To the Discussion Leader
Author Kate McMullan introduces elementary school readers to nine-year-old Meg Wells and her family. Their hometown is St Louis, Missouri, and the year is 1856. The city air is clogged with smoke and dirt from factory smokestacks, and cholera continues to take the lives of adults and children alike. When disease strikes Mrs. Wells, she sends Meg and her brother to stay with their aunt and uncle in the Kansas Territory. In her diary, Meg recounts her experiences on the steamboat; her adventures on the prairie; her growing understanding of the evils of slavery; and the daring part she and her family play in sheltering a slave before the "conductors" come to place the runaway in the Underground Railroad.
Kate McMullan brings her talents as a writer of more than fifty children's books to Meg's story. Growing up in St. Louis and reading Mark Twain, Kate always wanted to travel back in time and ride a steamboat. She says, "I loved writing about Meg's journey because it gave me a feel for what an 1856 ride up the Missouri River must have been like." Readers of As Far as I Can See will join that ride and live for a time in the wilds of the Kansas Territory.
"I am on a steamboat — a floating palace. I am on the upper deck, looking out over all of St. Louis. Not long ago, I wished to be here. Now my wish has come true. But I never wished it to happen this way!" writes nine-year-old Meg Wells in her diary. It is May of 1856, and Meg and her younger brother Preston (Pres) are on their way to spend the summer with relatives in the Kansas Territory. Mother and little sister Grace are ill with cholera, and it's not healthy for Meg and Pres to stay with them in St. Louis. Accompanied by a family friend, Dr. Baer, Meg and Pres soon discover that being on a riverboat is exciting. There is wonderful food, elegant surroundings, and a mysterious yellow-haired gambler who may actually be an outlaw!
After six days on the river, they arrive at Kansas City and must travel by wagon for four more days to their aunt and uncle's farm. The wide-open prairie amazes Meg. She writes, "Tall prairie grass grows as far as I can see. I feel as if we are traveling over a beautiful green tablecloth. I never knew the sky could be so big!"
Life at Aunt Margaret and Uncle Aubert's is very different from her life in St. Louis. Meg soon learns about buffalo chips, sod houses, bloomers, and Border Ruffians. She watches her uncle's field destroyed by grasshoppers, and she helps the family hide a runaway slave traveling the Underground Railroad.
Although she misses her parents and prays for her mother and Grace's recovery, Meg begins to enjoy life on the prairie. Life is full of surprises: she becomes friends with Lily Vanbeek, a girl who lives on the neighboring farm; the yellow-haired gambler turns out to be a photographer and family friend; and, best of all, Mother and Grace are well and have traveled to "the end of the earth" to join them. The family plans to settle permanently in Kansas. Meg writes: "Mr. Young, formerly known as the yellow-haired gambler, is calling us. He has set up his camera. He wants to take a picture of Uncle Aubert, Aunt Margaret, George, Charlie, John, Mother, Pres, Grace, all the many Vanbeeks, and me. Next year, Father will be here to be in the picture, too. Amen!"
Thinking About the Book
- Why was Meg's mother so determined to send her and Preston away from St Louis? What had happened to the family in 1849 that made her feel that way?
- What did Meg see at the courthouse in St. Louis that upset her so? What other evidence do you find that slaves were treated poorly?
- What sad story did Meg and Preston learn about Dr. Baer's life?
- When Preston and Meg sit down to a boiled cabbage dinner in the shabby Grigg's Hotel, Dr. Baer says: "Hunger is the best sauce." What does he mean?
- Meg often writes about the Border Ruffians in Kansas. Who were these men, and why did people fear them?
- Explain what the following terms mean and why they are important in Meg's diary.
- In St. Louis, Meg ate food on china plates, but in Kansas she eats on tin plates. What other differences do you see between her life in St. Louis and that on the prairie?
- Why was it dangerous for Aunt Margaret and Uncle Aubert to hide a runaway slave? Why do you think they did it anyway?
- Why do you think Meg's story is titled As Far as I Can See ?
- In your discussion groups, share your thoughts on what Meg learned about judging people before she got to know them. Was Mr. Jasper Young a gambler and gun smuggler?
- At the beginning of her diary, Meg lists three of her favorite adventures. If she were to list three favorite adventures at the end of her diary, what do you think they'd be? If you were to list your three favorite adventures, what would they be? Pick one and write about it.
- To take a trip on the Underground Railroad check out Scholastic's activities and resources.
- Enter the Underground Railroad and experience what is was like to be a slave running to freedom. Nine-year-old Corey's story can be found in the My America book Freedom's Wings: Corey's Diary, Kentucky to Ohio, 1857 .
- Meg learns to make corn cakes, a popular food on the prairie. Make some corn cakes using author Jan Brett's favorite recipe or find other recipes in a cookbook. Add some other foods and have a "pic-nic," just as Meg and her relatives did.
- On the last page of Meg's diary she describes a Fourth of July celebration in which a man stands to read some lines from the Declaration of Independence. Go back and reread those lines. In your own words, write down what these lines mean to you. Now share your interpretation with the others in your group.
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 Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.