Kirsten Learns a Lesson

Written by Janet Beeler Shaw; illustrated by Renee Graef

Published in 1986


It's now November 1854, and Kirsten is on her way to her first day of school at Powderkeg School. Even with her cousins to reassure her and tell her what to expect, Kirsten is nervous because she doesn't know English very well. The new teacher, Miss Winston, is strict and intimidates Kirsten. Miss Winston expects a lot of Kirsten, which Kirsten finds intimidating but also a challenge to rise to. Kirsten is especially worried about the assignment to memorize and recite a poem in front of the class.

While decompressing after school one day, Kirsten happens upon a Native American girl. Their initial meeting is brief, as both are nervous of each other. But they start leaving each other little gifts: a bead, a decorated doll cake made of mud (Kirsten and her cousins "feed" their dolls; Kirsten has a temporary replacement for Sari who's still in storage), a feather, a button, and other little treasures. After several days, Kirsten waits for the girl to appear, hoping to get to know her a little. Her patience pays off, and even though they don't speak the same language, they are able to communicate for a bit before both have to head home. They make a habit of meeting in the evening, and learn a bit of each other's languages. The girl is named Singing Bird, and calls Kirsten Yellow Hair (Kirsten has stereotypically blonde Scandinavian hair). Kirsten shows Singing Bird the secret fort, and Singing Bird invites Kirsten to visit her at her home. Knowing that most white people around her distrust the Native Americans, Kirsten keeps her friendship with Singing Bird a secret.

Kirsten is able to sneak away one morning before school and meet Singing Bird's friends and family, including her father Brave Elk, who speaks English. Talking with him makes Kirsten realize that she's learning more English than she thought: she never even attempted to speak Swedish to Singing Bird. 

Seeing how Singing Bird lives makes Kirsten want to have the freedoms her friend does, especially when Miss Winston comes to live with her cousins. Kirsten is upset that she'll have to speak English more at home now, too, and worried that she'll be embarrassed if Miss Winston reveals to her parents how much trouble she's having memorizing her poem. But her fears are quickly allayed when Miss Winston shows them all a model of her father's ship, and Kirsten is distracted enough to relax and talk about her journey to Minnesota. Miss Winston gives her a new poem about sailing, and Kirsten finds it much easier to memorize and recite.

But then, the next time she's able to meet with Singing Bird, Kristen learns that her friend is about to leave. Hunting is poor in the area, and Singing Bird and her tribe need food. Singing Bird wants Kirsten to come to, even calling her "Sister." Kirsten is torn, but can't leave her own family. Singing Bird agrees to search for Kirsten if she returns to the area.

Looking Back

The historical supplement talks about one-room schoolhouses and traveling pioneer teachers. If you've read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, it's basically that information (Wilder was born in the 1860s). If you haven't, you should consider doing so.


Like the first of the main six, this book is dedicated to the author's mother, Nadina Fowler. And autographed!


Anonymous said...

I love the name of the school. Powderkeg? That's just awesome.

SJSiff said...

I looked up "Powderkeg School" online to see if had any significance but couldn't find it. It's such a weird name!

Isabel Escalante said...

Powderkeg School is a neat name. I wonder how the writer came up with it.