STRAWBERRY GIRL (1946)
By Lois Lenski
Lois Lenski wrote picture books, early-grade chapter books, and the American Regional series.
I read many of them – Blue Ridge Billy, Bayou Suzette, Judy’s Journey, as well as the Newbery-winning Strawberry Girl. In the foreword to SG she explains, “In this series of regional books for American children, I am trying to present vivid, sympathetic pictures of the real life of different kinds of Americans, against authentic backgrounds of diverse localities. We need to know our country better; to know and understand people different from ourselves; so that we can say: ‘This then is the way these people lived. Because I understand it, I admire and love them.’ Is this not a rich heritage for our American children?”
Strawberry Girl is set in central Florida in the early 1900’s, “still frontier country, with vast stretches of unexplored wilderness, woodland, and swamp.” Ten-year-old Birdie Boyer and her family have come south from Carolina to reclaim an abandoned farmstead where they will grow a new cash crop: strawberries. The neighbors are the hot-tempered and shiftless Slaters who hold grudges and who refuse to fence in their cattle and pen their hogs. The Boyers are generous and extend aid and hospitality to the Slaters.
There are some genuinely funny scenes – schoolhouse pranks and sibling antics -- and some very poignant ones. The Slaters sell a steer but Mr. Slater “took all the money and blew it in. He gambled most of it and got drunk with the rest,” sobbed Mrs. Slater. Later on when Mrs. Slater and her daughters come down with a fever, Mrs. Boyer and Birdie nurse them back to health. Mr. Slater grudgingly thanks them.
I was reminded of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ books, written a few years before Strawberry Girl, especially her memoir Cross Creek. This is a very different central Florida from today’s retirement and tourist destination.
Here is the list of all the American Regional series: http://library.illinoisstate.edu/unique-collections/lois-lenski/work.php#american
By Rachel Field
In the early 1820’s a peddler carved a small doll out of a stick of mountain ash. He gave her to young Phoebe Preble, a Maine sea captain’s daughter. Phoebe named the doll Mehitabel, or Hitty for short. Over the next century Hitty traveled with Phoebe and her family on a whaling voyage, was shipwrecked on a South Sea Island where she was venerated by the natives, was owned by a “Hindoo” snake charmer, taken back to the U.S. by the daughter of American missionaries, lived on a plantation in Louisiana, was a prop for an itinerant portrait-painter on the Mississippi River . . . and made her way back to the State of Maine where, from a shelf in an antiques shop, she writes her memoirs.
What I remembered from my first reading (circa 1962) were the old-fashioned Bodoni bold typeface, Dorothy P. Lathrop’s finely-detailed pen-and-ink illustrations (with Hitty’s unchanging half-smile, whether she was floating in the seaweed or sitting in a haymow), and the pink-and-green foulard pattern on the book cover (vintage fabric before I knew what that meant). I now appreciate the State of Maine references – I have driven on the Portland-to-Bath road where the Prebles lived (it’s US Route 1).
“Hitty” is a gentler version of the Wandering Jew literary device (a person whose peregrinations span the years and the globe). I wonder what she’s been up to in the 85 years since she first wrote her story!
SMOKY THE COWHORSE (1927)
By Will James
I got over horse books the summer that I read all the Black Stallion series. (That was how I discovered that library books could be put on hold, which in those days meant filling out a 3 x 5 salmon-colored ‘reserve’ card. I think I was more interested in the bibliographic phenomenon of a ‘series’ than I was in the Black Stallion stories themselves.)
And so, Smoky, the Cowhorse was yet another Newbery winner that I had not read until this project and it is another that I would not have appreciated as much when I was ten as I do now.
Smoky is a “cloudy-colored” bronco born on the Rocking R in Montana in the early 1900’s. Clint is the cowboy who spots him in the roundup and sees the horse’s potential. They have a long working relationship on the ranch. Smoky is stolen. He is abused and misused and eventually is sold to a rodeo outfit as a bucking bronco. Many years later Smoky and Clint are reunited.
Will James tells the story mostly from both Clint’s and Smoky’s points of view. He avoids cutesy anthropomorphizing. Smoky never “talks.” Clint is pretty taciturn himself. There’s lots of cowboy lingo and dialect – it would sound great read aloud, in character.
This is a great tale of the not-so-Old West: open range, cowboys, cattle, horses, rustlers, justice.
I read a reprint of the 1926 edition that includes James’ illustrations, which reminded me of Remington sculptures. At www.willjames.org I learned that he was born Joseph Ernest Dufault in Quebec. “He came West in 1907 at age 15, becoming a cowhand and changing his name . . . He gained a reputation for his sketches of lie on the range . . . He was accused of rustling cattle in Ely, Nevada. During his 15-month prison sentence he turned to his art, and after his release he became one of the best known Western writers and artists.” He wrote and illustrated more than 20 books. He died in 1942 at age 50.”