Lorna at Not for Lunch and I happened to note last week that we have been neglecting our Newbery Challenges for some time, so we decided to pair up to get back to it. Lorna is reading the Newbery Medal winners in order, and she has already completed the list through 1945, which makes me kind of envious, because I know what awaits me in the 20s and 30s. I keep checking out the books from the 20s, starting them, then abandoning them in favor of something–anything!–else. I wish I could master the art of skimming.
I thought I was in for it when I opened Strawberry Girl and read the first lines:
“Thar goes our cow, Pa!” said the little girl.
“Shore ‘nough, that do look like one of our cows, now don’t it?”
That was enough right there (or rather, right thar) to make me want to shut the book forever. I find it very tiresome to read books written in dialect. Before I knew it, my inner voice was speaking Florida Cracker.
Moreover, having grown up in the deep south, I don’t find it a place I ever need to return to in fiction.
Still, Strawberry Girl wasn’t too bad. (It’s also under 200 pages–always appreciated in a Newbery!) It’s basically the story of two feuding families on the Florida frontier in the early 1900s. The Boyers and Slaters squabble mostly about land and animals. The Slaters don’t believe in land ownership; fences are the devil for Pa Slater, and he’s willing to go to any length to keep his neighbors from fencing in their land–including poisoning their mule and setting fire to the woods near their house. Pa Slater is an abusive drunk, and Lenski doesn’t shy away from the details of life in an alcoholic family. It’s often surprisingly bracing to read older children’s literature: while it is often moralistic, it’s not usually white-washed. The story has an episodic plot, and enough happened to keep this reader turning pages pretty quickly, though I can imagine that many children might be bored by all the agricultural details. (The Newbery sure loves a richly imagined setting.)
Florida is not exactly a place we think of as having a frontier, or at least not into the twentieth century, so that aspect of the story was a revelation to me. Lenski was interested in writing historical and regional fiction describing how American children across the country grew up. Strawberry Girl is one book in a series of chapter books written to highlight the diversity of American life and customs. The Foreword indicates that Lenski spent quite a bit of time in the “Florida backwoods,” interviewing “the Crackers themselves,” visiting and sketching their homes and the environment.
The only thing that really didn’t work for me was the ending. A preacher promises to pray “extry hard” for Pa Slater, and “Glory hallelujah!” it works. In the space of less than one page, Pa goes from being a mean drunk to “a changed man! A happy man for the first time in my life!” Pa vows never again to shoot off the head of one of Ma’s chickens while he’s drunk and assures his family and neighbors that from now on, he’s going to be “a good father and a good neighbor.” And everyone is like, okay, great! And they all live happily ever after.
Have these people never heard of relapses?
Although I enjoyed Strawberry Girl more than I thought I would, I kept feeling like I was having a reading deja vu. Erase that Southern accent, and Birdie Boyer could comfortably live in the pages of any number of Newbery winners.
Next up for me is Miss Hickory, the 1947 winner. I find the cover illustration rather alarming and can’t quite figure out what Miss Hickory is. She looks like a sort of stick figure nut, and I’m really hoping that she’s not going to turn out to be a hickory nut.