A few years ago, MaryLou Driedger came across an old letter from her grandfather, Peter Schmidt.
In the letter, written in 1907, he wrote about the time when he was 12 years old and became separated from his family while making a trek from Kansas to Saskatchewan.
The Mennonite family was travelling by train to their new home in Canada, their livestock in a boxcar while the family was in a passenger coach. Peter volunteered to ride with the animals, to look after them. Somewhere along the way the boxcar was uncoupled from the train — something his parents only discovered when they arrived at their new home.
Driedger, a columnist for the Steinbach Carillon and a former faith page columnist at the Free Press, was intrigued. Her curiosity led her to write Lost on the Prairie, a new children’s book that will be launched online on June 16, 7 p.m. through McNally Robinson Booksellers.
"The letter didn’t say what happened, or how he was found," says Driedger, a retired teacher who works for the Winnipeg Art Gallery. "I was curious. What happened to him during that time?"
She researched railway lines back then to see what route he would have travelled on, looking for places the car could have become detached. She decided to locate it in Sisseton, South Dakota, at the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate reservation.
Driedger went to the reservation to do research and interview local people and elders; later, after the book was written, she had it reviewed by an Indigenous cultural adviser.
"I learned a lot through this," she said, adding she also researched old newspapers from the time to learn what was happening in that area.
Faith is also part of the book. "It’s integrated into the story, as Peter looks to God for comfort," she said.
During his adventure, Peter faces dangers and meets people from all walks of life, including Mark Twain. Along the way he becomes more resourceful, courageous, and self-reliant before reaching the family’s new home in Saskatchewan.
"Travelling from the United States to Canada is an immigration story that many Mennonites share," said Driedger, adding it might connect with refugee children in Canada today who might also have been separated from their parents during their harrowing journeys.
To register for the launch, visit www.mcnallyrobinson.com.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.