Land of the Buffalo Bones Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
For her first book in the Dear America series, Newbery Honor Award winner Marion Dane Bauer has chosen to introduce readers to fourteen-year-old Polly Rodgers and her family. Led by Polly’s father, Reverend Dr. George Rodgers, eighty settlers from England, with dreams in their eyes, stare at the realities of life on the Minnesota prairie in 1873.
Polly’s faith in her father is tested as fellow Englishmen die in the bitter cold winter. She watches as swarms of grasshoppers feast on what few crops were teased from the soil. Lack of medical care and basic medicine threatens lives. Polly can’t help but hear former friends and neighbors blame her father for lost lives and their mounting despair. Still, amidst the grumbling and sadness, Polly records the joys of birth, the beauty of blossoming flowers, the importance of true friends, the inspiration of sacrificing for others, and her growing appreciation for faith and family. Marion Dane Bauer uses Polly’s diary entries to paint the many shades of life in New Yeovil, Minnesota.
Land of the Buffalo Bones holds a special place in the writing life of Marion Dane Bauer. She says, “Writing this story has been a privilege, not just because the people I write about are my ancestors, but because I have lived most of my life on the Great Plains. This land is as much a part of my being as are the settlers who first tested their souls against its promise and its peril. In particular, though, I wrote this story for my mother, who has always been the keeper of family stories.” Readers of this novel will savor her mother’s tales for years to come.
"I am going with my papa to the New World!" writes fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Elizabeth "Polly" Rodgers in her diary. "Has any girl ever been happier or more fortunate than I?" It is March 1873, and Polly's father, the Reverend Dr. George Rodgers, is leading eighty colonists from their homes in England to a new settlement in Minnesota. The Northern Pacific Railroad has promised them a town and "land [that] is so rich, if you tickle it, it will smile a harvest," and so they seem eager to go. But soon after the colonists set sail, tragedy strikes. Timmy Thompson, the young brother of Polly's best friend Jane, becomes gravely ill, dies, and must be buried at sea. His mother is inconsolable, and his father blames Reverend Rodgers for Timmy's death.
After landing in New York City, the settlers take a long train ride to Minnesota. They encounter a blizzard there and are snowbound for many days while food supplies dwindle and tempers flare. When they finally reach their destination, they do not find the town that was promised to them. Polly sadly records, "we are here now, and no town exists. Nor do the trees of our imagining. Nor the park and square of Northern Pacific's promise. No town at all."
Some of the colonists move on to another settlement. Those who stay begin building shelters and clearing the land to plant crops. But these are tradesmen who have never farmed in their lives, so work proceeds slowly. More tragedy occurs in Jane's family when her depressed mother walks out one evening and drowns herself in the nearby river. Jane's father becomes drunken and abusive toward Jane.
A soddy is built for Reverend Rodgers and his family, and Polly helps plant a vegetable garden. Spring comes and the land is full of promise. Polly and Jane encounter some "red-Indians," who startle them at first, but show they mean no harm. One young Ojibwa man, Ozawa, saves Polly and Jane from wolves, and becomes a friend.
As summer heats up, the little colony appears to be successful. The vegetables are flourishing, a wheat crop is thriving, and the congregation has decided that Papa should be elected pastor of their congregation. Then disaster strikes. The day before harvest, a plague of grasshoppers descends on the land, eating everything in sight. Soon after a prairie fire threatens the settlement. Polly writes, "All conspires against us in this place."
Winter comes early and life is hard. Food becomes scarce, and the congregation becomes increasingly disgruntled with Reverend Rodgers. In the spring, Polly secretly helps Jane escape to Ozawa's reservation. Mr. Thompson demands that Papa bring Jane back, and when he fails to do so, the outraged congregation votes him out as their pastor.
The family prepares to leave New Yeovil in search of another town that might need his leadership. Polly is hopeful and writes, "I do not know to what purpose our family sailed across the sea to try to forge a home in this other sea of grass. I know only that this is my papa and that I love him and that wherever he seeks to make a home will be home for me, too."
Thinking About the Book
- What happened to Polly's mother? How does Polly feel about her stepmother, Mother Rodgers, at the beginning of the book? How have her feelings for her changed at the end? Why?
- What are some of the reasons Land of the Buffalo Bones is a good title for Polly’s story?
- Many of the settlers who accompanied Reverend Dr. George Rodgers to Minnesota blamed him for all the hardships they faced in America. Would you have blamed him or not? Explain.
- When Polly describes her friendship with Jane, she says "she is sunshine to my shadow." What do you think she means by this?
- Why does Jane Thompson leave her house and father to live a life with Ozawamukwah in the Ojibwa Indian tribe?
- Why were the people Papa Rodgers brought with him from England so ill suited for a life of farming?
- Several characters in Polly’s diary refer to the “red-Indian men” and call them “savages.” How does Polly’s opinion of these Native Americans change? Why?
- What vow do Polly and Jane make to each other? Why does Polly tell where Jane is? When do you think it is all right to reveal a secret?
- Throughout her diary, Polly writes entries she calls "Remembering Home." What does she write about in these special entries? How is the one she writes in her final diary entry different from all of the others?
- Most of the people who came with Dr. Rodgers were lured by the wonderful words used to describe Minnesota. “The land is so rich if you tickle it, it will smile a harvest.” The Minnesota climate was described as “one of the healthiest in the world.” Ads claimed “In one day, a man could earn in Minnesota what he earns in a week in England.” Unfortunately the settlers were filled with disappointment when the golden words did not describe what they found. In your discussion group, ask each member to share an experience, perhaps a vacation destination, you were so excited about only to find that it never lived up to your expectations.
- Polly writes that her birthday, November 5, is also Guy Fawkes Day, which is celebrated in England. Find out who was Guy Fawkes and what is celebrated that day. Share your findings with your group.
- Have each member of your discussion group choose one of the following to research. Why is each important in Polly’s diary?
*Snap-Apple or Crack-Nut Night
*Rocky Mountain locusts
- Polly loved to sketch and paint with her precious watercolors. She often created pictures of England to help her remember the home she left behind. Draw the picture you would want to keep with you if you never were able to return to your country and your home.
- In your discussion group debate this statement: Papa Rodgers is the most important character in Land of the Buffalo Bones.
- Ozawa was a member of the Ojibwa tribe. Find out more about these Native American people. What interesting facts do you learn about their way of life?
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.