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Dear Levi: Letters from the Overland Trail
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Dear Levi: Letters from the Overland Trail

Written by Elvira WoodruffAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elvira Woodruff
Illustrated by Beth PeckAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Beth Peck

· Yearling
· Trade Paperback · February 10, 1998 · $6.99 · 978-0-679-88558-0 (0-679-88558-7)

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Dear Levi


Dear Austin
Elvira Woodruff

Grades 5-8

Elvira Woodruff details the rich history of two important periods in American history as she captures the lives of two brothers who lived during this time. The intriguing letter format provides insight into the lives and personalities of the characters, and the frightening adventures appeal to all readers, even the most reluctant ones.

This guide provides discussion questions related to the themes of courage, family, friendship, and prejudices and bigotry. In addition, there are activities that link the language arts, social studies, science, art, and music curriculum.


Two orphaned brothers keep in touch by letters as one heads west on the Oregon Trail and the other travels south in search of a friendís little sister.

Dear Levi takes place in 1851 when 12-year-old Austin Ives is setting off on a wagon train across the Overland Trail. Through letters to his brother, Austin tells of the harrowing trip as they plunge into surging rivers, face deadly diseases, and come face to face with Indians. The trip is a dangerous adventure, but Austin is determined to make the final destination to stake a claim to his deceased País land. Levi Ives remains in Pennsylvania with Miss Amelia until he can join Austin in the Oregon Territory.

Dear Austin is a series of letters that Levi writes to his older brother relating his own adventures in 1853 with his mute friend Jupiter, and their struggle to rescue Jupiterís little sister from a slave auction in the South.


Thematic Connections

Courage--Austin and Levi are involved in some frightening events. There are times when they both doubt their courage. Engage the class in a discussion about the courage it takes for Austin to leave the comfortable home of Miss Amelia and face the unknown adventures on the Oregon Trail. Explain what Mr. Morrison means when he says to Austin, "There ís always going to be storms that you have to get through." (p. 50) What is Austinís greatest storm? In Dear Austin, Levi says, "I wish you were here to tell me how to find the courage to be more than the hiccuppy coward of a boy I feel to be tonight." (p. 81) Discuss why Levi feels like a coward. How does it take courage for Levi and Jupiter to travel south in search of Darcy?

Family--When Austin and Levi are orphaned, Miss Amelia is left in charge of the them, and secures passage for Austin to accompany her cousinís family on the wagon train. At what point in the trip does Austin begin to feel that he belongs in the Morrison family? How does Mr. Morrisonís death make Austin feel that he has lost his father all over again? Describe Leviís relationship with Miss Amelia. How is she both a mother and a friend? Engage the class in a discussion about the relationship between Austin and Levi. How do you know that they love and miss one another? Discuss the likelihood that Austin and Levi will be reunited.

Friendship --Ask the class to brainstorm the true qualities of friendship. Describe Levi and Jupiterís friendship. Who is Austinís best friend in Dear Levi? Reuben says, "A person who never sees any good in others is very likely not to have many good qualities himself." (p. 47) Discuss the qualities of Austin and Reuben, and Levi and Jupiter. How do you know that Reuben is Austinís friend forever? How does Darcyís letter at the end of Dear Austin reveal that a person never forgets a true friend?

Prejudice and Bigotry--Many of the people on the wagon train are prejudiced against the Indians. Ask the class to describe such acts of prejudice. Austin tells Levi that Reuben "feels a kinship to all people." (p. 61) How might this statement apply to Miss Amelia and Levi in Dear Austin? Ask the class to discuss how Mr. Hickmanís treatment of the Indians in Dear Levi is similar to the way Mrs. Simpson treats Darcy in Dear Austin.


Pre-Reading Activity

Tell the class that Woodruffís books are set in 1851 and 1853. Using library reference materials and Internet resources, ask students to make a time line that highlights the most important events in American History between 1851 and 1853. Engage the class in a discussion about how the travelers on the Overland Trail and the Underground Railroad helped to change the face of American history.


Interdisciplinary Connections

Language Arts--In Dear Levi, Austin admires Reubenís coat that is covered with buttons. Explain what Reuben means when he says, "This old coat comes from the circus of life." (p. 21) When Austin is about to select a button from Reubenís button book for Levi, Reuben tells him, "Pick only the button that calls out to you." (p. 30). Ask each student to bring several special buttons from home. Display the buttons on a table, and ask students to select a button for themselves. Then ask them to describe in a paragraph why that particular button "called out" to them.

Social Studies--Ask students to go to the Internet site and read about the myths regarding the Oregon Trail. Record questions that the class would like to ask Michael Farrell, the producer of "In Search of the Oregon Trail." Encourage the class to use books and the Internet to seek answers to their questions.

Levi discovers that Miss Amelia and Preacher Tully are important participants in the Underground Railroad. Ask students to find out where the major stations on the Underground Railroad were located. Then have them find out how many slaves traveled the Underground Railroad during its operation.

Music--In Dear Levi, Reuben plays the Jewís harp and Mr. Buckner plays the fiddle. Research the music of this time period and select several songs that the travelers on the Oregon Trail might have played and sung. In Dear Austin, Darcy sings like a nightingale. Find songs that Darcy might have sung. How does the music reflect the lives of the people during this time? Ask class musicians to either sing or play some of the songs for the class.

Art--At the end of Dear Levi, when Austin and Reuben ride out over their land, Austin says that he already sees a rainbow. What is he really seeing? Make a picture postcard that Austin might send to Levi. Describe the picture in one sentence on the back of the card.

Science--In Dear Levi, Reuben travels with a preserved cat. Find out the scientific process of taxidermy. It turns out that Reuben has a purpose for traveling with the cat. Ask students to investigate why museums preserve animals. Is the process the same for preserving large animals as it is for smaller ones?


Vocabulary/Use of Language

The vocabulary in Woodruffís books isnít difficult, but students may find some unfamiliar words and discover new meanings to familiar words. Ask them to take note of such words and try to define them using clues from the context of the story. Such words may include:

Dear Levi-- preserved (p. 48), desolate (p. 54), school (p. 58), embroidered (p. 83), inconsolable (p. 86), comrades (p. 91), constitution (104), infernal (p. 109), and scoundrel (p. 113).

Dear Austin-- palpitations (p. 2), ruminate (p. 13), poultice (p. 23), pomade (p. 24), concoction (p.27), and stipulation (p. 77).


Review for Dear Levi

"Presents a bounty of information in a format that will be especially valued as a classroom read-aloud."--The Bulletin

Awards for Dear Levi

An IRA Teachers' Choice

Reviews for Dear Austin

"This carefully researched and vividly imagined novel presents the emotional and gripping tale of one boy's confrontation with the issues of slavery and its significance in American history."--School Library Journal

"Woodruff combines swift pacing, historical detail, humor, depth, and precise characterizatios for a wholly satisfying page turner."--Kirkus Reviews


(by theme )

Dakota Spring
Anne D. Love
Illustrated by Ronald Himler
Historical Fiction, Family
Grades 3-6

Journey to Nowhere
Mary Jane Auch
Historical Fiction, Survival, Family
Grades 5 up

The Tucket Adventures
Gary Paulsen
Adventure, Historical Fiction, Survival
Grades 5 up

Mr. Tucket
Call Me Francis Tucket
Tucketís Ride

Who is Carrie?
James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
Adventure, Historical Fiction, Survival
Grades 5 up


Teaching ideas prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library Services, South Carolina Governorís School for the Arts and Humanities, Greenville, SC.

Internet Resources

In Search of the Oregon Trail Myths
Background information for the In Search of the Oregon Trail project.

The Oregon Trail
The web site of the great western journey--The Oregon Trail.

The Harriet Tubman Home Biography and details of Harriet Tubmanís home in Auburn, New York.