers, referred to as “the eldest,” “the youngest,” and “the biggest.” A woman living nearby is called “the neighbor lady.”
A thread that may be said to run throughout is the girl’s desire and aptitude for learning. Sent to the local public school, she soon reveals herself to be a misfit, refusing reading lessons from the teacher because she can read already. Seeing a magazine illustration of a college girl wearing s mortarboard, she determines at the age of five to someday go to college herself.
It is a wish that promises to go unfulfilled, as when she is 15, she inherits the household chores and the job of looking after her grown brothers, all left to her when their mother dies. The fate of a pioneer woman is starkly told in Gates’ description of the girl’s responsibilities:
Day after day she plodded through a heavy program of breakfast, dinner, supper, bed-making, sweeping, and the care of the chickens and pigs; her calendar was the added duties that each morning entailed of washing, ironing, mending, scrubbing, and baking.
Her story would end there were it not for the advocacy of the “biggest brother,” who parts company with his two brothers, whose opinion is that college for her is an idle pipe dream. What it would cost, they argue, would be better spent on plans they have for the farm.
The “biggest brother,” with money of his own, however, has the leverage to prevail, and he sets her free, taking her to the train that will remove her to a life unencumbered by domestic toil and frontier isolation. It is an emotionally charged ending. “There’s everything before you where you’re goin’ if you want to work for it,” he tells her, his eyes filling with tears, “Here there’s nothing.”
Wrapping up. Born in Minnesota, growing up in Dakota Territory, and university educated in California, Eleanor Gates (1875-1951) is remembered today chiefly as a Broadway playwright. Her best-known work, The Poor Little Rich Girl, was first staged in 1913. Its story became a film vehicle for Mary Pickford in 1917 and again for Shirley Temple in 1936.
FictionMags Index finds her the author of numerous short stories, serials, and a few novels published in mostly slick magazines, 1902 – 1925. Another novel, The Plow-Woman (1907), was also based on her childhood years in Dakota. Her cowboy novel, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher (1907), was the basis for a film adaptation in 1920 with Will Rogers in the starring role.
The Biography of a Prairie Girl is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive, and in print and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction