I first heard about Pam Conrad at a Highlights Foundation weeklong workshop for children’s writers in Chautauqua, New York in 1998. People still grieved her death of breast cancer two years before that had come much too soon when she was only 48. Many remembered her support of the workshops and of beginning writers. The Highlights Foundation honored her by naming one of its endowment funds for her. The endowment interest supplies scholarship money for writers to attend their very excellent workshops.
Her name came up again recently in a recommendation from Kimberly Willis Holt for Pam’s book Prairie Songs. I decided it was time for me to check “read Pam Conrad” off my To Read List. Besides the gripping story, I found much to learn from her writing.
Her beginning will go in my collection of good first lines: “The prairie was like a giant plate, stretching all the way to the sky at the edges. And we were like two tiny peas left over from dinner, Lester and me.”
I empathized with her protagonist Louisa in her effort to give Lester the silent treatment since that revenge method is lost to me for the same reason: “But it was too hard, and too hot to keep all those words inside with that sun beating down on me like hard rain.”
She mastered the art of depositing the reader in her setting without giving a long description: “I watched Mrs. Berryman stand and walk to the window. I knew what she would see, gazing out that way, through the deep window. Nothing. Clear nothing for miles and miles.”
And look at the information and emotion packed into one incomplete sentence: “Our soddy with the flour-sack curtains, the flowers on the roof, and the two magazines under my cot.”
The powerful book is not for those who need cheering up since the reality of a hard life that only gets more and more difficult draws her readers in until the sadness becomes theirs. It is for those who admire words into sentences into paragraphs that transport the reader into another life. It is for those who appreciate an ending that satisfies but carries little promise of “happily ever after.”
I finished the book with longing for Louisa to have a better life, sadness that Pam Conrad had such a short time to add to the canon of children’s literature, and gratitude to Kimberly for reminding me that I needed to read Pam’s work.