To the Discussion Leader
A Fine Start is the third book in which nine-year-old Meg Wells tells of her experiences moving from the city of St. Louis to the Wild West Kansas Territory of 1856. In her first two diaries, As Far As I Can See and For This Land, Meg introduced young readers to the Underground Railroad and the increasingly violent fight over whether Kansas would be declared a free state or allow slavery. That bitter battle earned her new home the title of "Bleeding Kansas." The battle took its toll on the Wells family as Meg's father is shot and her uncle is jailed. Meg yearns for the peace of St. Louis.
In book three, A Fine Start, the battles over slavery subside for a bit and Meg's focus changes to adapting to her new Kansas home. Claim jumpers threaten the family homestead and twisters level cabins and bring death to friends. But, these sorrows are countered with the joys of new marriages, the hopeful cries of newborn babies, a school for Meg, and a special house for the Wells family.
As Meg celebrates her tenth birthday, she is a bit wiser having witnessed life's peaks and valleys. Still, with renewed optimism and dreams for her future in Kansas, Meg Wells basks in the love of her extended family — healthy and happy survivors all.
"Now K.T. seems more like home," writes nine-year-old Meg at the beginning of her third diary. It is December of 1856, and for six months, Meg and her family have been living with their relatives. Meg has gotten used to farm life. She helps milk the cow, makes candles with her cousin George, and enjoys visits with her best friend Lily Vanbeek. The girls look forward to going to the new school in the nearby town of Lawrence.
During the recent war against the Border Ruffians, Uncle Aubert was captured by pro-slavery soldiers and put in prison. Meg's father was shot in the shoulder, and his arm hasn't healed well. Father worries that he won't be able to build a cabin on his claim, something he must do in order to keep the land.
When Dr. Baer tells Father that his wounded arm will never be useful, he decides to give up the claim and move the family to town, announcing, "a one-arm man can run a business." They move to a "ready made house," three stories tall, where Father will open a store on the ground floor. Although Meg is sad to leave Aunt Margaret, Uncle Aubert and her cousins, she's excited about living in town and being closer to school.
The family settles in, plants a garden, and anticipates the spring marriage of their friend Hannah Peach and Theo Vanbeek, Lily's oldest brother. The wedding is a huge, happy occasion made more special when the preacher also marries Dr. Baer and Hannah's aunt, Miss Peach.
Less than a month later, a tornado hits the area. A falling tree kills young Will Vanbeek, another of Lily's brothers. Uncle Aubert's farm is destroyed, and they must move in with Meg's family in town. Meg celebrates the entire family living together again, but mourns the death of Will. "So much terrible sadness and so much happiness, all in the same day." Soon after, Meg's tenth birthday comes, and she recalls how different this birthday is from her ninth one celebrated in St. Louis. A lot has happened in a year. With her family all around her and special gifts to treasure, Meg concludes her journal, "My birthday is off to a fine start."
Thinking About the Book
- In the Historical Note at the end of Meg's diary it says, "The Civil War did not officially break out until 1861, but in 1856 in Kansas Territory, the fighting had already started." What does this statement mean? Why had fighting broken out in the Kansas Territory?
- How does Meg get her pony, Sally, back? What trick does she learn for controlling Sally?
- What is a claim jumper? The book mentions two ways these people try to take another person's land. What methods did they use?
- Why does Meg's father decide to sign his claim over to a claim jumper?
- Read Meg's description of the new school she attends (April 2, 1857 entry). How is her classroom different from yours?
- Explain what the following terms mean and why they are important in Meg's diary.
*Gold Seekers' Trail
- What prompted Theo to ask Hannah Peach to marry him?
- Read Meg's other two diaries, As Far As I Can See and For This Land . Why do you think this one is called A Fine Start ?
- Meg and her friends made "charm strings" by stringing buttons on strong thread. They collected buttons and traded them with each other. What kinds of friendship crafts have you and your friends made? Try making a charm string. How many different buttons can you collect?
- Paper was so scarce that letters were often "cross-written." Read Meg's first diary entry in the book to see what this letter was like. Try your hand at writing a cross-written letter to another person in class. Exchange your letters and see if you can read what each of you wrote.
- Tornadoes happen often in Kansas and other Midwestern states. What should you do if a tornado has been sighted in your area? Read about tornadoes on the FEMA website and share your findings with the class.
- Meg and her friends mention two games they play: "I Spy" and "Drop the Handkerchief." If you had to teach Meg and her friends two new games you and your friends enjoy, what games would you teach her?
- One of the things Meg and George do is make candles. With some adult help, try your hand at making candles using these directions .
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.