Marianne Mitchell's story, A Promise Made, grew out of her own family history research and the history of a real mining town, Silver Plume, Colorado. In the rough and rugged western mining towns, single girls and women encountered many difficulties without the protection of a male relative. However, sixteen-year-old Petra wasn't alone and never thought about going out west until her mother died and she found herself at the mercy of an abusive stepfather.
Few people knew the truth about her stepfather, Leroy. As a minister, most townsfolk respected him, even though some suspected what went on behind the closed doors of his home. When Petra found her mother dead, after she came home from school one day, she also found a hidden secret note. It was obvious her mother expected to die or planned to commit suicide; either way, she wanted Petra to escape.
Her gentle father and loving mother were both now gone. Her brother had a job, but he lived in a small room in a boarding house, and her aunt's and uncle's extra room was rented to a boarder. No one had room for Petra. When her brother gave her a train ticket to Denver, she took it so she could try to find her cousin, Fina, in Silver Plume—if she could get away.
It was a narrow escape. If not for a friendly station boy who helped create a disguise, Petra might not have gotten away. Leroy called in a favor from his pre-minister days as a Pinkerton man and told the train station officials that Petra killed her mother. Although Petra pretended not to understand English to avoid answering his questions, her heart almost burst through her chest while the Pinkerton man explained his mission to another passenger.
From Petra's escape from Omaha and Leroy, to the fire that demolished most of Silver Plume, dangers abounded. As people banded together in adversity, Petra found friends among the strangers in her new home. She also learned how difficult it could be to keep a promise when she finally found Fina, only to lose her from complications of childbirth. We soon also learn that Petra never expected to have to make good on her promise to take care of a newborn cousin, and escape from Leroy, again.
Mitchell creates a moving, exciting, and realistic story that keeps the reader wondering what's going to happen next, and she doesn't talk down to young readers. Some parents today might feel the topics of dying in childbirth, abuse, prostitution, and drinking are inappropriate for a twelve-year-old. However, these subjects are facts of life in the 1880s and handled in an appropriate way that doesn't glamorize them, even in an era when few other occupations existed for widowed ladies in poor mining towns.
As an Arizona native, I vacationed in Colorado with my parents during middle school years. Peaceful days riding horses in the mountains surrounding Durango and Silverton, as well as the historical mining stories, and the smoky chugging of the narrow gauge railroad along the side of the mountain came back to me as I read Mitchell's descriptions. If I'd had a teacher with Mitchell's talent for blending historical facts with fiction, no doubt my interest in history would have ignited much earlier in my life. As an adult reader, A Promise Made held my attention too.
Marianne Mitchell writes full time and lives in Colorado and Arizona, with her husband, Jim. As a former teacher, she also wrote a Spanish language activity book for elementary teachers. A Promise Made is her first book for middle grade students, age 12 and up. Mitchell's previous books entertained children ages 3-10. Visit her website. Photos of Silver Plume, the setting of the story, before and after the fire, and as it stands today are here. You can also meet Misty, Mitchell's therapy dog, at her blog. She helps de-stress students and loves to have children read to her.
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