Land of the Buffalo Bones
by Marion Dane Bauer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Land of the Buffalo Bones (New Yeovil) / 0-439-22027-0
The Dear America series strives to provide fictionalized retelling of historical events in American history, brought to vivid life for children and adults alike. This addition to the series is unusual in that the characters within are based on real life people, related to the author. The end result, however, is a novel that is full of too much hardship and - frankly - too much intractable stupidity on the part of the main characters, to be of much enjoyment to the reader.
"Land of the Buffalo Bones" follows the rise and inglorious fall of the New Yeovil settlement. The diarist's father is the Baptist minister of the colony and he manages to be unthinkingly cruel, impossibly stupid, frustratingly dense, and unforgivably lazy over the course of this maddening journey. He alone has seen the "paradise" to which he encourages his English congregation to travel to, but fails to mention that basic necessities like, say, trees for wooden houses are completely lacking on the prairie. He either lies outright to his congregation or demonstrates impossible simplicity when he repeats the lie of the railroads financing their emigration - that a new town already exists for them to live in. In truth, they are dumped in the middle of nowhere, with no houses, no town, no trees, nothing on which to survive.
The reader will be frustrated by Mary's unthinking devotion to her worthless father who never works at anything, including their garden, because a minister cannot be expected to dirty his hands. When a prairie fire threatens their homes, the wife and children dig ditches for safety while their father disappears for hours to "warn" people of the obviously approaching fire - it is clear that he simply didn't want to get his hands dirty. Although they cannot afford the large family they already have and their many children are frequently on the verge of starvation, he continually gets his wife pregnant, and the women in the community castigate her for this irresponsibility. When money is needed to send a sullen servant girl back home, he sells his wife's precious piano without her permission - of course, he does not sell his own fine writing desk, as a minister needs his writing desk. And when a young lady in his congregation is repeatedly beaten by her father, to the point that she seeks solace in a nearby reservation, he does not reprimand the man or reveal his daughter's motives to the people, preferring to save the man's "honor" and let the congregation call the young woman terrible names in her absence.
While I concede that this book has historical value in detailing the failed community of New Yeovil, readers will likely not be able to get past their frustration at how stupid, cruel, petty, and generally worthless most of the characters within are. I genuinely cannot think of one nice thing to save about any of the settlers, which makes for unpleasant reading. Mary, the diarist, alternately complains constantly or writes gushing paeans to her father - she rarely finds a bright side to their new home or experiences a flash of insight with regards to her father. Her step-mother is the same; the other children are either rarely mentioned or a distinct annoyance - young Laura routinely destroys expensive and irreplaceable papers and paints and is never reprimanded by her parents, and their father openly tells Laura that she is his "true" daughter, now that Mary's own mother is dead.
Unless you have a specific interest in the colony in question, I would not recommend this book when there are far better Dear America books out there.
~ Ana Mardoll
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