Meet Kirsten

Written by Janet Beeler Shaw; illustrated by Renee Graef

Published in 1986


The book opens on a ship crossing the Atlantic to America in July 1854. It's been more than two months since they left Europe, and land is finally in sight. Kirsten Larson, a nine-year-old Swedish girl, is anxious to set feet on dry land and to enjoy fresh food, new sights, and solid ground. Twenty other families are on the boat, including her mother and father, her older brother Lars (Lars Larson!) and younger brother Peter, and her best friend Marta and Marta's parents. They soon land in New York, and after a brief but terrifying moment when Kirsten--who speaks no English--gets separated from her family in the city, they head out for Minnesota, where Kirsten uncle Olav, aunt Inger, and cousins Anna and Lisbeth live.

Kirsten and Marta are separated as their families continue their journeys, but are hopeful they will meet again as Marta's family is also heading to Minnesota. The girls are thrilled to end up at the same boarding house in Chicago, and even happier that they'll be on the same riverboat to traverse the Mississippi River. But Marta contracts cholera, and the awful, dignity-robbing disease kills her in under forty-eight hours.

Shortly after Marta's death, the Larsons depart the boat in Maryville, MN, near Olav and Inger's farm. It's a grey, rainy day, and Kirsten is still grieving the loss of her friend. The family has only enough money to store their things, not enough to rent a horse and wagon. So they have to leave most of their wordly belongings in Maryville and walk almost all day to Olav and Inger's. Kirsten has to leave her rag doll Sari, who has been a security item of sorts during the journey. Since Kirsten and Marta played together with their dolls on the trip, Kirsten's probably very sentimental about Sari too. The Larsons trudge along Minnesota, carrying what they can. Finally, they see the farm, and the cousins come running to greet them. Kirsten is shy at first, but quickly feels welcomed. The book ends the next morning, with Anna and Lisbeth showing Kirsten their special hidden fort in the woods behind the farm.

Looking Back

The historical supplement gives information about the waves of immigrants that came to the United States from Europe in the mid-1800s, looking for a new and better life. Many of them were poor, and the farmland often couldn't grow enough to support their families (like with the Irish Potato Famine). They usually crossed the Atlantic not on passenger boats, but ships that happened to be crossing with other supplies. People were crammed into the extra space. Crossing would take at least six weeks, in a time before refrigeration and plumbing. Once off the boat, the immigrants would hope to find an honest travel agent to help them navigate the new country. But they were willing to risk the dangers for the promise the New World held.


I bought the set of Kirsten books used off eBay or Craigslist, and this one is autographed by the author!

Marta's death still makes me choke up. I am so grateful that we live in a time of vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals, IVs, and proper plumbing. While cholera still exists, especially in areas where clean water is difficult to find, it's not at the epidemic levels it was around the time of this book. And other diseases are on their way out: there are now fewer than three hundred reported cases of polio each year, and smallpox is extinct in the wild (a few samples remain to help create vaccines just in case).

The book is dedicated to the author's mother, Nadina Fowler.


Anonymous said...

I liked this one, mostly because my family came from Sweden and settled in Minnesota so it reminded me a lot of my own roots.

SJSiff said...

That's really cool!