What drew me to this book the most was the story behind the author’s family. Bjornson’s bio mentions that his great grandparents emigrated from Iceland after volcanic ash destroyed their farm. That would be an amazing story to write someday! Bjornson’s book, however, covers a geography and history a little closer to home–Abilene, Kansas.
Before reading this book, I knew little about Abilene’s history other than the fact that it was a cowtown. (Somehow, in all my twelve years of field trips back home, my class missed the trips to Abilene, so I’m going to have to visit on my own sometime.) After reading the novel, I now know many interesting facts about late 19th century Abilene: Bill Hickok was the sheriff for a brief time, Hickok killed his own deputy accidentally, and there were big conflicts among the three main groups of people in the Abilene area: the cowboys, the townspeople, and the settlers.
The book centers around Will Merritt, a fifteen year old boy who is coming of age at a unique crossroads for the town of Abilene. Tensions are always high during cattle season, when Texas cowboys bring up cattle to put on the rails at Abilene. But this season, because of an interesting business decision made by Will’s father (one of the most prominent businessmen in the town), Will faces more challenges and tests of loyalty than he ever dreamed he would face. Add to this a little bit of a love story, scenes with Wild Bill Hickok conveniently saving Will from his troubles, and many interesting elements that show the challenges of pioneer life, and you have a book many will love.
I recommend this book to any teacher, particularly middle school teachers who like to read aloud to their classes. The chapters are anecdotal, almost always ending with a cliffhanger. The themes are very applicable to middle schoolers, and the history told is fascinating. I would also recommend this book to all Kansans and anyone who has an interest in frontier history.
My favorite element of the book was the way in which Bjornson brought a family’s story to life. I imagined my own great-grandfather, Jestarus Noble Timothy Fuller, riding in a covered wagon out to north central KS from Iowa to begin farming on his 160 acres and timber claim. He arrived a good twenty years later than Will’s family, but I am sure many of the troubles he faced were similar. Another reason I enjoyed this book was that I would like to write one similar to it myself. 1850s-1890s American life, particularly in Kansas, has always fascinated me.