Timed Out: Little Blog on the Prairie by Cathleen Davitt Bell
Week 1 - Monday 11:16 am
I am standing in the middle of a cornfield.
I am holding a hoe. We are farmers now.
Here's the thing: being a farmer is BORING. I am halfway down one row: there are ten rows to go, and it's already taken TWO HOURS.
Jen Welsh expects the summer before high school to be great--soccer camp, hanging out with Ashley and Kristin around the neighborhood pool, maybe a resort week at Club Med before school starts. But her mom has decided the family needs to "grow closer" and they are off to Camp Frontier in Wyoming to live like pioneers for two months--it's Little House on the Prairie all over again. The only consolation is that her mom buys Gen her own phone and promises that that she'll have it--after the two months are over.
But Gen sneaks the phone into Camp Frontier and starts texting her friends a running account of the indignities of living like the Ingalls family. She has to wear a long-sleeved gingham dress and petticoats over pantaloons, pantaloons with a slit in the seat. Not that that helps when she has to sit on a slimy wooden seat in a smelly, damp privy.
And her mom, heretofore a dedicated gourmet cook, has her dreams of whipping up hardy frontier delicacies dashed by the provision list--pretty much beans and cornmeal--and the iron stove which requires an infinite supply of chopped and hauled wood. If they want anything else to eat before scurvy sets in, the family has to toil in their garden, a motley assortment of baby plants a long way from a healthy harvest, and in their acres and acreas of tiny corn plants fighting a losing battle with the weeds. Their chickens Daisy and Pumpkin attack them every time they go outside, and Gen realizes that among her other chores--hauling water, hoeing in the field, and washing clothes by hand--she is now the milkmaid for the family cow.
Her tutor in all these retro chores is the definitely supercilious Nora, know-it-all daughter of the camp managers Ron and Betsy, who soon becomes Gen's rival for the attentions of the hunky Caleb from the next cabin over. And Gen's mom turns out to be no Caroline Ingalls in the kitchen or at the washboard either, and her dad, who is fairly intimidated by all animals, including the chickens, becomes obsessed with cutting down all the trees for at least an acre around their cabin so he can spot approaching bears.
And then Gen makes a surprising discovery: hidden away in the woods is a small log structure with--amazingly--solar panels on the roof. Peering through the tiny window, Gen spots Nora in the comfy carpeted and air-conditioned room, typing away on a computer, listening to an iPod (Gen's confiscated iPod at that!) and happily sipping a Diet Coke from the mini-fridge in plain view. Whoa! Game-changing information here!
Gen sneaks back when no one is there and "borrows" a little of that forbidden electricity to recharge her dead phone, and when all the teenagers at Camp Frontier learn that there's a place to recharge their own phones and music players, Nora is forced to make a deal, buying silence from the kids in return for Cokes and time on the grid. But then Nora's Dad claims to have found Gen's phone on the charger, and the Welsh family is faced with expulsion before a court of their peers, the other frontier camping families. Jen has a moral decision to make--whether she wants to keep quiet to cover for the other kids, or tell all, revealing the hypocrisy behind Ron and Betsy's dual lives as well.
Cathleen Davitt Bell's Little Blog on the Prairie (Bloomsbury, 2010) is a realistic look at family dynamics under pressure from the viewpoint of a teen in full eye-roll mode. The kicker in the plot is that Gen's texts to her friend become part of Ashley's summer computer class assignment: Ashley starts a blog of Gen's hilarious experiences which goes viral, and unknown to her Gen is fast becoming a media sensation back in her own century.
Gen is a wonderful character, honest and humorous, as she describes the trials of leaving the twenty-first century behind for the nineteenth--sleeping in a narrow bed with her little brother, dealing with chicken poo, cow doo, and stinky, bean-encrusted clothes while she vies for the attention of the handsome and amiable Caleb. The manner in which her distracted family comes together to deal with the contrast between primitive life on the edge and becoming famous in the outside world makes for an engaging and perhaps thought-provoking read for 'tweens. As School Library Journal's reviewer says, "This fast read is humorous and insightful, with realistic characters that are refreshingly well rounded. Bell has captured a 13-year-old's voice, making Gen's unlikely situation feel very real."