Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Review: Prairie Dog Cowboy

image One of the challenges we face in getting kids interested in history is the way it's typically taught in school. Forced to memorize dry facts and dates that have little meaningful context, it's hard for children to relate to the lives of the people who shaped our present. I remember thinking, as an adult, that Washington and Lincoln would have been so much more interesting to me if I could have seen them as real and ordinary human beings - people who made good and bad choices that led to them becoming the people they were, and people who had relationships with family and friends. You only get that in later years - often, you don't get it until college or beyond, when you learn that the cardboard cut-out figures who passed for "great men and women of history" were, in fact, made of flesh and blood and bone. The few stories that deal with historical figures as young people are mostly nonsense and parable. But that's not to say that even very young readers don't enjoy history or historical fiction. My daughter was a reluctant reader - a good reader, but curling up with a book wasn't her idea of fun. I asked her, once, if she'd prefer fantasy - which is what her teachers assumed children wanted to read - or "stories about real people doing real things." Her face lit up. "Stories about real people doing real things!" she answered.

Vivian Zabel, a retired teacher, author, and publisher, has a special interest in reaching reluctant readers - especially boys, as there never seem to be enough books designed to appeal to them.

Prairie Dog Cowboy, by V. Gilbert Zabel, is the story of a hard-working boy growing up in "No Man's Land" on the cusp of statehood - in the region that would come to be known as the Oklahoma Panhandle. Most kids today can't even imagine working on a ranch from sunup to sundown, in addition to doing chores that put "take out the trash" to shame. In Prairie Dog Cowboy, young readers who have grown up thinking of school as a chore get a whole new perspective on it. On the turn-of-the-century frontier, school is a privilege and a bit of a luxury. School didn't happen until all the farming and ranching work was done, and then a kid had to be willing to put in more effort towards reading and writing. An education might enable them to manage their own land or business one day - it might let them support a family of their own. But even if that notion is hard for today's kids to grasp, they can relate to the story of a little boy who has thoughts and feelings and dreams and frustrations just like theirs.

Four year old Buddy Roberts herds his father's cows and calves on foot, even in winter. He works hard, especially after his father's stroke leaves him incapacitated, even as his brother Jake is coddled and treated like a little prince. His mother makes it clear to Buddy: he's meant to work with his back, while Jake is destined for college and a better, easier life. Buddy likes working, though, and dreams of becoming a cowboy. He practices his lassoing skills on prairie dogs - something Jake's friends Hulmet and Ross find hilariously funny. They take every opportunity to taunt and torment the boy. 

Buddy's efforts impress the neighboring rancher, Caleb Hyman, and he begins to mentor and encourage the child, eventually becoming like a father to the child who struggles to understand why his mother dislikes him. Caleb's children become Buddy's closest friends, and the nearest thing to family that he's ever known. Plucky little Katie Hyman is particularly attached to the young man, but one wonders if it would take whacking himself in the head against a stable rafter to make him see the young woman she's becoming. As Buddy grows to be a young man, he faces some tough choices in how to deal with others - he could succumb to bitterness and resentment; he could exact revenge on his brother's bullying friends; or he follow the example set by his employer and friend, Caleb Hyman. There are unexpected rewards and heartbreaks along the way. There is also plenty of action and adventure when Buddy, who loves animals, discovers he has a talent for breaking horses. Life on a ranch is never easy: Buddy faces a chilling blizzard, a coyote attack, and near death at the edge of a cliff.

Author Vivian G. Zabel The only real question I had for Vivian Gilbert Zabel when I finally turned the last page in Prairie Dog Cowboy was, "When do I get to read the sequel?" Because there has to be a sequel; I've come to care for all the characters in the story, and I'm not ready to close the curtain and trust that they all live happily ever after. I know that the author has more Buddy stories up her sleeve; after all, she's been married to the inspiration behind the tales for nearly fifty years. She has long dreamed of incorporating her husband Robert's stories of working on his family's farm, becoming a cowboy, and learning to break horses into a novel for young readers. Prairie Dog Cowboy begins what I hope will be the first of many such books from Zabel.

This book is available at Amazon and directly through 4RV Publishing, LLC. It is an excellent book for boys.


Prairie Dog Cowboy Tour Schedule

Be sure to leave a comment below. At the end of the tour, four people's names will be drawn from comments left at the stops of the tour, and each will receive a 4RV canvas bag. In case you missed a stop along the way, the full schedule is as follows:

February 15:

Ransom Noble

Carolyn Howard-Johnson

February 16:

Beverly Stowe McClure

Jennifer Nipps

February 17 :

Nancy Famolari

Joy Delgado 2 blogs and

February 18:


Rena Jones and

February 19 :

Malcolm R. Campbell

Chris Speakman

February 20:

Joyce Anthony

Nikki Shoemaker

February 21 (Welcome, everyone!):

Holly Jahangiri

And don't miss the final wrap-up at Vivian's blog on February 22:

Vivian Zabel