“It was this way with many things, for there was no sure guide to go by. It was the beginning of experience. Of course no two settlers were working under the same conditions, and their methods differed… as they learned to overcome their own difficulties in their own way, uncertainty gave way to a good deal of confidence and self-reliance.”
In 1882, eight year old Don Alonzo Taylor’s family moved West. The Taylors joined twenty other families on the first train ever to go to North Dakota. In fact, the track terminated before they got all of the way into the area that they would settle. In his famous story Old Sam: Dakota Trotter, Lon (Don Alonzo) tells a fictionalized account of his real life childhood among the first North Dakota pioneers.
While this story prominently features a thoroughbred trotting horse who has had a career-ending injury, this is not exactly a horse story. It is more Little Britches than Come On, Seabiscuit. More Year of the Black Pony than Black Beauty. Horse lovers will probably appreciate the story, but even those who don’t care much about horse stories will probably appreciate the pioneering spirit of this book.
When John and Lee Scott’s family settles into their new Western life, the brothers have unparalleled freedom that does much to help shape their good character and ingenuity. Because their family was among the first to move to the area, there was no school and little by way of organized society life. The young boys would frequently leave the house after morning chores and not return until dinner. Hunting and hauling buffalo bones, they become intimately familiar with the charms and dangers of the still wild prairie. Modern readers may be shocked by the dangerous independence that the boys enjoyed but it is undeniable that it did much to serve the boys well.
This story was very good for family read aloud. There was just enough of something in it for everyone. The story is told as a first person account by John Scott. John and Lee are very likable characters who come off as being very authentic. My boys clearly identified with them and loved reading of their adventures. The story also gave our family more unique insight into the challenges of pioneer life and husbandry. While Mr. and Mrs. Scott are minor characters in the story, they are easy to like.
“We read everything we could get hold of. The train didn’t run for months, so our reading was confined to the books we and the neighbors had, but as most of them had brought along their best books, we had quite a circulating library. Of all of the famous authors, I like Sir Walter Scott the best. I didn’t care much for Dickens.”
The writing style of this story sounds like a coarse Louis L’Amour or an unpolished Ralph Moody. It has the tone of a cowboy but it lacks some of the beauty or musicality that L’Amour and Moody were famous for writing. For that reason, there were places where I found it challenging to read aloud with real excitement. On the other hand, there were places where the storytelling was so exciting that we couldn’t stop for breath. Perhaps a bit uneven, it is a highly entertaining story.
This is a great book for boys. My daughter enjoyed it (as did I), but it is just begging to be read by boys. We are regaled with details about hunting, guns, camping, trapping and other classic boyish fare. Bethlehem Books rates its reading level as a 4.4 (ages 10 and up) with a read aloud interest level of ages 6 and up. I think that is well scored. The chapters are long, the writing is mildly complex in places, the content is enjoyable, but takes some stamina to follow. My five year old son had no trouble appreciating it, but he is always “reading up” with us.
For parents who are concerned about violence or sadness, be at ease. The horse, Old Sam, is spared from a humane killing in the first few pages. There is a chapter in the middle of the book in which the boys shoot a wolf as it is attacking an antelope. Consistent with pioneer and prairie stories, hunting is a way of life and the chapter is descriptive without being graphic.
Horse lovers will delight in the final chapters. I won’t spoil except to say that I felt like I was reading something out of Ralph Moody’s Come On, Seabiscuit or Man of the Family.
I think that this book would be a great living book for anyone studying the pioneers. I also think that it would make a great gift or stocking stuffer for 8-12 year old boys. Wholesome, adventuresome, entertaining, and educational, this is a great book for families. The new audiobook is available at Audible and narrated by Joel Clarkson.