From Publishers Weekly, October 2003:
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. Ages 4-8.
From The New York Times Book Review:
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, oen 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 ...
From Booklist, September 1, 2003:
K-Gr. 3. 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.
From Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2003:
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. (Picture book, 7-9)