I was pleased to see The Prairie Thief turn up on my doorstep because author Melissa Wiley is a friend of mine (through blogging), and I was happy to know that she had a new book coming out. But once I started reading The Prairie Thief, I enjoyed it on its own merits, and pretty much forgot who the author was altogether.
The Prairie Thief is a historical middle grade novel with a dash of fantasy thrown in. Louisa Brody lives on a homestead on the Colorado prairie with her father. As the story begins, Louisa's Pa has been arrested for a mysterious theft, and Louisa has been sent to live with the very neighbors who reported him. Neighbor Mrs. Smirch is a dreadful woman who seems to delight in making Louisa miserable. Only the presence of the Smirches' newly arrived niece, Jessamine, offers Louisa any comfort. Until ... well, that's all I'm going to say, because I don't want to spoil the story.
Let me instead say that I found The Prairie Thief utterly satisfying. Even though (after reading many stories in my life) I was pretty sure that things would turn out ok, I couldn't put this book down. I had to know what would happen to Louisa and her Pa, and I didn't see any easy way for Pa's situation to be resolved.
The historical details (as one would expect from the author of Little House spin-off series about Laura Ingalls Wilder's grandmother and great-grandmother) are realistic without being overpowering. The importance of the Brody's cow and chickens is clear. The chores that Louisa and Jessamine are expected to do convey a bit of the difficulty of prairie life, but in a matter-of-fact manner. This would be a nice companion novel to Caroline Starr Rose's May B. Or, of course, to the Little House books.
I'm not going to say much about the fantasy elements, but what struck me about this book was how much it reminded me of a story that I wrote as a child, a story that consumed me for years. Melissa's writing is much better than mine was, of course, but I think that The Prairie Thief captures that same childlike sense of possibility. The sense that anything could be happening around a corner, or down a hole, if one just knew where to look.
Here are a couple of my favorite, non-spoilery quotes:
"Mr. Smirch shrugged. His lips were pressed into a thin line. He had the same grim look on his face Louisa's pa always had when it was time to kill a pig--the look of someone who can't get out of doing a thing he hates to do." (Page 3)
"It was the most pleasant moment Louisa had known since she first set foot in this house, and for just a minute, all the worries and mysteries that had churned incessantly in her mind for a week subsided, and she felt almost peaceful.
And then Mrs. Smirch pounced." (Page 69)
As you can see from the above, there is some advanced vocabulary in this book ("subsided", "incessantly"). But it still feels to me like a book that relatively new readers will enjoy. Perhaps this is because of Erwin Madrid's illustrations. There are 10 full-page, black and white illustrations spread throughout the book, along with the engaging color cover. Madrid brings Louisa, and the prairie, to life through heavily textured sketches. I think that the cover alone is enough to entice young readers to pick up the book.
The Prairie Thief is a delight from start to finish. Highly recommended for middle grade readers, boys or girls, age eight and up.
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (@SimonKids)
Publication Date: August 28, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).