Associate Editor, Dime Novel Round-Up

Marion Marlowe on the Prairie (1901) Spotlight

About the novel

Marion Marlowe on the Prairie; or, A Thrilling Ride Across Kansas features a harrowing train ride taking the title character and other members of an acting troupe from one engagement to another.


Cover of My Queen no. 23, Marion Marlowe on the Prairie; or, A Thrilling Ride Across Kansas.

Twenty-third in a series of thirty consecutive issues chronicling the activities of an enchantingly beautiful and talented young woman, the story presents readers with a group of well-established characters and relationships. It opens with Marion and her girlfriends visiting a fortune-teller, who worries Marion with her prediction of an unspecified "calamity," a "terrible event" that will affect the group. The next evening, the troupe's successful performance is enhanced by a new member dubbed Ajax. Ajax, previously spotted near the fortuneteller's, is enamored of Marion, but some of his actions arouse the suspicions of Reginald Brookes, Marion's long-time suitor. As the group continue their railroad journey across the Kansas plains, Marion and Reginald join the engineer in the cab, and Marion learns to operate the throttle. Excitement ensues when those in the cab spot a wildfire on the prairie, then hear shots from the passenger section of the train. Marion takes the controls, bringing the train racing through the fire, and, upon reaching the next station, learns Ajax and her friends had foiled an attempted robbery.

Although the story is primarily an action-adventure tale with overtones of romance, it also offers glimpses of the culture in which it was created. References to popular pastimes (such as visiting dime museums), songs (like "The Old Oaken Bucket"), and well-known figures (including Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson) pepper the text, as do comments reflecting prejudices directed toward various ethnic and religious groups. Much of the story takes place aboard a train, shading into the genre of railroad fiction (see also the Nemo, King of the Tramps spotlight) and hinting at some of the issues arising when women stepped outside the domestic sphere to travel in public conveyances. Like several other issues in the series, it also carries undertones of the cultural tension between rural and urban lifestyles, here associated with nature and technology.

Written by Lurana Sheldon under the pseudonym Grace Shirley, My Queen is the only nickel weekly to be aimed at girls and to have a female as the series protagonist (rather than merely appearing in a solo title or as part of a team). While each issue was a complete story in itself, the thirty titles featuring Marion also formed a loose story arc which began when the Connecticut farm girl moved to New York City in the first issue. (See the spotlight for this first issue, From Farm to Fortune.) For the next twelve stories, she tried her hand at a variety of occupations such as singer, nurse, store detective, journalist, actress, and factory inspector. Although many men tried to court Marion, two recurring characters were presented as having the greatest chance of winning her affections – wealthy Archie Ray and handsome Dr. Reginald Brookes. Issues 14-26 introduced a new approach, foregrounding Marion's travels across the country with an acting troupe. She was joined in this endeavor by several recurring characters from early issues -- her friend and sometime roommate Alma Allyn (formerly a journalist), Reginald Brookes, and Bert Jackson (another country transplant enjoying success in the city). The final Marion Marlowe tales resolved the issue of her romance, when she finally accepted one of her long-time suitors' proposals. Advertisements indicate that the series continued for an additional seven issues with standalone stories attributed to Bertha M. Clay, a Street & Smith house name used for romances, and ended on June 8, 1901, with no. 37.

About the author

Like Marian Marlowe, Lurana Waterhouse Sheldon spent her childhood on a Connecticut farm. Born in Hadlyme on April 11, 1862, to Asa Sheldon and Christiana Waterhouse, Lurana Sheldon was the youngest of five children, all girls. Her father died when she was three. In a profile in The Free Thought Magazine, she spoke of receiving "the best education that a public and private school could give her" but also of "an inheritance of poverty, poor health and ambition." Again like Marion, Sheldon began earning money when she was seventeen and tried her hand at a number of occupations including journalism, bookkeeping, "buying dry goods," and medicine.

Although Sheldon had been writing poetry since she was a child, she only started selling her work circa 1887. Much of her early writing appears to have been pseudonymous stories for dime novel publishers Street & Smith and Frank Tousey. Shortly before and concurrent with working on My Queen, Sheldon penned several serials that ran in Street & Smith's New York Weekly and dealt with young women earning their way in the city, most notably For Gold or Soul? A Story of a Great Department Store (May 5 – August 4, 1900) and As We Forgive; or, A Tragedy of the Wires. The Romance of a Telephone Girl (October 8 – December 22, 1900). She also contributed several Phil Rushington circus stories under the house name Stanley Norris for Street & Smith's Do and Dare Weekly (nos. 21-23, 28, July 7-21 and August 25, 1900). Sheldon's other dime novel publications include a few (unidentified) Buffalo Bill stories for publisher Frank Tousey; in a 1938 letter, she remarked that Tousey "told me not to tell that I wrote the stories, as no boy would read a story that he thot [sic] was written by a woman."

In 1904, Sheldon married Isaac F. Ferris, a journalist, and about 1912, the couple left New York City for Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where Isaac Ferris purchased a local newspaper. Along with her other writing, Lurana Sheldon assisted with the paper. The prolific Sheldon later estimated that she had sold about 1500 poems, along with five novels and numerous stories and articles. She was widowed in 1939, and died in Old Orchard Beach on June 11, 1945. 

Discussion Questions

  • Dime novelists sometimes had to reach a dual audience – faithful readers who were familiar with the contents of past issues and newcomers who were encountering the series late in its run. While some series made little effort to establish a continuing narrative, My Queen was closer to a serialized story where the regular cast of characters developed relationships (frequently romantic) and encountered situations stemming from events in earlier issues. What techniques does Sheldon use to acquaint readers with the characters' backstories? (You may want to look at the discussion of Marion's beaux at the top of page 4 for one example.) Are these methods effective? Why or why not?
  • Several parts of the story mention Commodore Dickson (an erstwhile suitor from an earlier adventure) and the Commodore's friends, said to be en route to see Marion. Marion hears of the Commodore's friends' trip through the newspaper, discusses it with her companions, and watches for them while on the prairie – but they never actually appear in the story. What purpose do these (non-)characters serve in the narrative? 
  • Because dime novels were sold on newsstands and often positioned with the covers facing out, the cover illustration was an important sales element. Beginning with no. 15, My Queen changed from using a triptych with a scene representative of the story to a more generic drawing of an attractive young woman. Compare the cover of no. 23 with that of the first issue. In addition to the style of the illustration, what else has been altered? (Think about typeface and colors as well as design.) What is the effect of these changes on you as potential reader? What ideas do they convey about Marion or the content of the story? What type of audience might the new style attract? (If you were choosing a cover for this story, what image would you pick – and why?)
  • In an examination of early romance story papers, William A. Gleason extends theorist Gerard Genette's ideas of paratext to consider the effect of "the adjacent texts and topics" (such as advertisements, letters columns, and other material included in an issue) on conveying ideas about audience and interpretation. When you look at the advertisements on the inside front cover and at the back of the issue, what type of products are marketed? How does their intended audience correlate with the personal information provided by correspondents in the "Questions and Answers" column on pages 28-30? Or with the audience targeted in the publisher's advertisement for My Queen on the inside back cover (following pg. 32) of the issue? 
  • In her study of dime novel romances, Felicia Carr summarizes a popular plot as one with "a new type of youthful heroine who had sensational adventures, outwitted villains with evil designs on her virtue, and who, in the end, was rewarded with wealth, good social standing, and a devoted husband." In what ways does Marion Marlowe on the Prairie conform to this definition? Where does it differ? Can you think of other stories that embody this type of protagonist and plot? 
  • In nineteenth-century fiction, trains and railroads sometimes serve as undergirding for narrative or cultural oppositions. In his examination of postbellum American literature in Rural Fictions, Urban Realities (2013), Mark Storey briefly comments on Edward S. Ellis's 1868 dime novel, The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairie, observing that "Popular fiction like Ellis’s exploited the connotations of such an instantly recognizable technology [as the railroad], its ability to capture something of modernity’s uncertainties and excitements—especially when contrasted with the more traditional technologies of the prairies." During Marion's trip, how is life inside the train contrasted with the scenes from the windows? What aspects of technology are associated with the railroad?
  • A classic in film history is Edwin S. Porter's 1903 silent movie The Great Train Robbery (viewable online, just under 12 minutes). Other than the medium and visual elements, how does the portrayal of trains and robberies in this movie – or in others such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – compare with that in Marion Marlowe on the Prairie?
  • The train is not the only setting in which gender divisions come into play, but it is perhaps the most obvious. Which areas of the train are restricted to males? Which occupations? Although Marion transgresses gender expectations by initially defying the engineer and using her knowledge of the controls to keep the train moving and bring its passengers safely through the fire, the other characters maintain more traditional roles. What activities or subjects of discussion engage the women while on the train? How does this differ from the way the men occupy their time and their topics of conversation? Do these stereotypes also play out with the two children, Ruby and Jackets?
  • In the My Queen stories set in New York City, familiarity with mechanized transportation is the mark of an urban dweller: rural residents are often puzzled or endangered by their encounters with such technology. Early in the series' first issue, Marion leaves the family farm for the city. Her arrival in New York City (at the start of chapter 5) is described below. Compare this scene with Marion's actions in Marion Marlowe on the Plains – her preparations for boarding the train and her time on the train. How has Marion changed in the course of the series?

It was almost dark when a long, dust-covered train drew slowly under cover of the Grand Central Depot.

The rush and roar of the big city was at its height and the pushing, jostling crowd of travelers inside the station was noisy, rude and bristling with impatience.

As the long stream of passengers swept through the yawning archway, a young girl stepped aside from the throng and leaned in some bewilderment against the wall of the building.

No one noticed her at first except by a casual glance, for she was poorly dressed and just a bit awkward. . . .

At last the crowd dwindled to only the employees of the station, and a messenger in a red cap stepped up and accosted her civilly:

“Excuse me, miss, but can I be of service to you?” he asked . . .

[Marion explains that she is waiting for her uncle.]

. . . “Ought to be here if he’s coming,” said the man, good-naturedly; “you’ve been waiting nearly an hour. You must be getting pretty weary.”

“I am, and hungry, too,” said Marion, smiling; “but you see I am a country girl, and I don’t know my way. I would certainly get lost if I were to attempt to find him.”

  • For a very different depiction of railroads, this time in nineteenth-century fiction with a small town setting, look at Sarah Orne Jewett's "A Late Supper" (1878). Are there any similarities in the world shown in Jewett's story and attitudes in Marion Marlowe stories? (In addition to considering the encounter with the train, you may want to think about the women's behavior and the image of country life.)
  • While the railroads facilitated travel and commerce, they were also riddled with corruption and those in control enjoyed an extraordinary amount of power and privilege. Marion Marlowe on the Prairie does not criticize the railroads, but it does show some of the perks those in power expected. What benefits do Bert and his friends receive because of his father's position with the railroad? What attitudes do the characters exhibit about these perks? In the story, is there any sense that such privilege is limited to a favored few or that such inequality might be problematic?

Classroom Activity

Prairie fires were an ever-present hazard on the plains – not only in Kansas but throughout the Midwest. Early in chapter 10 (appropriately titled "Danger Ahead"), the narrator introduces the possibility of a prairie fire, and the chapter concludes with the engineer spotting flames on the horizon. The next two chapters describe the conflagration and the train's passage through it. In small groups, choose one of the categories below (or others you develop on your own) and read through the selections, then compare and contrast their treatment of prairie fires with that in Marion Marlowe on the Plains. You may want to consider tone, narrative perspective, focus, and details – as well as any other elements that strike you as meaningful or informative. Share some passages from the readings along with your conclusions about them with the class. 

Note: Galbraith's railway mail service map for Kansas 1897/1898 offers a useful visual reference for the areas of Kansas involved in Marion Marlowe on the Plains and the material below. Marion and her friends probably rode on the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, though they may have taken the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific. They began in Kansas City in Wyandotte County, journeyed to Topeka in Shawnee County (where Ajax joined the company), went on to Hutchinson in Reno County, and passed through the prairie fire en route to Dodge City in Ford County.

Two contemporary commentaries folding in historical accounts:

  • Courtwright, Julie. "Such a Sight: Fire and Prairie Identity." Symphony in the Flint Hills Field Journal 6 (2014)Also includes illustrations – a photograph and two paintings of prairie fires.
  • Hume, Sandra. "Prairie Fire." Beyond Little House, 2011: The historical account here is actually a summary of the "Prairie Fire" chapter in Little House on the Prairie. Photographs show a 2011 prairie fire and the aftermath.

Three 19th-century newspaper accounts.

  • "Our Prairie Fire." Western Kansas World, March 19, 1887: 7, col. 2. Chronicling America: Newspaper account of a prairie fire near Collyer, Kansas (Trego County).
  • "A Big Prairie Fire."The Goodland Republic, April 14, 1893: 4, col. 3. Chronicling America: Newspaper account of a fire primarily in Wallace County and Thomas County (both adjacent to Sherman County, where Goodland is located). 
  • "Fremont" and "Center Township," The Emporia News, Nov. 1, 1872: 3, col 5. Chronicling America: Newspaper account of fires in Fremont Township and Center Township (Lyon County).

Two Kansas settlers' diaries from 1871-72:

  • "The Diary of Luna E. Warner: A Kansas Teenager of the Early 1870s." Kansas History 35 (1969): In 1871, Warner's family moved from Massachusetts to homestead in an area near Cawker City, Kansas (Mitchell County). Many of the entries from April 2, 1871, October 20-November 2, 1871, and March 12-13, 1872, reference prairie fires.
  • "The Diary of Abbie Bright, 1870-1871." Kansas History 37 (1971): Abbie Bright left her Pennsylvania home in 1870 and traveled to visit her brother, who had settled near what would become Clearwater, Kansas (Sedgwick County). She was 22 years old when she established her own claim on 160 acres in the area. Her September 7, September 25, October 4, and October 14, 1871, diary entries all contain some mention of prairie fires.

A first-hand account of a Nebraska prairie fire.

For additional discussion: Nineteenth-century artists recognized the dramatic potential of prairie fires -- especially when coupled with railroad trains. In 1867 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly published a short article, "A race between a passenger train and a prairie fire," accompanied by a striking illustration; both were later reprinted in The Wonders of the World (1882). In 1871/1872 the popular printmakers Currier & Ives produced "Prairie Fires of the Great West." Take a moment to study both pictures. What are your initial reactions to the two illustrations? In what ways are they similar? What ideas do they convey about the scene or the larger cultural situation? How do they compare with your response to reading about the fire in My Queen

The inclusion of the train in both images might also be seen as a subtle means of reinforcing the culture clash between nature and technology. In The Great Plains: A Fire Survey (2017), Stephen J. Pyne remarks that in the Currier & Ives print, "The train is moving west into the future. The prairie fire is moving into the past." Are similar ideas present in My Queen or in the article from Leslie's

Further Reading

Lurana Sheldon and My Queen

  • Carr, Felicia Luz. "All for Love: Gender, Class, and the Woman's Dime Novel in Nineteenth-Century America." PhD dissertation. George Mason University, 2003.

A study of romance dime novels – publishing history, readers, plots, responses in mainstream review journals. Carr acknowledges My Queen briefly, asserting that Marion engages "in activities that shadow those of the popular male [dime novel] detectives." She attributes My Queen's failure to its use of a recurring female character, which "ran counter to the prevailing story line of the dime novel romance . . . [the heroine's] very availability was in opposition to the prevailing sentiments that the romance story must end in marriage" (37). 

  • Ferris, Lurana Sheldon. "Letter Sent to George French." Dime Novel Round-Up, no. 11, June 1943, pp. 4-5.

Letter in response to a meeting with dime novel collector George French; Sheldon summarizes her career as a dime novelist and concludes with biographical information. 

  • [Green, H. L.] "Lurana W. Sheldon." The Free Thought Magazine, no. 28, Jan. 1900, pp. 41-44.

Biographical sketch of Lurana Sheldon with some emphasis on her personality and philosophy, also reflective of the ideology of the source publication.

Surveys the depiction of the city in the first thirteen issues of My Queen, focusing on attitudes toward government, transportation, communication, and social class. 

Originally serialized in Street & Smith's New York Weekly in 1900 and 1901, Sheldon's two dime novels about department store workers (For Gold or Soul? A Story of a Great Department Store and For Humanity's Sake: A Story of the Department Stores) both focus on reform and improving labor conditions for store clerks. Unlike many novels with similar settings, Sheldon's stories foreground the store clerks rather than the owners or consumers, not only highlighting their hazardous working conditions but also (in the second book) assigning them agency in effecting changes in their circumstances. Religion and the Social Gospel underpin some of the reform efforts in For Gold; in For Humanity's Sake, the workers unite to form a union. A longer version of this article, with a more detailed biography of Sheldon and additional information about her dime novels, can be found in the first chapter of Palmer's dissertation, "'I never once thought of them' : retail workers in American department store fiction" (University of Texas at Austin, 2015).

Additional Topics

Attributes the failure of Beadle & Adams's early romance story papers to their decision to dilute the audience by targeting male readers as well as females; for evidence, Gleason draws not only on the papers' fiction but also on paratextual material, here defined as "the adjacent texts and topics that share physical and ideological space" with the stories – elements such as letters columns, advertisements, and filler articles. 

Argues that early story paper romance formulas were more heterogeneous than other studies of the genre (such as Carr's) suggest.

A larger study of women and railroads in the nineteenth century, drawing on a range of sources including travel narratives and fiction, with exploration of "the shifting terrain of public and private" and of the movement from Victorian lady to "New Woman." Of particular interest, chapter 6, "Nerves of Steel," includes analysis of a June 1900 story from McClure's where a woman takes on the role of engineer in an emergency.

Examines the depiction of railroad travel as a "synecdochal counterpart" representative of tensions between "urban modernity," technology, and rural landscapes in fiction.