Marion Dane Bauer: To my surprise and delight, I loved both the process of deep research and the writing from that research. I spent a year reading original and secondary sources about the settling of the Great Plains, and though I approached the actual writing with real caution — where was the voice of a fourteen-year-old English girl from the 1870s going to come from? — I was delighted to discover that voice waiting, it seemed, right in my fingertips. During the lengthy process of developing this book, I also researched and wrote another book, my novel Runt, the story of a wolf pup. While I developed an emotional and psychological story there, too, the story's action is based entirely on my research into various biologists' study of wolves in their natural environment. And so in these two projects I learned doubly to enjoy and appreciate research.
Will I ever do another truly historical novel? I would love to. What I must find first, however, is another moment in history that speaks to me as clearly as my great-grandfather's nearly disastrous endeavors did.
RFA & EST: Throughout Polly’s diary the Minnesota prairie is depicted as an unforgiving environment plagued with locusts, unbearable weather, fires, and a host of other hardships to the point were the settlers feel they have been cursed to live in such an inhospitable place. Yet, you have lived most of your life on the Great Plains. You say, “This land is as much a part of my being as are the settlers who first tested their souls against its promise and its perils.” Did the Rodgers family ever come to love the land? Why do you love it?
MDB: I can, perhaps, speak for Laura Rodgers, who was my grandmother. She was a taciturn woman, not given to praising much of anything, but she married a farmer, Dillon Hempstead, who homesteaded and developed that homestead into a thriving farm in southeastern Minnesota. A cousin still farms that land, and I visited it every summer as a child and return there with deep feelings still. That area of Minnesota isn't part of the Great Plains. It is, in fact, bluff country, a network of rich, deeply carved valleys. But my grandmother must have come to love the land that gave them sustenance, and certainly my mother did. Both of my parents left farming behind when they graduated from college and married. (My father had also grown up on a farm, a struggling one in southern California, but hated farming thoroughly.) Still they always maintained their connection.
For my part, I have lived on various parts of the Great Plains and have always been intrigued by the breathtaking emptiness of the land and the sudden extremes of weather. When I lived in the Oklahoma panhandle, I stood in the wagon ruts left by the parade of covered wagons that traveled through that sea of grass, awed by the courage of the men and women and children who came before me. Once I spent a week on a covered wagon trip in North Dakota designed to reproduce, as authentically as possible, the early emigrants' experience. What I remember most acutely from that week was standing, unsheltered, in a sudden thunderstorm that brought, the radio told us later, 75-mile-an-hour winds. One way or another, my heart has always been caught both by the peril and the promise of this stark and beautiful land.
RFA & EST: In many ways, Reverend Dr. George Rodgers seems unlikable. He seldom lifts his hands in labor. He doesn’t seem to really care about the welfare, safety, and comfort of his family. He had been to Minnesota and must have known what his fellow Englishmen were in for, but he seems to have duped them with his silver tongue and glorious descriptions. Is this how you see him — the character based on your great-grandfather?
MDB: I had to struggle with my own conception of George Rodgers before I could begin to write. He died before my mother was born, so the family stories I had of him were slim. I knew that he had been to Minnesota, had, in fact, chosen the land he brought the colony to, but only discovered through my research how furious the settlers were with him once they discovered what it was he had brought them to. My grandmother had told my mother that the people he gathered for this expedition were all trades people, none of them accustomed to manual labor and none having any experience of farming. She had also told her that he had refused any salary, recognizing the acute need of his people. In addition, my mother knew that her grandfather was the kind of man who, if he took a few chugs on the churn, thought he had done a great deal of work that day.
So as I began my story, I had a choice. I could have portrayed George Rodgers as a liar, someone who set out to dupe other people for reasons of his own. But that idea didn't fit what I knew of the strengths and failings of my own family. I could only decide that he was a man who lived by words and who, thus, could be swayed himself by others' golden words — and the rhetoric about this incredible new country was, itself, incredible. It was also clear that he had little sense of the practical. I couldn't help but note that none of the other men who accompanied Dr. Rodgers on the Northern-Pacific-sponsored trip to scout out this new country were on the list of names of those who were part of the colony the next year. Clearly, the other men must have seen problems that were invisible to my great-grandfather.
RFA & EST: Polly’s diary is certainly important to you since it is based on the story of your mother’s family. Is there a part of the book or a character you are most pleased with?
MDB: I loved creating Laura as a mischievous child. Since my own experience of my grandmother was of a rather dour old woman, ill with Parkinson's disease, it was fun to find something of an imp in her. The only actual story I had about my grandmother from that time was of her having gotten out her Sunday hat on the ship and losing it overboard and expecting one of the sailors to rescue it for her. I began from that one piece to create her youthful character.
RFA & EST: In Land of the Buffalo Bones so many sad things happen to Polly, her family and their fellow settlers. Do you see this novel as a tragedy?
MDB: I don't see it as a tragedy, because the community did survive — Hawley, Minnesota still exists today — and the family survived as well, though they had to move on to do so. My intention at the end with having Polly come to terms, both with her stepmother and with her father's failings, was to suggest that there were other worlds waiting for the Rodgers family, others souls yet to be born from and to profit by their emigration to this harsh land. I know nothing of Polly's feelings about her father, but I do know that she never did grow past her resentment of her stepmother, my great-grandmother, and so I lifted the story to a different level by resolving what was never, in fact, resolved. If it is a tragedy, it is a tragedy from which new life and new hope both spring.
RFA & EST: You have said that you hope to go on writing many books. You ask, “How else can I keep on learning who I am?” What did Polly’s diary teach you about who you are?
MDB: Writing Polly's diary gave me a new respect for my family, especially for what the Rodgers’s side left behind and the hardships they endured to give me the good life I have now. It also gave me a new respect for nonconformists in England, as all congregations outside of the Church of England were called. (I grew up, curiously enough, in the Episcopal Church, which is what the Church of England is called here. I often wondered what George Rodgers would have had to say to my mother, his granddaughter, for the choice of churches she made.) Nonconformists had to endure real discrimination in England, but I was intrigued to learn that what they endured there, rather than embittering them, seems to have given them greater empathy with the oppressed people they encountered.
RFA & EST: Ever since the horrors of September 11th in New York, the word hero has been bantered about a good deal. Do you see Polly and her family as heroes?
MDB: I do see them as heroes in exactly the sense in which the word has been used since September 11th, ordinary people who, faced with extraordinary circumstances, met those circumstances with courage and grace. They were the kind of everyday heroes this country is made from. Of course, they came here wanting something for themselves, religious freedom, land, a chance to find their own place, to make their own way. But they came prepared to work hard for their dreams, as immigrants in this land always have, and it is their hard work that has given us the privileged world we have today. I see even my great-grandfather as a hard worker, though his work was of the head and the heart, not the hands. And his is the kind of work I honor and continue in my own life today.
RFA & EST: In addition to creating books, you are a wonderful teacher of writing and have authored books to help young folks who want to write. What do you say to the youngster who has read your work and wants to follow in your career path?
MDB: I say all things are possible. When I was a child, no one in my family thought I would be a writer or even thought that a writer was something worth wanting to be (except for one aunt who was a poet, who was, herself, thought to be odd). And yet, here I am. The path is a simple one, but profound. You read and you read and you read. You write and you write and you write. You revise and you revise and you revise. And if the desire to do this thing is fierce enough and you have a modicum of talent — talent is, I am convinced, the smaller part — you, too, can create a life out of your words and your dreams.
RFA & EST: If you could ask readers of Polly’s diary just one question, what would that question be?
MDB: What would you have done in Polly's place? Would you have been able to support your best friend in her decision to enter another world, even though the world she chose was strange and even terrifying to you? Would you have been able to forgive your father his very real failings, despite the profound changes his decisions had wrought in your life? Would you have been able to face into the wholly uncertain future with hope?
Interview conducted 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.