Donna Mabry’s “Pillsbury Crossing” is a historical romance which tells of Emma’s adjusting to a new place and way of life, and of her growing to young adulthood.
The story opens dramatically with Emma, a 9-year-old recently orphaned, stomping angrily out of her house and walking mindlessly through the fields until she falls down the bank and into swiftly flowing Deep Creek, where she struggles and nearly drowns in the ice-cold water.
Akecheta, whose given name is Isaac Matthew Belk, and who is four years older than she, happens to be fishing nearby, sees her, dives into the creek, pulls her out, and takes her back home, where she recovers.
Over the next six years, Emma learns the way of life on a farm and also Akecheta’s deeply personal secrets.
Akecheta’s Aunt, Jessica Field, was from Manhattan, New York, where her father had been a rich and prominent man before he fell on hard times partly as a result of the Depression of 1869. She still owns their house, which she has rented out for years. When Akecheta graduates, Jessica surprises him by enrolling him in Columbia University, and paying his expenses. So, off he goes to a new life in New York.
Jessica travels there with him and spends a few days showing him around the city and experiencing what it has to offer. Over the years, Jessica has maintained contact with the Vandenbergs, who live a few doors down from her house. Akecheta becomes good friends with them and they become a good social contact for him.
His roommate, Jonathan Montgomery, is from a prominent city family, but has no real interest in college, and is content with parting and gambling his money away. Jon tells him that in New York, Akecheta is not a suitable name and Isaac sounds too Jewish, so he decides to go by his middle name, Matthew. Jon brings Matthew home on various occasions. As a result of being with the Vandenbergs and the Montgomerys, Matthew learns the ways of high society and of the big city.
Once when Matthew is visiting, he meets Jon’s sister, Winifred. While Matthew is in school, they become closer and closer. They intend to announce their engagement when he graduates.
Akecheta has been going back to Kansas and working the farm every summer while school is out, so he is reminded of his old values and interests and the importance of Emma in his life.
As his graduation approaches, he comes to realize that he would rather be back home in Manhattan with Emma than in New York with Winifred. However, for various reasons, he cannot just dump Winnie.
“Pillsbury Crossing” has some unifying themes throughout, which make it interesting.
Most notable is the theme that women are the important characters and men, while present, do not add much to the tale. Older women tend to have the traditional roles of home maker and nurturer, but they can be independent thinkers, and not dominated by men. Younger women tend to the feminist views, seeking nontraditional roles, running things, and seeking the vote. The theme of the need to adjust to changed circumstances recurs.
The questions of what makes life good keep returning. Among them are farm versus city living, folk society versus high society, how much money a person really needs and the importance of a good education. When an author writes about a real place, maybe even a fictional place, it can be very useful if the author provides a map of the area to go with it, so that the reader can see where things are located and how they relate to each other.
In the case of this particular book, the author would have benefited greatly from looking at a Riley County map. A farm three miles from Manhattan would have been realistic for walking, but it would have been too far from Deep Creek for Emma to have stomped out of her house and fallen into the Creek, or for Akecheta to have been fishing there at that time. Mabry mentions the trains coming downhill into the Manhattan station and leaving it going uphill. What hills?
The book makes almost no mention of the Kansas River, and absolutely no mention of Emma and Akecheta having to cross it to get to school. The location of the Manhattan elementary school is not given, but it seems to have been somewhere around Fifth Street. The high school was, the book says, located on Fifth Street, but it does not say exactly where.
If the reader will drive to I-70, take the Deep Creek exit and travel the road to Pillsbury Crossing, the reader will notice that the creek runs more or less parallel.
Today, a negligible amount of water is flowing in it, and this is only October. To be sure, we have a ten inch rain deficit this year, but even in a time of normal rainfall, very little falls in December and by year’s end, the Creek will probably be dry. The same was probably true of the end of December 1884. Where would the raging torrent have been that drowned Emma and that Akecheta had to swim mightily in order to save her. What would fishing in such a cold and fast flowing creek have been like, anyhow?
One of the pleasures of reading a historical novel is that we learn and experience people, places, and events of the past. Mabry says in her acknowledgements that she consulted with Lowell Jack and his history of Manhattan in her writing, but we have no way of knowing what she learned.
If we cannot trust her geography, what other information in her book can we not trust? It is one thing to create a time and place from whole cloth, for the reader then has no doubt that it is fiction, but it is quite a different thing to make up facts about a real time and place.
The book is written in words of one and two syllables, with sentences fifteen or twenty words long, but frequently they are shorter. The 60 chapters are short, averaging about six pages each. Clearly, it is not a difficult book to read. So, read this romance for enjoyment, but not for history.
Christopher Banner is Manhattan resident.