Marsha Wilson Chall

Marsha Wilson Chall

Prairie Train

All Aboooooard!

Dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the leg­endary steam engines of the Great North­ern Rail­road ruled the Amer­i­can north­west from Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, to St. Paul, Min­neso­ta. Rid­ing the Empire Builder was the safest, fastest, and most com­fort­able way to trav­el, as it chugged over wide rivers, across the Great Plains, and through snow­bound moun­tain pass­es with such reg­u­lar­i­ty you could set your watch by it.

But for a small girl trav­el­ling by her­self for the first time, a trip from her coun­try home to vis­it Grand­ma in the city of St.Paul is any­thing but rou­tine. With words rich in the rhythm of the rails and paint­ings both beau­ti­ful and authen­tic, Prairie Train wel­comes you aboard the Great North­ern for a mem­o­rable jour­ney across the coun­try and into the past. Prairie Train was inspired by Ms. Chal­l’s own child­hood train trav­el and by a bit of fam­i­ly his­to­ry. Her grand­moth­er was once strand­ed on a train for three days in a bliz­zard en route to vis­it her granddaughter.

Prairie Train
illus­tra­tion © John Thomp­son, from Prairie Train, writ­ten by Mar­sha Wil­son Chall, pub­lished by Harper­Collins, 2003
Prairie Train
illus­tra­tion © John Thomp­son, from Prairie Train, writ­ten by Mar­sha Wil­son Chall, pub­lished by Harper­Collins, 2003

John Thomp­son did a won­der­ful job illus­trat­ing my man­u­script in a pho­to­re­al­is­tic style. Some of his paint­ings are so vivid that the char­ac­ters near­ly jump out of the book! He is a pro­fes­sor of illus­tra­tion at Syra­cuse University.

His first chil­dren’s book was Christ­mas in the Big House, Christ­mas in the Quar­ters by Patri­cia C. McKis­sack and Fredrick L. McKis­sack. That book received many awards, includ­ing the Coret­ta Scott King Award. Mr. Thomp­son has also illus­trat­ed O Jerusalem: Voic­es of a Sacred City, writ­ten by Jane Yolen, and Free­dom Like Sun­light, writ­ten by J. Patrick Lewis.


  • Have each stu­dent make a train car out of col­ored paper. Be sure to put in win­dows so the pas­sen­gers can see the scenery as they pass by! Write some of the descrip­tive words that were used in the story.
  • Form a train by stand­ing in a line. Move bent arms in time and take short steps. The stu­dent who is the engine can make the “Choo! Choo!” sound and the rest of the train can do the “chug-a-chug‑a.”
  • Read some oth­er train books such as: Steam, Smoke, and Steel by Patrick O’Brien or Sey­mour Simon’s Book of Trains.
  • Take a look at some black-and-white pic­tures of Great North­ern Trains at the Great North­ern Archives. The train in the book was called “The Empire Builder.”

Thanks to Kathy John­son, media spe­cial­ist in Alexan­dria, Min­neso­ta, for these suggestions.

Hearing from Fans

Some­times fans send pho­tos. I’m hon­ored that this fam­i­ly re-cre­at­ed the pro­tag­o­nist from Prairie Train with such painstak­ing detail.

Reading Prairie Train

Kathy wrote: Stir­ling and his doll, Emi­ly, on the loco­mo­tive at the Kandiy­ohi Muse­um. My mom spent months mak­ing things and get­ting oth­er peo­ple to make things so she could assem­ble an entire Prairie Train out­fit for Emi­ly. We vis­it­ed the Great North­ern 2523 at the muse­um on our way home from vacation.

Emily's Prairie Train outfit

My mom’s Kit doll mod­el­ing Emi­ly’s clothes


For a girl rid­ing the rails across the 1930s Amer­i­can prairie, the jour­ney is suf­fused with sounds: the train whistle’s “woooOOOO!,” the “Shooh… Shooh…” that indi­cate the pants and huffs and puffs” of the engine’s steam, the “click­ety click click click” of a pas­sen­ger’s knit­ting nee­dles “keep­ing time with the Great North­ern line.” Chall (Hap­py Birth­day, Amer­i­ca!) har­ness­es these melodies, build­ing a loco­mo­tive rhythm into her prose (“head­ing far away from home—/ shined shoes,/ white gloves,’ coin purse,/ two dollars,/ cran­ber­ry coat,/ wool beret—/ Grand­ma’s girl,/ city queen). As the girl nar­ra­tor trav­els east, young read­ers with a pas­sion for the past will thrill to ride along­side her, expe­ri­enc­ing the train’s ele­gant din­ing car and vel­vet seats “as soft as cater­pil­lars,” and gaz­ing out at the prairie, “stitched togeth­er in brown and yel­low patch­es,” fly­ing by. Thomp­son’s (Christ­mas in the Big House, Christ­mas in the Quar­ters) sat­u­rat­ed, pho­to-real­is­tic paint­ings make the peri­od details vivid enough for read­ers to feel they could step into the nar­ra­tor’s world. In many pic­tures Thomp­son depicts the girl in mid-action (tum­bling off a seat when the train stops; singing with hands spread), which enhances the imme­di­a­cy of the art­work. This hand­some vol­ume lyri­cal­ly evokes a bygone world (Pub­lish­ers Week­ly)

Mar­sha Wil­son Chall, who has writ­ten feel­ing­ly about old-time maple-sug­ar­ing and small-town Fourths of July in Min­neso­ta, tells in Prairie Train a sto­ry from 1924 of a girl’s first solo train trip across the prairie on the Great North­ern Rail­way’s Ori­en­tal Lim­it­ed to vis­it her grand­moth­er in St. Paul. Chall is unusu­al­ly sen­si­tive to the height­ened aware­ness, the won­der mixed with fear, that trav­el brings with it, espe­cial­ly when all that’s famil­iar seems to be reced­ing as rapid­ly as the girl’s smil­ing, wav­ing moth­er back on the sta­tion platform.

As the girl—we nev­er learn her name or age, though she looks about 9—sinks into her seat, “on cush­ions as soft as cater­pil­lars,” she slowsly extends her sens­es into the ele­gant new world around her “here on the Great North­ern,” notic­ing how “the sun breaks into pieces on a rose-gar­den car­pet” and glints off “brass fit­tings pol­ished to gold.” Reas­sured, she looks out­side at the end­less prairie “stitched togeth­er in brown and yel­low patch­es, like Grand­ma’s quilt spread over the hills.”

At first the Ori­en­tal Lim­it­ed, one of the great trains of its day, seems almost unfault­able, a benev­o­lent, order­ly pres­ence with­in the vast oth­er­ness just beyond. The girl can safe­ly exper­i­ment with away-from-home behav­ior, order­ing “just what I like” in the din­ing car and sly­ly slip­ping five sug­ar cubes from the sug­ar bowl into her coin purse with­out ret­ri­bu­tion from the kind­ly waiter.

But then, unex­pect­ed­ly, the train lurch­es to a halt, stopped by a snow­drift on the tracks. “With­out warn­ing, the Great North­ern is as qui­et as a frozen buf­fa­lo, and after a while the cold sneaks in.” In these sud­den­ly scari­er cir­cum­stances, the pas­sen­gers ral­ly round; the woman across the way teach­es the girl how to knit; “a tall boy wear­ing a tie” gets them all to singing “Oh! Susan­na” and “The Bal­lad of Casey Jones.” Before too long a “snow­plow engine is tun­nel­ing through,” and all is well again.

John Thomp­son’s vibrant, metic­u­lous illus­tra­tions cap­ture both the sim­ple events and the grand scale of the girl’s adven­ture, using heraldic swaths of bright col­or to bla­zon forth both her autumn-leaf red coat, white tam‑o’-shanter and black patent leather shoes and the train’s gaudy paint scheme of Oma­ha orange, Pull­man green and gold stripes (The New York Times Book Review)

A young girl relays the thrill of her first train ride as she takes the Great North­ern across the prairie to vis­it her grand­moth­er in Saint Paul. Grace­ful phras­ing (“Night chas­es close behind [the train] and hitch­es a rail”) and word place­ment on the pages gen­er­ate the rhythm of the jour­ney, which is accen­tu­at­ed by train sounds that appear in ital­ics. The col­or­ful acrylic illus­tra­tions cre­ate both atmos­phere and emo­tions as the girl delights in choos­ing her favorites in the din­ing car, sings along with a boy play­ing the har­mon­i­ca when a snow­drift stalls the train, and wor­ries whether her grand­moth­er will be wait­ing for her … [T]his is a poignant glimpse of a time gone by (pos­si­bly the 1920s or 1930s), which shares a spe­cial expe­ri­ence. (Book­list)

As the Great North­ern chugs its way to St. Paul, past fields “stitched togeth­er / in brown and yel­low patch­es, / like Grand­ma’s quilt spread over the hills,” a lone child in her Sun­day Best gazes hap­pi­ly out the win­dows, takes a meal in the din­ing car (sur­rep­ti­tious­ly drop­ping sug­ar cubes into her wal­let as memen­tos), makes friends with those seat­ed around her when the train is tem­porar­i­ly halt­ed by a snow­drift, then steps off at last, and into her grand­moth­er’s arms. Thomp­son places the ride in the 1920s or ’30s, depict­ing pas­sen­gers and ele­gant inte­ri­ors with pho­to­re­al­is­tic sharp­ness, then back­ing off to show the big train steam­ing its way through towns and over rolling prairie. Despite occa­sion­al anx­ious moments, the gen­er­al­ly buoy­ant tone of this indi­vid­ual odyssey will reas­sure prospec­tive young trav­el­ers, and traini­acs will pore over the peri­od details. (Kirkus Reviews)

Prairie Train

illus­tra­tor, John Thomp­son
Harper­Collins, 2003
ISBN 978–0‑68813–4334
ages 4 and up
32 pages

Look for this book at your favorite library or used bookseller.