The Little Pioneer

Written by Adam Hancher
Review by Jane Burke

The illustrator, Adam Hancher, has based his dramatic picture book on true-life pioneers’ tales. Set in the U.S. in the 19th century, this story gives an account of one small wagon train heading off into the West, narrated by a young girl whose family must leave everything familiar and face the unknown.

It is also a subtle account of dealing with the loss of a parent, for our narrator’s father has just died. The sense of loss is revealed not in words but in the depicted vast, open, empty spaces of the land through which they travel. Nature and the wilderness almost defeat them, but along the way our heroine learns to respect ‘the wild’ in both nature and humankind, and even manages to stand up alone against a terrible danger.

The story is told in brief text which cleverly uses 19th-century language and inflexion to add a sense of otherness. It is never anything other than clear and vivid: ‘It was a fearful time in those early days…’, ‘weary and footsore, we stopped to rest’. The illustrations are for the most part in sombre washes of yellow, grey, brown and dark blue, enlivened by the simple vigorous characterisations of people and animals, and by touches of warm red, in the ‘wild’ Mr. Reed’s shirt, and in the repeated motif of fire as a symbol of safety and community.

There are stunning full page spreads of key scenes – crossing a raging torrent, a night of festivity in camp, and, especially, the surreal landscape into which our heroine awakens one day, alone in the desert, surrounded by cattle bones and the discarded trappings of civilisation, a piano, a grand-father clock… all equally abandoned.

This is a beautiful book aimed at 4 – 9 year olds, for reading aloud or school-work.