Have you heard of a family that runs a dairy farm and deals with a pastor’s troublesome son? The Bobtails Meet the Preacher’s Kid is about such a family. This historical fiction by Arthur Yeomans is fitting for a fifth and sixth-grade audience.
In this story, an aunt takes in four orphaned siblings. Yeomans does a great job of giving his main characters complex attitudes and personalities, and each sibling has their unique way of grieving their parents’ deaths. Getting to know them is like peeling an onion and seeing new layers underneath.
The oldest, Robert, at first finds Aunt Grace’s strictness off-putting. However, he appreciates her for not pitying him. He carries his grief inside him, and since his late father trained him to stiffen his lip, he stays strong. It would be nice to see him discover how to stay strong while sharing his true feelings, but who knows? It may be something he learns years later.
Esther, the second oldest, is the reserved and shyer one. She mothers their little sister and obsesses over excelling. When she does something that would make Mother proud, or when she’s told she looks like Mother, she weeps. Roger, the second youngest, has high energy, impulsivity, and a knack for making friends. He manages his grief by thinking happy thoughts, playing, or doing a new chore. I don’t see these siblings fully making peace with their loss, though I’m sure if they’re real people, they can’t ever forget the pain.
Ruth, a toddler and the youngest, doesn’t process her parents’ death as much as her older siblings. Telling a story from a toddler’s perspective isn’t easy, and I like how Yeomans gives her an authentic voice: “Mommy-Mommy wasn’t there. Ruth couldn’t find her. Mommy-Esther was gone to school; Ruth had watched her go. But Mommy-Aunt-Grace was here and picked her up and took her everywhere in New Home (p. 105).”
I applaud Yeomans for avoiding making Aunt Grace too perfect. She’s lacks warmth, but she’s a stable caregiver who encourages the children to read and teaches them new skills. Readers get a glimpse into dairy life as the family works. I also like that the author adds dimension to how Aunt Grace handles child discipline. She is stern, and one time she punishes Robert in the woodshed (This book takes place during the nineteenth century, so you’ll read about physical punishment.). Yet she doesn’t get upset at him for fighting a boy, as she thinks fighting toughens him.
The story’s pace is tame, though it kicks up as the children encounter the preacher’s son, Geoffrey. This boy teases the orphans. He despises Robert, as people talk about the orphans like they’re special, and Robert is in the same advanced reading level as him. The book reveals the inner pain behind his actions, though he doesn’t get off the hook. He’s forced to work with Robert, Roger, and Aunt Grace’s fiancé Mr. Thacker in building an addition to Aunt Grace’s house. After forgoing his nice suits, working with the guys, and intermingling with the family and Mr. Thacker, he softens. I’d like to see more of Geoffrey’s secret thoughts as he reforms, but hanging out with the family is a great way for kickstarting the change.
Parents need to know that Mr. Thacker pinches his fiancé’s backside and comes “behind her and with his hands… most inappropriately.” His excuse is that they’re essentially married. But he is a hard worker, a good manager of the boys, and a leader in family devotions. He speaks well of Aunt Grace’s raising the orphans, and he’s willing to be a father to them.
This story takes place in 1889, yet the characters are familiar with books like The Jungle Book and the Wizard of Oz stories. These weren’t published until later, but this doesn’t damage the plot. In the end, the children have a sweet surprise that seals their future with Aunt Grace and Mr. Thacker. This book is the beginning of their adventures, as two new books will come this summer and Christmas. We must wait and see how the children develop and further heal as new experiences come their way.