I think this book would be perfect for reading and discussing with a class at school (as young as grades 3 for a read-aloud, up to grade 6, with a reading level of 4.4) or with one’s own children, because of the moral dilemmas it contains. Should the protagonist, 11-year-old Marty Preston, do what is legally right or what is ethically right? Is a lie of omission as bad as a lie of commission? Is it ever OK to steal or blackmail someone? Is Judd’s mistreatment of his dogs any worse than the injury Shiloh suffers as Marty tries to protect him? Since the story is told in first person present tense, the reader hears Marty struggle with these very issues:
A lie don't seem a lie anymore when it's meant to save a dog, and right and wrong's all mixed up in my head. (70)
"Jesus,” I whisper…”which you want me to do? Be one hundred percent honest and carry that dog back to Judd so that one of your creatures can be kicked and starved all over again, or keep him here and fatten him up to glorify your creation?" (57)
There are other points to discuss as well. Marty has a .22 rifle and thinks it’s OK to shoot rabbits and deer, especially for food, as long as they’re in season. Why then is he so sensitive to cruelty to a dog? Marty’s bed is the living room couch, the family doesn’t have a telephone or a working washing machine, yet they do have a TV.
As always, professional reviews of Newbery books are interesting. Before Shiloh won the award, middle school teacher Kenneth E. Kowen noted in the September 1991 School Library Journal that “Marty's father is a postman--usually one of the better paying positions in rural areas--yet the family is extremely poor. There seems to be an inconsistency here. This title is not up to Naylor's usual high quality.” After the Newbery Award, Jane Langton wrote in the May 10, 1992 New York Times Book Review, “Surely there must have been a book more important than this agreeable but slight story." Teacher Anne Hegel Clough responded in a September 13, 1992 letter to the editor:
Shiloh is a story that allows children to examine such issues as truthfulness, accountability, resourcefulness, loyalty, love, and plain old hard work. Hardly “agreeable but slight,” it is a vehicle that may be used to start grappling with some of the most difficult decisions in life. My third-grade students thrived on discussing the protagonist’s dilemmas: we stopped frequently while I was reading aloud to predict, react, and, most rewardingly, to problem-solve and talk about ethics.
…Perhaps the character of Judd Travers is too stereotyped, perhaps Ms. Naylor could have excluded religious references, and certainly things in the book tend to work out a bit more conveniently than they would in real life. Nevertheless, we now have an acclaimed story that will gain wide readership, a story that is edifying, accessible, and inspiring to our children.
In an interview by Suzanna Henshon in the January 2007 Lion & the Unicorn, Naylor said of Shiloh, “It will probably always be one of my favorites, because it has a Mark Twain theme [she stated earlier in the same interview that ‘I was probably influenced most’ by him], the voice of my father, the moral convictions of my mother, it takes place in my husband's home state, and I love that [Preston] family to pieces.”
[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]