To the Discussion Leader
Meg Wells is nine years old in 1856 and living in the Kansas Territory. In her first diary, As Far As I Can See
, she tells the gripping story of leaving home in St. Louis to escape the cholera epidemic. Meg's mother, stricken with the disease, sends her children to Kansas to live with their aunt and uncle. On the journey, Meg learns more about the evils of slavery and the hope offered by conductors on the Underground Railroad. Now settled in Kansas, Meg is joined by her mother and father. Readers are placed squarely in "Bleeding Kansas" where the pro-slavery Ruffians confront the anti-slavery Free-State Militia that includes Meg's father and uncle. In discussing this book, Kate McMullan, the author of Meg's diaries recalls her elementary school fascination with biographies of people in American history. "I loved reading the letters and diaries of the pioneers who settled in the Kansas Territory in the 1850s. I loved them even more than biographies of well-known historical figures because they were about real people — everyday people — like us. These pioneers told so many wonderful stories and included so many strange and unexpected details."
About For This Land: Meg's Prairie Diary
the author says, "My aim in writing this diary was to see if I could put nine-year-old Meg Wells into some of these pioneer stories to bring the history to life for today's readers." Kate McMullan succeeds admirably in her goal, and young readers are the beneficiaries.
"I am a St. Louis girl. I will never be a prairie girl. Oh, how I long to go home!" That is how nine-year-old Meg Wells feels after living for less than two months in Kansas Territory (K.T.). It is the summer of 1856, and Meg and her brother Pres, living with their aunt and uncle, are happy that Mother and younger sister Grace have joined them. But the heat, prairie fires, sickness, and mosquitoes have made life difficult. Worse is the constant fear of attack by the Border Ruffians, pro-slavery men who are intent on K.T. becoming a slave state. The Free-State Militia, the men who oppose slavery, is greatly outnumbered by Ruffians. When Father arrives from St. Louis, Meg feels safer, but when he and Uncle Aubert ride off to nearby Lawrence to fight with the Free State Militia, Meg again feels uneasy. To help out and to get their minds off their worries, Meg, Aunt Margaret, and Mother sew a flag to use to signal the Militia if the Ruffians are seen marching toward the town. Meg and her cousin George make bullets, and the women and children help refugee families from Lawrence and runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.
As the Ruffians come nearer, the families evacuate their homes and head for the woods near Blue Mound, the signal hill. As thousands of what appear to be Ruffians are seen marching toward Lawrence, the flag is raised, and the Free-State Militia fires their cannon. After a wild and confusing night involving a thunderstorm that has people and animals hiding out together, word comes that United States soldiers have been called out to chase the Ruffians home. Meg writes, "I still want to go back to St. Louis, but life here in K.T., certainly is exciting."
The family returns to their cabin to find Ruffians have ransacked it. Father returns, wounded, and with news that Uncle Aubert has been arrested and thrown in prison by pro-slavery men in a nearby town. Father becomes weak and feverish from his infected gunshot wound. Fortunately the family's old friend from St. Louis, Dr. Baer, arrives and removes the bullet, and Father gets better.
The community celebrates the end of the Ruffian threat with a huge Thanksgiving dinner. Meg finds out that her parents have staked a claim for land in K.T. She is not quite sure how she feels, but she realizes "We can never go back to St. Louis. So I am no longer a St. Louis girl." She thinks of all she would miss is she did go back and decides, after all she's experienced, that now she is "surely a prairie girl." Thinking About the Book
- Who are the Ruffians? How do they differ from the Free-State men?
- Explain why Aunt Margaret hollowed out a log; placed her valuables inside; and put the log in the fireplace. What happens to the gold watch, the silver brooch, and rolled up banknotes?
- What is your reaction to Mrs. Briggs? What are your reasons for feeling this way?
- In August Meg writes that she helped George make bullets by melting lead and pouring it into a mold. In October she writes that she will never make another bullet as long as she lives. Why?
- When Dr. Baer, Miss Peach, and Hannah arrive at Meg's home she notices Hannah Peach has lost her rosy cheeks; her hands are red; and she is thin. What happened to Dr. Baer and the Peaches?
- Explain what the following terms mean and why they are important in Meg's diary:
*Emigrant Aid Society
- How did the Free-State men capture the cannon stolen by the Ruffians?
- Why did Meg and her family prepare a huge Thanksgiving dinner and charge two dollars each for neighbors to come and eat? For what purpose was the money to be used?
- Meg's father tells her that Mr. Vanbeek was "…brave not to fight in the war." Why does her father say this, and what is Meg's reaction?
- In 1861 when Kansas became a state, was slavery allowed?
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.
- How was Meg's life on the prairie different from her life in St. Louis? Make a chart or Venn diagram to compare and contrast her two lives. Which one do you think is better?
- The flag that Meg and her family design and sew for the Free-State Militia plays an important role in the fight between the militia and the Ruffians. Now that you know what the Free-State Militia believe in, get your discussion group to design a flag that represents the militia.
- The Vanbeek family are members of the Quaker faith. Theo tells Meg they do not believe in slavery nor do they believe in fighting. In your discussion group prepare a presentation for the rest of the class on the Quaker religion.
- One food Meg often mentions in her diary is johnnycakes. With the help of some adults, make a batch of johnnycakes and share them with your group. Do they taste as you thought they would? Why were they also called journey cakes?