Tag Archives: black-eyed susan

Day 101 – A Book for Black-Eyed Susan

Sunday April 10 was National Sibling Day in the U.S., and we marked the occasion with a touching story about family ties and the abiding connection between sisters. “A Book for Black-Eyed Susan” by Judy Young and Doris Ettlinger is a poignant work of historical fiction that manages at once to be heartbreaking and inspirational. The pages are filled with gorgeous watercolor illustrations that capture candid snapshots of pioneer life and panoramic views of the Great Plains.susan

As Ms. Young tells us in her Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, traveling on the Oregon Trail was not easy for the pioneers. Many families faced separation and one in every seventeen people died at some point along the journey west. Ten-year-old Cora must cope with tragedy on the very first page of the story when her mother dies giving birth to her little sister. Cora and her Pa rely on assistance from Cora’s Aunt Alma to care for the little baby, for whom Cora suggests the name Susan – inspired by her little sister’s black eyes and the Black-Eyed Susans which were her mother’s favorite flowers. One stormy day while Cora is inside the wagon taking cover from the rain, she pulls out her mother’s sewing box. Looking through the collection of scraps, Cora is reminded of experiences from her life in Missouri, of her extended family whom they had to leave behind, and of her mom. Realizing Susan will never know these precious memories, Cora decides that she will sew the scraps into a cloth book – a tangible bridge to the past for her little sister to better understand where she came from. When Cora’s Pa explains to her one day that he has asked Aunt Alma and Uncle Lee to raise Susan, Cora is heartbroken; Susan will be heading off to California, while Cora and her father will continue on to Oregon. Suddenly, Cora’s project takes on a new urgency, as she frantically works to complete her book before they reach the fork in the trail that she believes will separate them forever.

We really enjoyed this book. It is a definite favorite for our oldest who has checked it out from the library multiple times. The beautiful story manages to provide a little history lesson (something I particularly appreciate), and it is especially moving for us as parents of two girls. I can’t imagine being faced with the kind of decision that Cora’s father must make, believing that it is in his youngest daughter’s best interest for him to give her up, and separating his girls with no expectation that either will ever see the other again. We appreciated reading about how education was a priority for the pioneers upon reaching Oregon – it certainly was so for Cora. We also noticed an observation in Ms. Ettlinger’s bio on the back flap that really resonated with us, about the importance that people attach to home-made and well-used items and how they help us to stay connected to our history and our family. Most of all, however, I loved the way that all of Cora’s hard work on both her education and on creating Susan’s book pays off in the inspirational ending to the story.