(from the author, originally published by Powell’s Books)
“Can’t cook, but doesn’t bite.” It is only the line atop a classified advertisement in a weekly newspaper, that of “an A-1 housekeeper, sound morals, exceptional disposition” seeking to relocate to Montana early in the twentieth century. But for young Paul Milliron, his two younger brothers and his widower father, and his rambunctious fellow students in their one-room school, it spells abracadabra.
Paul is the voice of the book: a bit wry, contemplative, and literally bedeviled by dreams — lifelong, he has had the disturbing knack of vividly recalling the episodes of imagination that swirl in his mind at night. Paul has risen to become the state superintendent of education, and at the vantage point of 1957, strapped for budget in what he knows is going to be a changed world of education because of the Soviet landing of Sputnik, he is facing what is more like a nightmare, everything he has believed in is “eclipsed by this Russian kettle of gadgetry orbiting overhead.” In his heart he knows the powerful political pressures on him to “consolidate” the rural one-room schools, which will be the death knell of those perky idiosyncratic little institutions such as the one that produced him at Marias Coulee.
Before his crucial convocation of rural educators to give them his decision, though, he impulsively drives out to Marias Coulee, now a scatter of mostly abandoned homesteads just beyond the northern fringe of a successful irrigation project. There the story begins, with Paul swept back in memory to 1910 when the Milliron family’s hard-bargained new housekeeper, Rose Llewelynn, and her unannounced brother step down from the train, “bringing several kinds of education to the waiting four of us.”