Prairie River Series
When Scholastic invited me to write a historical series about a young Christian orphan who tries to live out her faith, I was excited for the challenge. So I created fourteen-year-old Nessa Clemens who becomes a runaway bride then a schoolteacher on the 1865 Kansas prairie, after the end of the Civil War. The response from readers has been thunderous and deeply gratifying. I'm thrilled to think that Nessa's journey of faith has inspired so many in their walk with Christ.
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Prairie River #1: A Journey of Faith
In 2001 Scholastic invited me to write a four-book paperback series for their new Christian imprint, Little Shepard. Their only guidelines were that the main character be an orphan girl in the Midwest, a schoolteacher perhaps, who overcomes hardships through her faith. They wanted her to be "Nessa," short for Vanessa because some of the editors had recently seen the film "Mrs. Dalloway" starring Vanessa Redgrave and they liked the name. So Nessa it was.
Summary: Nessa can't remember a home other than the orphanage, and now she has no choice but to leave. Her plan is to escape on the next stagecoach west--one headed toward Prairie River, Kansas, a town in the middle of nowhere. When Nessa arrives at the small settlement, she has no money and nowhere to go. Worst of all, she is alone. The townspeople are suspicious of her. They see her as a newcomer with no family and no past. Nessa is about to learn that life on the prairie is hard -- it's a trial of her strength and her faith as a Christian.
[excerpt]: In a panic, Nessa hurried down the steps and ran to the depot, afraid to look behind her. Lifting her skirts so she wouldn't trip, she rounded the corner of the blacksmith's corral. Torches made an oasis of light on the dark street.
The stagecoach she'd seen yesterday waited there with a team of six horses. Their breath made steam in the air. A man threw a mail sack onto its roof, wedging it among some trunks. Nessa slowed to a walk, trying to look confident.
Is it a sin to fun away from a betrothal? she wondered.
Prairie River #2: A Grateful Harvest
I set this series at Fort Larned on the Santa Fe Trail so interesting characters could come and go, and in a familiar time frame: just after the Civil War and President Lincoln's assassination.
Summary: It hasn't been easy for Nessa to find her place in Prairie River. She is having difficulty making friends, and her position as the local teacher is on shaky ground. Many townspeople still question whether she, a runaway orphan, can be trusted. Nessa struggles to keep a positive outlook despite the scrutiny. But when an unexpected threat endangers her and her students, she must find a way to keep the children safe. With so much at risk she must dispel all the doubts that have been plaguing her--most of all her own.
[excerpt]: As Nessa led her students out the door, a roar of wind filled the air with dense smoke. It stung her eyes and choked her. She could no longer see the tall flag flying from Fort Larned. In order to reach town they would have to run through the cloud. Already she and the children were coughing and wiping their eyes. With growing alarm, she realized the fire might pass between the fort and schoolhouse, blocking their way home.
Prairie River #3: Winter Tidings
My mother and I flew to Wichita, Kansas, rented a car and drove to Fort Larned where a "living museum" put me smack in the 1860s. Nine historic buildings surround the parade ground where the Stars and Stripes fly from a 99-foot tall flagpole, a proud sight from miles around. The barracks, blacksmith, general store, and officers' quarters with lace curtains and velvet chairs are a snapshot from soldier days.
Nessa's setting came alive. I studied historic records and journals about winters on the prairie.
Summary: Nessa is feeling at home in Prairie River until one blustery night. Reverend McDuff arrives unexpectedly at the Lockett's door. At once Nessa's hopes of leaving her past behind are shattered. She had told only Ivy and Mrs. Lockett her secret--her reason for fleeing Missouri. Now the whole town will find out. Nessa keeps remembering that Albert had promised to warn her if the reverend headed west, but she hasn't heard a word from her dear friend. Now she will have to face Reverend McDuff on her own. In what promises to be a long and fierce winter, Nessa must be stronger than ever.
[excerpt]: Within minutes, the storm became a tempest, filling the sky with blowing snow. The thick sod walls of the schoolhouse held fast, but the windows rattled and leaked cold air. The sills were two feet wide, which was where Nessa leaned on her elbows to watch the barn.
The wolves were still there. Whether or not they were rabid or just hungry didn't matter to Nessa. Rolly and Howard were trapped in the barn without a fire to warm themselves, and without any food. She felt desperate knowing there was nothing she could do.
Prairie River #4: Hope Springs Eternal
I had never been to the prairie before. It was beautiful. Grasses rolling in the wind reminded Mom and me of the ocean and when morning fog shrouded our hotel, we fully expected to hear waves. As usual I scoured gift shops, this time adding music to my research. The soundtrack to Ken Burns' documentary, Civil War, evoked emotion and images I would weave into Nessa's stories.
Summary: Nessa's winter was fraught will bitter trials. But now the promise of spring has come to Prairie River--and so has Albert. Albert is Nessa's oldest friend from the orphanage. She had prayed that he would join her in Kansas ever since she journeyed to the small, remote town a year ago. But a year is a long time, and Nessa is discouraged when Albert's arrival is not what she had imagined. Things are different between them, and Nessa must reconcile the changes if she has any hope that their old friendship will bloom into something new.
[excerpt]: The letter lay on Nessa's trunk, unopened. Two days had passed since Rolly delivered it to her and it seemed as if a third might also. She couldn't bear to face the inevitable news.
At some point she would need to make a decision. Either go find her brothers and family or stay in Prairie River.