The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz, 1958.

Ten-year-old Ann Hamilton hasn’t been very happy since her family decided to move West.  Her family lives in 18th century Pennsylvania, and moving West means homesteading in an area where there are few other families, none of which have girls Ann’s age.  Her father and brothers love the adventure of starting over in a new place on the western frontier (what is considered the frontier for their era), but Ann is lonely, surrounded by boys, and missing their old home.  When her father built their cabin, he purposely placed it so that the door faces to the west because he says that’s where their future lies.  Ann’s brothers, Daniel and David, also make up a rule that no one can complain about the west (partly because Ann had already been doing a lot of complaining), saying that anyone who does so will get a bucket of water poured over their head, and they make a game out of trying to catch each other complaining about something.  So, there is nothing Ann can do but suffer in silence and write in her diary, a present from her cousin Margaret when the family left Gettysburg.

There’s a boy close to her age who lives nearby, Andy McPhale, but Ann doesn’t think much of him.  He makes jokes about her being “eddicated” because she can read and write.  Sometimes, he seems like he wants to play with her, but she’s a girl, and he doesn’t want to play girl games.

Andy McPhale also worries about his mother.  His father believes in hunting and trapping more than planting.  Rather than grow some of their food, Andy’s father goes off for days at a time on hunting expeditions, leaving his family with very little while he’s gone.  Ann’s family thinks that this is a sign of poor planning for the future and don’t think highly of Andy’s father for it.

Later, they meet a young man named Arthur Scott who has just arrived in the area and is looking for land to settle on.  When Mr. Scott first arrives, he meets Ann on the road.  Ann has allowed the hearth fire to go out, and she is on her way to her aunt and uncle’s house to borrow some from them because she doesn’t know how to start a fire by herself.  Understanding her problem, Mr. Scott gives Ann a ride home on his horse and helps her to restart the fire, promising not to tell her parents.  They invite him to stay for lunch, and he talks about his time at Valley Forge with Washington’s soldiers when he was only 13 years old.  He was too young to fight, but he volunteered to drive an ammunition wagon.  Ann thinks of George Washington as a hero, and she finds it thrilling that Mr. Scott served with him.

Arthur Scott becomes a friend of the Hamilton family, and Andy McPhale seems jealous of him and the attention that Ann pays to him.  Then, Andy tells her that his family has decided to go back to town for the winter.  In the spring, they will return to the area and try farming, persuaded by their experiences working with the Hamiltons.  To Ann’s surprise, Andy offers for Ann to come with them.  She could visit Gettysburg and stay with her cousin Margaret again.  Ann has been lonely, being the only girl in the area, and it’s a tempting offer.  However, Ann feels like she must stay for her family’s sake and so she won’t feel like a deserter.  When a storm destroys a good part of her family’s crop, she feels terrible and wonders if it’s all really worth it.

In the end, there is a great surprise coming for Ann: she gets to meet her hero, George Washington, when he comes to see some land that he has purchased nearby.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Addition Information

I first read this book when I was a kid in elementary school. As the cover of the book says, the author won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, which honors authors and illustrators for children who have made long-term contributions to children’s literature. Laura Ingalls Wilder was the author of the semi-autobiographical Little House on the Prairie books, but because those books contain uncomfortable racial language and situations, her name were removed from the award in 2018. The award still exists, but it’s now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, which is more descriptive of its purpose.

I liked this book as a kid, although I had forgotten many of the details before I reread it as an adult, and I’m not sure if I fully understood the history behind the story when I was a kid. I think stories actually become more interesting when you know the background, so I’d like to discuss the history a little.

The story is based on the real life of Ann Hamilton, the great-great-grandmother of the author of this book, who did get to meet George Washington in 1784. The author is essentially retelling an old family story. The real Ann Hamilton married Arthur Scott when she grew up.  The place where they lived, called Hamilton Hill in the story, is now called Ginger Hill. In fact, it seems that a member of the Hamilton family caused the name change, although that story isn’t really one for children.

One of the parts of the story that I always remembered from when I read it in school as a kid was the part where Ann talks about “mother’s fried wonders”, basically describing a fried donut. People in the 18th century did make various types of fried pastries, varying in style and name depending on where they lived. For an example of early American donuts, see this video by Townsends about 18th century doughnuts, where they make doughnuts and talk about the history and evolution of American “dough nuts” (they talk about the name and how it seems to come from the original shape – nut-shaped pieces of dough).

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