MaryLou Driedger first appeared on Mennotoba in 2017. A lot has happened since then — she’s written a book, Lost on the Prairie! It’s available at the Mennonite Heritage Village, McNally Robinson Booksellers, as well as on Amazon and Indigo. To attend the virtual Lost on the Prairie book launch hosted by McNally Robinson on Wednesday June 16th, register here. To learn more about the book, you can visit the official Lost on the Prairie website at maryloudriedger.com
1. Lost on the Prairie is based on an experience your grandfather may have had. How did a full book grow out of this one piece of information?
I was helping my aunt pack for her move to a personal care home when I discovered a copy of my Great Aunt Alma’s memoir. Alma recalled that on their family’s 1907 immigration journey by train from Kansas to Saskatchewan her brother, my Grandpa Peter, was riding in a box car with their horses. Somewhere along the route Grandpa’s car became uncoupled from the train. When they arrived in Humboldt, Saskatchewan it was GONE!
Great Aunt Alma didn’t write about where Grandpa’s train car became uncoupled or how they eventually found it, but I was curious. I went online to investigate railroad companies in 1907 and routes the train might have followed. One place it almost certainly traveled through was the huge Lake Traverse First Nation in South Dakota. I started writing a story about what might have happened to Grandpa if his train car had become uncoupled there and my writers’ group was more enthusiastic about those first chapters than anything I had read to them before. So, I kept writing.
And then my husband Dave organized a trip to visit the Lake Traverse First Nation and we explored the area and I interviewed people there and went to a local library and read newspapers from 1907 and the story just took off! I’ve done plenty of fictionalizing of course, but many things in my novel are based on events that actually happened and many characters were inspired by people in in my family.
2. You’ve written a newspaper columns for many years, and a blog too — always for an adult audience. Lost on the Prairie is a children’s book. What was it like to switch audiences?
Really hard! As you mentioned most of my freelance writing over more than three decades has been for an adult audience and has been primarily journalistic. Children’s writing is very different, a whole field of its own, and the hardest genre to get published in as I discovered.
But I’ve belonged to a fabulous children’s writers’ group in Winnipeg for about eight years and all of them are successful published authors. They’ve guided me every step of the way. I also took courses in children’s writing, went to workshops, went to conferences, followed pertinent blogs, joined several professional organizations for children’s authors, and was constantly reading novels for kids. I belong to two different book clubs where authors, teachers, and librarians discuss newly published books for young people every month.
I was a teacher for thirty-five years and then a tour guide in the education program at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and finally a mentor for university education students. Through those roles I’d met literally thousands of children and having spent so much time with kids was definitely helpful as I began to write for them. But everything else about becoming a children’s writer was a tough uphill climb for me.
3. You’ve worked on many other children’s books, yet this is the first one to be published. Why?
I think it was a matter of just finding the right publisher for my manuscript and how that happened is a bit serendipitous. I had submitted Lost on the Prairie to a bunch of publishers where I thought I might have a chance, and it was always rejected. I was almost ready to give up and then I took part in an exercise sponsored by a professional organization for children’s writers in Saskatchewan. They were fundraising and you could pay $40 and have an established author read a chapter of your manuscript and comment. The woman who read mine was very affirming about my writing. She said I just needed to find the right publisher for my book. That really encouraged me.
That same month one of my book clubs was reading a novel called Miles to Go by Beryl Young and her book was a prairie history like mine. I checked out her publisher Heritage House, and noticed they published western Canadian authors, preferred historical books, and had recently started an imprint for children. I sent them the first chapters of my book and was prepared to wait the usual six months, but they contacted me in a couple of days and asked for the full manuscript and within a few weeks I was signing a contract.
As you said Erin, I have written other books for children and I’m hoping if Lost on the Prairie is successful some of them may get published too.
4. You’ve mentioned that you think some of your writing should maybe be burned. Published articles? Which ones?
I mentioned this during a question-and-answer period at a presentation of mine you attended Erin and I was thinking since I have been writing newspaper columns for thirty-five years that some of my earlier opinions and ideas have become very outdated and I might be embarrassed in the future to have others read them. I was also remembering something author Dora Dueck once wrote on her blog about how she was going through her old journals and writing down things she wanted to remember but then getting rid of many personal pages she wouldn’t want anyone else to read after she died. I have shelves full of my old journals as well and have been thinking I need to go through a similar process at some point.
5. Is there a Mennonite connection with your book Lost on the Prairie?
Absolutely! I don’t mention the word Mennonite in my novel, but I do give lots of hints that my hero Peter’s family may be Mennonite and I am sure Mennonite readers will recognize those references. The journey Peter’s family undertakes in the book is part of an actual Mennonite migration story.
Around 1875 there was a mass migration of about 18,000 Mennonites from Russia, Poland, and Prussia to the United States. Some 7,000 of these Mennonite immigrants settled in Kansas. My Grandpa Peter Schmidt’s parents came from Michelin, Russia and homesteaded near Newton, Kansas and my Grandma Annie Jantz’s parents came from Schwiniar, Poland and took up farming in Hillsboro, Kansas.
In 1904 my great-great-uncle Johann Gerbrandt was part of a land delegation from Kansas that visited Saskatchewan where free homesteads of 160 acres were being offered by the Canadian government. Uncle Johann selected homesteads in the area around Drake, Saskatchewan for himself and his two sons, and quite a number of relatives including my Grandma Annie’s family. Those families all immigrated the next year. In 1907 having heard about the positive experiences of their fellow Mennonites in Saskatchewan my Grandpa Peter’s parents decided to join them and immigrate from Kansas to Canada as well. It was on that journey that my novel takes place.
I have my Grandma Annie and Grandpa Peter meet each other for the first time in my novel but that is fiction because they actually met as adults at the North Star Mennonite Church in Drake Saskatchewan. Eventually so many Mennonite families from Kansas settled in the Drake Saskatchewan area that the school my mother and her siblings attended there in the 1930s was called The Kansas School.