Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review: Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell

I wasn't a Little House on the Prairie fan as a kid. Admittedly, I don't recall actually giving the books or the TV show a chance, I was just pretty sure I wouldn't like them and went on my way. Luckily, the Little House allusions seem to be primarily confined to the title, so don't think you have to be a fan in some way to enjoy this thoroughly entertaining book.

Little Blog on the PrairieGen's family isn't big on "family time," as each family member seems to be going in her or his own direction at any given time. Her dad doesn't even get involved with vacation plans, preferring to leave all that to her mom - which is how the family gets signed up for an entire summer at Camp Frontier - an immersive summer experience where families live, dress and work like they're on the Wyoming frontier in 1890.

To 13 year old Gen, this is the end of the world. She's supposed to be hanging out with her best friends and practicing soccer all summer so she'll be prepared for the high school's team in the fall. So her mom bribes her - come to camp without complaint, and get a fancy cell phone at the end of the summer. Gen agrees, but the allure of the phone is too much - she sneaks it to camp, promising to text her friends for as long as the battery holds out (after all, there was no electricity on the frontier - where will she charge the phone?)

Several families have come together to live the frontier life for the summer - and none of the kids seem terribly fond of the idea, including Nora, the daughter of Camp Frontier's organizers who has to live every day like it's 1890. Almost immediately, Gen bonds with Ka (short for Kate, rhymes with Saw, her favorite movie), the goth chick from a family of perky blondes set adrift without her supply of black  hair dye to keep her own blond roots at bay. And then there's the camp heartthrob, Caleb, who has just about every girl in the camp swooning in his wake, but doesn't seem to realize this.

The complicated interpersonal relationships, as well as the hardships and indignities of life on the prairie (three words: outhouse at night), are faithfully recounted by Gen via text message - which her friends back on the outside are faithfully translating into a blog. And not just any blog, but an overnight blogging sensation that has repercussions all the way back to the 1890s life of Camp Frontier.

This is a lighthearted, feel good book, totally entertaining book that is going to appeal to a variety of middle grade and young adult readers. Gen is only 13, and keeps her thoughts about Caleb on a totally PG level - when she discovers an illicit "electricity shack" on the farm, her first thought is about charging her phone, not about getting Caleb alone. Her sarcastic attitude is just enough to keep readers used to edgier fare interested in her misadventures on the farm, while being tempered with an innate sweetness that keeps her from coming off as a spoiled teenager. Gen isn't happy about being at Camp Frontier, but she does love her family, and is willing to put on a good face at least for their sake for the duration of the adventure.

The book is filled with great supporting characters as well. Even the adults have some personality - I about cheered when the moms threatened a feminist uprising when the camp owner tries to keep the women from speaking (Gen's mom is the first to point out that Wyoming had given women the vote well before 1890, meaning that women would certainly be used to speaking in their communities if nowhere else). Of course, bringing up that women were expected to fulfill 19th century societal roles gets a bit uncomfortable if you follow it to its logical conclusion - if you expect women to keep quiet, what would happen if an African- or Asian-American family signed up? It seems like some aspects of 1890 are best left ignored, like the corsets that aren't required thanks to liability issues. The feminist uprising is extremely brief, just a quick opportunity for some educational humor, and clearly isn't meant to be dwelt on.

Another educational bit is the mini-moral slipped in by the end regarding technology and expectations of privacy. It's not heavy handed, over the top, or totally obvious, but hopefully it will get younger readers thinking about privacy issues regarding e-mails and text messages - namely that once a message leaves your phone or computer, you no longer have much control over who else might see it.

While I know the summer is winding down, there's still a few weeks left for most people, and this would make an excellent last minute addition to your summer reading list!
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