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Kirsten on the Trail is part of the Short Stories collection, focusing on Kirsten Larson.



Kirsten finds Singing Bird's gift.

It's March and Kirsten is at the stream not far from her cabin home; the ice on the water has started to melt. She notices a tiny bundle wrapped in birch bark at her feet. She drops her water bucket, kneels down and opens up the package to find a leather bag decorated with quills like the one her friend Singing Bird wears; she realizes with excitement that Singing Bird is back again and has left a present to let Kirsten know. Singing Bird and her have been secret friends since shortly after the Larsons settled in America and they played often and exchanged gifts at the stream. But settlers remain wary of the Natives and feel they could become upset that their hunting grounds are being taken for more and more farmland. Kirsten suspects that her parents feel the same way so she's kept the friendship a secret and, when Singing Bird's tribe moved on to find better hunting, Kirsten though they wouldn't see each other again.

Singing Bird steps out from the bushes and Kirsten runs up to her; Singing Bird brushes her hair in their usual greeting. Kirsten says how she missed her, squeezing her hand and thanking her for the bag. Singing Bird squeezes back and tucks the bag into Kirsten’s apron waistband, then pats her own bag and states they are sisters.

Kirsten notices Singing Bird looks thinner than she had before and asks if her tribe managed to find good hunting and has enough to eat. Singing Bird shakes her head and says her tribe found nothing so they've decided to retry their prior hunting grounds. She asks Kirsten to come visit at her home, but Kirsten explains that she's fetching water for Mama's laundry so she has to go back and they should meet later. Singing Bird draws an image to explain to meet her when the sun reaches the top of the pine trees; Kirsten agrees, and Singing Bird runs back into the forest.

Kirsten turns to pick up her dropped bucket and sees her little brother Peter standing at the bend of the trail. Wide eyed, Peter asks what Kirsten is doing with an Indian. Kirsten flushes with guilt--wishing that Peter hadn't seen her because he might tattle to their parents--and accuses Peter of sneaking up on her. Peter says that Mama sent him to tell her to hurry up, before excitedly asking who the girl Kirsten was with and what she gave her. Kirsten hides her bag, but realizes Peter's seen too much for her to lie. She put her hands on his shoulders and asks him if he can keep a secret. Peter nods as he loves secrets.

Kirsten tells Peter about Singing Bird.

Kirsten explains how Singing Bird is her friend. Peter brings up how Papa has said they can't trust Indians. Kirsten insists that Singing Bird isn't dangerous and is kind and good, and Peter says that Singing Bird gave her something. Kirsten explains how the two exchanged gifts plenty of times before clamping up, feeling she's said too much. Peter grins at the idea of presents and asks Kirsten to take him to see the Indians. Suspecting how her parents would react knowing she's interacting with Indians at all, Kirsten tells Peter no. and that he's too young to see Indians, causing Peter to argue with her all the way back to the cabin.

Mama, comes out from the barn and tells the two to stop fighting and explain why they're arguing. Kirsten claims they weren't fighting, but Peter blurts out that Kirsten wouldn't let him see her Indian friend, even though the girl was nice enough to give Kirsten a gift. He then turns red realizing that he inadvertently gave away Kirsten's secret. Mama sets down the bucket she's holding and asks Kirsten in a serious voice if it's true she has an Indian friend. Kirsten murmurs that the girl is a girl just like herself. Mama demands to see the gift. Knowing she shouldn't refuse, Kirsten hands the quilled bag over.

Mama looks at the bag curiously, then worriedly before she tucks it away into her apron. She fusses at Kirsten that danger is all around them here and no one will protect them other than themselves; Papa is unsure what to expect from the Indians and Mama doesn't want to take any risks, even if Kirsten's friend is young. Holding back tears, Kirsten tries to explain that Singing Bird had just returned, but Mama cuts her off and forbids her from playing with "that Indian girl" ever again.

After Mama returns back into the house, Kirsten turned to Peter angrily, and Peter looks like he wanted to disappear. Through her tears, Kirsten yells at Peter for breaking his promise and that it's all his fault she can't see her friend anymore. Peter, crying, tells Kirsten he didn't mean to tell. He blames Kirsten for keeping such a big secret to begin with, and says he can find the Indians all by himself before running away towards the stream, hurt and angry. Kirsten wipes her face before going in for breakfast, feeling bad for spilling her upset all over Peter but angry at him for telling about Singing Bird.

Peter does not return for breakfast. At noon, Papa and Lars go to the forest to look for him but do not find him. Mama anxiously paces back and forth, worried about all the dangers of the spring season that can befall Peter: bears looking for food after hibernation might attack him, he might try walking on the thin melting ice on the river and drown, or Indians might capture him like she's heard in stories. Kirsten thinks that Indians are too smart to want Peter, but Mama's fears trouble her and she feels her secret was too big for a kid Peter's age as he is only six. She suspects that if she would be more open about her friendship with Singing Bird, her parents will realize Singing Bird can be trusted. Kirsten feels, worst of all, guilty that her angry outburst made Peter run away and that if he's lost or hurt, it's all her fault. She wishes she could help Papa and Lars search, but Mama says that they must keep working and asks her to get more water for the wash.

Singing Bird shows Kirsten how she reads Peter's tracks.

Kirsten goes to fetch water and is surprised to see Singing Bird waiting by the stream; she then remembers their earlier agreement to meet at that time and is happy to see her. Singing Bird knows the forest well and Kirsten believes she can help find Peter. Kirsten grips Singing Bird's hands and tells her Peter is lost in the woods. Singing Bird cocks her head confusedly, and Kirsten realizes that the concept of being lost in the woods doesn't make sense to her friend. She re-explains by pointing to her and then Peter's smaller footprints, explaining that Peter ran off and she needs to follow him. Singing Bird says that Peter's footprints show that he was running. Kirsten asks if Singing Bird can follow Peter's tracks. Singing Bird says she can and tells Kirsten to follow her.

The two follow the tracks through the woods. Kirsten is impressed by Singing Bird's skill at reading the tracks like Kirsten has begun to understand the English in her school books. As they follow the trail to the ravine, they see Papa's footprints lead down into the ravine but Peter's lead up into the woods, showing that Papa has gone looking in the opposite direction. Further tracking shows that Peter has gone deeper into the woods, struggling through a thicket and turning back when a blackberry bramble stopped him from going on. A bear paw print near his foot prints makes Kirsten worry a bear is after Peter, but Singing Bird assures her that hungry bears out are looking for food, not boys. Kirsten is still concerned that another animal like a wolf might chase after him.

They continue to follow the footprints, and the steps show that at one point Peter started wandering around in circles; Kirsten gets increasingly worried about what might have happened to Peter in his panicked (and hungry) state. Singing Bird then points down a hill to a fallen log. As they approach it, Kirsten sees Peter--dirty, but unhurt--asleep inside the log.

Peter is found sleeping in the fallen log.

Singing Bird gently shakes Peter to wake him and he is initially alarmed at seeing her. Kirsten assures Peter he's not lost anymore; he doubts, still looking at Singing Bird. Kirsten again assures him and explains that Singing Bird found him through the woods and will guide the two of them back home.

As they arrive at the edge of the woods near the Larson's cabin, Kirsten makes Peter run ahead and show Mama he's safe. As he does so, Singing Bird says she'll leave now and scoots back towards the woods. Kirsten, thinking that she should bring Singing Bird to the cabin to show that it was her that found Peter and that doing so will heal the hurt of her keeping their friendship secret, asks Singing Bird to come meet her mother and takes her by the hand. Singing Bird hangs back, shaking her head and looking scared. Kirsten recalls how strange the Native village was to her and suspects that perhaps Singing Bird's parents have told her not to approach settlers cabins and so she's never met a settler woman. She tells Singing Bird it will be all right and coaxes her towards the cabin, hoping that it will be so.

Inside, Mama is both hugging and scolding Peter for running off. She sees Singing Bird and grips Peter closer, asking if Singing Bird is the "Indian girl" she told Kirsten not to play with. Kirsten introduces Singing Bird and explains that they weren't out playing; it was with Singing Bird's help that Peter was found. Mama doubtfully asks Peter if this is true and he says yes--that he went looking for Indians but instead one found him. Mama's expression softens and she thanks Singing Bird. Peter asks if he can have honey and bread and Mama says yes--then invites Singing Bird to join them and returns Kirsten's gifted leather bag to her. Kirsten asks Singing Bird if she wants to join them for the snack and, when Singing Bird nods shyly, Kirsten invites her inside.

Meet The Author

Janet Shaw talks about her and her brother Doug exploring the woods by their house near Hinkson Creek, including building a hideout of branches on a sandbar and naming the place Sand Island; when she was upset, she would go there to think things through.

Looking Back: The Sioux in 1854

Discusses the Dakota (Sioux) in mid-nineteenth century pioneer America. Topics covered:

  • The two major Native people in the now-Minnesota area, the Dakota (Sioux) and the Ojibwa (Chippewa)
  • How the migration of many settlers forced Natives to cede their land and how white settlers overran Native hunting grounds with farms and hunting, leading to forced Native migrations
  • Lifestyles of the Dakota around the year including hunting, sugar making, planting, and meat preservation
  • The fears and distrust of white settlers towards Native Americans
  • Trading and sharing between white settlers and Native Americans
  • How Dakota used as much of the parts of animals they hunted as they could, such as buffalo
  • The craft work and daily activities of Native American women and girls, including how quill work was done
  • The current life of modern Dakota people

Activity: Make a Charm Bag

Instructions on how to make a small charm bag from leather chamois.

Items Associated with Kirsten on the Trail


Magazine Illustration of Kirsten in a unique dress.

  • In the first publication in the 1992 premiere of American Girl Magazine, Kirsten is illustrated throughout in a unique striped dress and red apron with a green checked shawl and red hair ribbons. When the story was republished as a volume, illustrations were changed to reflect the connection to the newly associated outfit, Kirsten's Checked Dress and Apron.