117. The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely

The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely
Illustrated by William Siegel
Afterward by Jean L.S. Patrick

Pages: 321
Ages: 8+
Finished: June 29, 2009
First Published: 1929 (new edition, Oct. 2008)
Genre: children, historical fiction
Award: Newbery Honor
Rating: 4.5/5

First sentence:

Down on their knees, a boy and girl were taking up the kitchen linoleum.

Reason for Reading: I'm reading all the Newbery Awards and Honors. I received a copy through LibraryThing's ER Program. I also very much love children's historical fiction about the early days of settling our land.

Comments: Four children Becky (17), Dick (15), Phil (10) and Joan (8) live with their Uncle Joe in a nice little town in Wisconsin. Joe, a sea-going man, settled down with the children when they were orphaned but his heart always missed something. That is until the day he went to check out the land available in South Dakota and fell in love with the prairies which reminded him so much of the sea. He didn't win the lottery for land but he later came back and squatted some land that was unclaimed, registered it and set to work on it. When he came back for the children, he became deathly ill and spent a month in bed. He spent every moment talking to the children and writing down or dictating to them everything they would need to know on how to homestead the land themselves and one week before they were to leave Uncle Joe died. With determination and great love for Uncle Joe's will to be done the 4 children go to South Dakota and become homesteaders on their own. Becky turns into a woman and Dick into a man as they fight the elements, the land, the loneliness and the meanest folks you ever did see who've squatted on their land while Uncle Joe was dying. They also discover the glory of the land, the joys of making a home for oneself, the realities of life and death, and the bonds created between neighbours all living through the same circumstances.

This is a wonderful story and while a work of fiction it draws heavily upon the author's own experiences as a homesteader in South Dakota. As the afterward mentions one can quickly compare this to Laura Ingalls Wilder, as there is a similarity in the two experiences of homesteading in South Dakota, Ms McNeely's book was published 3 years prior to Ms Wilder's and The Jumping-Off Place takes place nearly thirty years later than the Little House days in De Smet, South Dakota.

A timeless classic that fortunately has been brought back to print. This is a book for the ages. A tale of hardships, pure joy from the results of hard work itself, humour, determination, growing up. The book is full of life lessons (though not didactic or preachy at all); the children just learn from living life and from not giving up for Uncle Joe's sake and downright pluckiness not to be beaten after they've put so much hard work into things.

One note: the "n" word is used once, not in reference to a person but used nevertheless by a minor character in a state of dejection. From my point of view, the word was used in context within the historical period of the book and considering the year this book was written I can say wholeheartedly that there was nothing that *I* found objectionable in the book at all. The afterward doesn't mention this instance but it does contain a lot of information on the historical context of the book, Ms McNeely's life and tragic death. It was a welcome addition to the book. Unfortunately Marian Hurd McNeely died such an untimely death that she only wrote 3 children's novels and one posthumously published volume of short stories.

Some people these days seem to have a problem with Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, if that is you, then this would make a great substitution if you don't mind moving forward to 1900. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the time period or the subject matter. Hopefully this book stays in print without any editing!

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  1. I never heard of this book until today. Thank you for bringing my attention to it. I added it to my TBR.

  2. your welcome! It's nice to see an oldie like this come back in print.

  3. I live in South Dakota and I haven't heard of this book. I think I might need to find a copy. Do you remember what part of SD they lived in?

  4. Hi Lisa, Yes. They settle in Tripp County. Their claim is close to a town called Winner and Dallas (SD, that is) is the nearest big city. This reprint is published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. Amazing how a Newbery Honor winner like this can be so unknown!


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