Can her worst student teach her the most important lesson of all?
Back to school! Time to start the year with a
good attitude cautionary tale wacky scheme inspirational message epic wish-fulfillment fantasy slightly anachronistic feminist career romance!
Background: Scholastic’s Sunfire series is a cautionary tale about judging a YA Romance by its cover. Lurking behind the overheated cover art and melodramatic taglines are some of the best stories and most interesting heroines of the genre.
Sort of a historical counterpart to Scholastic’s Wildfire Romances, the series was authored by a handful of Scholastic regulars, such as Vivian Schurfranz and Willo Davis Roberts, and are formulaic, but reliably consistent in quality.
Each volume features a feisty 14-to-17 year old heroine facing an American historical crisis and the choice of two (or more) suitors. Spoilers: she’ll choose the one with the more progressive ideas about women’s rights.
While usually interesting and well-written, Sunfires can be formulaic, and are also noted for the alarming mortality rate for parents: if the heroine isn’t at least a half-orphan when the book opens, you can bet she will be by the end of chapter two.
In general, the longer, earlier books in the series focus on a general historical era, and the later, skinnier volumes use specific historic events as a backdrop, often dramatic disasters…
The Plot: …and Margaret is the exception to the rule, a “short” Sunfire not grounded in a particular event, but with plenty of historical perils for the young heroine!
Miner packs the details into Margaret Evan’s backstory: the daughter of a Merchant Marine, she was born in Ceylon, and after her parents’ deaths (of course!) she was sent to live with her nouveau-riche aunt and uncle in Chicago; now 15, she has decided to leave her life of luxury to teach school on the Nebraska frontier. Her aunt especially frets about her decision, convinced that Margaret is leaving because her cousin is moving back home after separating from her husband. Margaret tries to calm her aunt’s fears about going to live among “savages”:
“There are many teachers younger than I am,” Margaret said. “You read Mr. Wilson’s letter saying that last year’s teacher was only fourteen.”
Finally receiving her family’s blessing, Margaret travels by train to the remote outpost of Clarktown, where despite her sturdy constitution and cheerful attitude, she immediately faces a number of challenges.
She had arranged to board with the Wilsons, the president of the local schoolboard and his wife, who turn out to be an uptight, stingy couple who immediately raise the cost of her board a full dollar after she eats too many string beans at dinner.
She is also put into sole charge of her 32 students, ranging in age from 4 years old up to 16 year old Henry Clark, who is less than enthused about his education. Mr. Wilson is also less than supportive about her new-fangled ideas about “pedagogy”, ordering her to stick to the fundamentals, without any singing, games or nature lessons.
For the first week her students turn the classroom into a circus, with Henry as the ringleader. Finally, in desperation she pays a visit to the Clark farm, where she finds that Henry’s father thinks that education is a waste of time for farm children, and would just has soon have Henry at home working. She does find a possible ally in Henry’s hunky older brother, Robert, who believes that an education will be an advantage as farming becomes modernized.
Robert’s solution to accompany his brother to class every day, ostensibly to keep him in line, but soon reveals to Margaret that he left school after his mother’s death and now intends to get an education himself.
Margaret is skeptical, but soon begins to put aside her own prejudices:
Robert Clark was really very intelligent, she decided, though he was certainly uneducated.
Miner also slips in a subtle gender role-reversal, as Robert turns out to be invaluable as a calming influence on her students:
His comment about her not being able to handle her class was infuriating. Yet she couldn’t deny that the class was much better behaved after he arrived, although she had never seen him do or say anything to discipline the children.
Margaret also attracts the attention of the teacher from the neighboring town, a wealthy New Yorker named Gerald Moore, described as being “as pretty as a china doll” in comparison to the rugged Robert. Gerald initially proves to be most refined company (“Do you find that you miss the cultural enchantments of the city greatly?”) but also less-than-progressive on his views of women’s roles:
“I never knew what to say to the little ones. Teaching is natural for women, but we men must work much harder at it.
“Yes, I know that infant education is all the vogue with you young ladies, but I prefer the headier stuff, introducing algebra and Latin and Greek to my older students. It’s far more stimulating to a mind like mine.”
Margaret would have like to argue with Gerald. She had heard many times that teaching was “natural” to women, in fact, that was often the reason given for paying men three times as much salary for the same work…
Before the school breaks for Christmas, Margaret gets her first taste of a Nebraska winter, as a blizzard suddenly comes up on the planes, threatening to trap the students in school house. It is also a rare Sunfire historical gaffe, as Robert references the Schoolhouse Blizzard, in which a sudden prairie blizzard killed over 200 people, including a number of children trapped in one-room schoolhouses; that storm wouldn’t take place until 1888, two years after Margaret is set.
While the town families show up to claim their children throughout the day, Margaret and Robert work together to deliver the remaining children to distant farms, and Margaret gets stranded in town for two days, where she learns both that the townspeople are well aware of the Wilsons’ miserliness, and that Robert Clark is considered a paragon of the community; his family is also very wealthy.
When she returns to the Wilsons, Margaret informs them that she will be seeking new lodgings when she returns from Christmas vacation in Chicago, taking up residence with the widow Mary Whitaker, a 19 year old with three young stepchildren who attend Margaret’s school. She also learns that Mary is Robert Clark’s cousin by marriage, and the whole town assumes that he is courting her.
Margaret is happy to have a friend near her own age, and Mary is very appreciative the additional income Margaret’s rent provides her with: demure and old-fashioned, Mary is patiently waiting to remarry and have a husband to support her and the children.
Away from the Wilsons’ constant scrutiny, is also free to entertain Gerald on a regular basis… but is he courting Margaret or Mary?
The second old-timey disaster strikes in the form of an influenza epidemic that shuts down the school; out of a sense of duty, Margaret drives out to the Wilsons to check on them, finding them near-death. Against Mary’s pleas, she stays to disinfect the house and nurse them back to health.
As usual, Sunfire doesn’t pull any punches in describing the death and destruction of the epidemic, as the disease decimates the ranks of her students, including Henry Clark and Mary’s step-daughter, Ida. It is months before school is able to resume, and the rest of the year is a somber affair.
In the spring, Gerald resumes calling on the young women, although Margaret is starting to find him a bit of snob and eventually gets fed up with his constant mansplaining:
Gerald went to great lengths to tell them about exactly what Lucretia Mott, the women’s rights leader, was going to say when she came to town. He tried to make her sound ridiculous and Margaret was furious. Then he said, “At least we should be glad that it won’t be Miss Amelia Bloomer, because all the women would be decked out in those ridiculous trousers she tries to get our ladies to wear.”
Robert, obviously, thinks that it Gerald who is ridiculous:
“I believe you’re begging the question,” Gerald said. “I’m asking you what you would permit your wife to wear.”
Robert shook his head and then shrugged his shoulders, as though shrugging off a pesky fly. “When I have a wife, I hope she’ll have the good sense to pick out her own clothing.”
Gerald also makes the serious misstep of holding a phony séance, which seems deliberately cruel when Mary thinks she sees a vision of her dead husband and faints. Robert is not amused.
Margaret makes plans to attend Antioch College with Gerald over the summer, where she will take a course in early childhood education. She also uses the time to play matchmaker, leading Gerald (who has made up for the séance incident) to the natural conclusion that he should marry Mary and take her back to New York where he can provide luxurious life for her in his family’s banking business.
With Mary and Gerald engaged, Robert is now free from family obligation to support Mary, and now nothing can stop him from courting Margaret…
EXCEPT FOR THE PRAIRIE FIRE!
Yup, seven pages to go, there is still time for one more natural disaster to keep Robert and Margaret apart. Working together, they save the whole town, and Margaret thinks that if she can’t convince (a much mellower) Hiram Wilson that a married lady can be a school teacher, she’ll become professor or lecturer on the topic of women’s suffrage, with the full support of her husband.