Left by Themselves by Charles Paul May

Charles Paul May seems to have written a dozen or so informational books for children in the 1960s and 70s, but not even Wikipedia knows anything about him now. Left by Themselves was originally titled Stranger in the Storm. In this book, May is still teaching, but by means of a short work of fiction.

In 1850, on a farm in Iowa, two girls, 8 and 10, spend a couple of days (nearly) on their own during a blizzard. At the beginning of the story, Adella, the younger girl, thinks she sees a bear running through the orchard. Rhoda, the ten-year-old, knows that all the bears are in hibernation, so Adella must have been imagining the bear. Shortly after the girls find themselves stranded at Adella’s house, two men come to the farm searching for a runaway slave named Tall Tom. At the time, the girls don’t connect the “bear” sighting with the large black man the men are seeking.

Left by Themselves was published in 1972, and was another of my many Scholastic Book Club buys when I was in grade school. I remember enjoying the story, but hadn’t read it for a very long time. It came to mind when I was considering literature selections for a class I’m teaching this school year for four students, ages 6, 8, 9, and 11. Though we divided the book into three sections for the class, my re-pre-read took me only about an hour. This photo shows an example of the spare ink illustrations, a sample of the reading level, and a hint of the mildew in my 47-year-old paperback (I don’t care, I’m keeping it!).

Though the two main characters are girls, I thought the boys in my class would be able to imagine themselves in a similar predicament and enjoy it as well as the girls could. They did.

Reading the story now, I can see that May deliberately adds elements in order to illustrate life in the mid-1800s for his young readers. The girls try to shovel a path to the barn so they can take care of the cows. Rhoda realizes they had better make a stop at the outhouse before they go back to the house, but they can’t get the door open. Adella, for some reason, doesn’t know what they’ll do, but Rhoda looks under the bed and finds the slop jar. She shows Adella how to empty it by tossing the contents off the back porch, and cautions her not to throw it into the wind.

Before Adella’s mother leaves for town, she suggests that Adella may get to play with Rhoda’s cornhusk doll. I asked my students to watch a video on how to make a cornhusk doll, and one girl made her own family of them.

Photo by Theresa Miller, used by permission.

Other subjects for discussion were: predicting the weather by the behavior of animals, hypothermia, making hominy, and the Fugitive Slave Law. At the beginning of the story, the girls don’t think they like each other. We talked about conflict, and how the girls learn to understand each other better.

The most important question was, “What would you do?” Rhoda believes that she would report a runaway slave to the men who are after him because it’s the law. Adella says she won’t do it, especially after the runaway helps them. May works out the story in such a way that neither girl has to lie, but what if you had to decide whether to give up the slave or lie about him?

There isn’t much time for building suspense in the approximately 80 pages of this book. The girls only spend two nights alone. The author’s intention isn’t to cause children to worry about whether the girls will survive, but to make them think about what it would be like to live through such an experience. It is an interesting and enjoyable story for early-grade readers.


  1. Melissa Diskin says:

    I saw the illustration and thought “it reminds me of Flambards” …. And yes, it’s the same illustrator! Incredibly prolific, and awarded the Kate Greenaway medal, among other honors. The book list of his works looks worth diving into! https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Ambrus

    1. Diane Pendergraft says:

      Cool! I’m not familiar with any work by Ambrus.

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