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“Hardscrabble”

By Sandra Dallas

c. 2018, Sleeping Bear Press

$15.95, $19.95 Canada; 255 pages

Life is hard. Even as a kid, you’ve got things to worry about: getting good grades, getting along with your teacher, making friends, making the team, dealing with Mean Girls, trying to be who you are. It isn’t easy – but as you’ll see in “Hardscrabble” by Sandra Dallas, things could be a whole lot worse.

The prairie was awfully flat.

From the train platform, 12-year-old Belle Martin could see for miles. It had been a long trip from Iowa, and she knew mama had missed papa. After they lost the farm in Ft. Madison and papa went to stake a claim in Colorado, they all missed him so. Now they had a new farm and a new home, and he’d sent for them: 15-year-old Carrie; Belle; 8-year-old Frank; Becky, Sarah, and Gully; Mama and a baby yet-unnamed, all waiting for Papa in Mingo, Colorado .

He was excited to see them, too, and happy to bring them to their new homestead on the prairie. He was extra-proud of the house he’d made of dirt, which he called a “soddy,” although Belle could tell that mama was disappointed but nobody said anything. Mama wasn’t feeling well, yet she and Carrie began cleaning their new home. Belle couldn’t stop thinking of the things they’d left behind in Iowa, which included all their Christmas decorations, Carrie’s piano, and a house with real floors.

But she couldn’t complain. Living on the prairie had its rewards.

The prairie sky was huge, fields were beautiful, there were places to play, and room to run. One of the neighbors gave Frank a pony and, though modern young ladies in 1910 didn’t have opportunities for such things, Belle dreamed of being a cowgirl. Mama had a big garden, and the family had even begun to make good friends of the neighbors who lived on homesteads nearby.

Still, it was a hardscrabble life, which sometimes meant disaster. A homesteader might have a good crop ruined by hail, or eaten by hungry grasshoppers. Poor soil could mean a bad harvest. Sickness could strike and doctors were hours away. Those were times when a homesteader found out just how helpful his neighbors really were …

Let’s just cut to the chase: your child is going to like “Hardscrabble.” It could be impossible, in fact, for her to resist this modern, updated “Little House on the Prairie” -like tale of hardship and homesteading, set in the not-long-ago – but don’t think that this is a tale of woe. The challenges of life in 1910 are not the focus here; instead, author Sandra Dallas takes real situations from early 20th-century American history – good, difficult, quaint, and fun - and weaves them matter-of-factly between characters that sparkle with relatability. Kids won’t get drama or sensationalism from this book, but they will get a sense of the way life just was.

For new generations of “Little House” fans and for their mothers who loved that series, too, “Hardscrabble” will quickly become a favorite. Getting your 8-to-13-year-old involved in this book truly shouldn’t be hard.

“Natural Causes”

By Barbara Ehrenreich

c. 2018, Twelve   

$27, $35 Canada; 256 pages

We all gotta go sometime. For most of us, that time is later: eight, nine decades of wringing out every last drop of life, if we’re lucky. A few tucks here, a little dye there, hours at the gym, smaller meals, and we might manage to get a year or two more – although, as Barbara Ehrenreich reminds in her new book “Natural Causes,” you can run from your own mortality, but you can’t hide.

Some time ago, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to forego most recommended medical tests. It wasn’t because she was feeling rebellious; instead, she thought that such tests seemed to be looking for problems that didn’t exist, with “overdiagnosis” as an end result. And besides, Ehrenreich decided, she was “old enough to die.”

The fact of the matter is, we all are. The freedom to acknowledge that, and to reject panicked unnecessaries concerning our health, “is worth celebrating.”

It all begins before we’re even born, in what Ehrenreich calls “rituals.” Until the 1970s, for example, women gave birth in positions more convenient to their doctors, and they did it without question; before that, laboring mothers were often rendered unconscious to have their babies. The tide turned, in part, because women were empowered enough to start demanding change.

Yes, Ehrenreich admits, there are many good reasons to have vaccines, tests, screenings, and exams – but there are many good reasons not to. Some cancers, especially those that hit elder patients hardest, are slow-growing enough that it’s safer not to treat them. Going for a full head-to-toe physical may make you feel better, but that doesn’t guarantee that a problem won’t crop up a week after you’ve had one. Some treatments, she says, can even backfire, and make things worse.

Okay, so you’ll just self-monitor, try to eat right, and stay active, then.  Sure. But remember one thing …

says Ehrenreich “Many of the people who got caught up in the health ‘craze’ …  –  people who exercised, watched what they ate, abstained from smoking and heavy drinking – have nevertheless died.”

And there you have it: author Barbara Ehrenreich’s book is not so much an anti-medical-establishment treatise. Though not always complimentary about medicine in general, she’s balanced. She’s not against healthy lifestyles at all. Instead, “Natural Causes” is more of a reminder that you can rant, wail, avoid “junk food,” and exercise until your muscles scream, and you’re still not getting out alive.

Even so, reading this book will make you see your body in a different light. Ehrenreich writes about cutting-edge science and in doing so, makes the human body seem like a cellular-level Ninja Warrior. That total badness can work quietly, unseen, against us, as researchers recently discovered to their horror, which proves the whole premise of this book: when it comes to our health, we only think we can control it.

Yeeks, that’s a sobering idea but it’s softened by wry humor and fascinating, eyebrow-raising info that’s irresistible. For science geeks, the health conscious, and anyone who dreams of immortality, “Natural Causes” is a book you gotta go get.

More: The Bookworm: The lovelorn, seeking advice and adventure

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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