Saturday, June 27, 2009


I had a feeling this was going to be one of the sad Newbery winners. So I wasn't too surprised by the violence and tragedy that happens to the father of the unnamed boy that is the main character (and Sounder, the family coonhound) about a third of the way through the book.

I wasn't really prepared for the unrelenting bleakness of the rest of the story, though. It starts out grim, with a cold October wind blowing, the boy can't manage to go to school, the hunting is hard, everyone's hungry, and the boy suffers from "night loneliness." Things don't get a whole lot better after his father is sent to jail, of course, and the part about Sounder's injured ear is one of the saddest things I've ever read in a kid's story.

As with Island of the Blue Dolphins, the beauty of the writing saved me from hating this book. I don't think that I would have liked this book at all as a child, though. I wouldn't have appreciated the stark poetry of its language when I was depressed (and bored, because aside from a couple episodes of violence, not much happens) about the story. Quiet endurance is not a favorite kid topic, and unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, say, there seems to be little hope that things will ever change for the family in Sounder.

Armstrong's descriptions of the sounds of a woodstove, the creak of a rocking chair, and the dirty, cold space under a cabin are amazing, and I'm glad that I read them, even if I was unhappy with the story in general. His best descriptions are of Sounder, though. I would guess that not too many kids today have heard the soulful baying in the moonlit woods that he describes so beautifully:

Years later, walking the earth as a man, it would all sweep back over him, again and again, like an echo on the wind.

The pine trees would look down forever on a lantern burning out of oil but not going out. A harvest moon would cast shadows forever of a man walking upright, his dog bouncing after him. And the quiet of the night would fill and echo again with the deep voice of Sounder, the great coon dog (pgs. 115-116).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Miss Hickory is Weird

It's just a weird, weird little book. I don't know how else to put it.

It felt strange from the get-go, with its cast of characters ("Hen-Pheasant: Sad and without pep....Doe: With God.") and the pair of "large yellow feet" that Miss Hickory sees out of the corner of her eye (she can't turn her head, as it is a hickory nut glued to an apple twig) as she sweeps her corn-cob cabin with a pine needle broom.

The story just gets weirder, especially when Miss Hickory starts talking. What a contrast with Hitty (and is there anyone on earth who has read both of these Newbery winners that can not compare the two)! The first words out of Miss Hickory's inked-on mouth set the tone for her dialog in the rest of book:
"Are you at home, Miss Hickory?" Crow asked in his hoarse voice.

"Well, what do you think, if you ever do think?" she asked. "I heard your big yellow clodhoppers, and I saw you pass by. If you think there is one kernel of corn left in my house walls that you can peck out you are mistaken. You have eaten them all." (p. 11)

Even though I didn't like Miss Hickory all that much (so hard-headed...not to mention prim, judgmental, and crabby), I admit that I felt for her when she was abandoned. There are several moments of deep despair in Miss Hickory. She keeps right on going, collecting berries and sewing herself garments out of leaves and moss, which is admirable, but the sad moments are never really balanced out by the happy bits. Actually, there aren't really any joyous or fun parts in Miss Hickory - I guess that's part of the reason I didn't like it much. There are some moderately interesting parts about fall, winter, and spring in New Hampshire, the bleak parts, and then some truly "wow, this is almost as weird as that psychedelic part in the first Willy Wonka movie where the rowers keep on rowing" parts.

The worst part about all of the truly weird parts in Miss Hickory is that they are just there - something a little disturbing happens (like on Christmas Eve, which in Miss Hickory has a few macabre parts that reminded me more than a little of The Graveyard Book), and you're left hanging. There's no follow-up. The plot is one non sequitur after another, right up to the surreal ending.

I kind of liked the ending (with its vocabulary word for the day: scion), once I surrendered to the one-weird-thing-after-another vibe - it's the perfect culmination to the story - but I don't think I'll be recommending this one to anyone soon, except as an historical oddity. I did learn that bullfrogs shed (and eat) their skin, though, which is something I didn't know before this.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Strawberry Girl

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski, struck me as a rather strange little book. I couldn't help comparing it to all of the other Newbery winning odes to rural life that I've read recently, especially Thimble Summer and Caddie Woodlawn (which both won the Newbery in the 30's, a decade earlier than Strawberry Girl). Although Strawberry Girl was set in central Florida at the turn of the 20th century, not during the Depression (like Thimble Summer), the narrative had a very Depression-era feeling of desperation to it. And much like Thimble Summer, Strawberry Girl features a not terribly exciting story (though it should be more exciting, with all that happens in it!) and a not particularly memorable 10 year old girl who lives on a farm with her brothers and sisters and parents.

This was the weakest part of the book for me. Birdie Boyer, the daughter of a strawberry farmer, just doesn't do enough to make me care about her. She works hard, she wants to play the organ, and at her most interesting, she hates the neighbor boy who swings a snake that drops onto her Sunday hat:
She ducked her head with a sudden, violent motion. The snake fell to the ground and slipped off into the bushes. She saw that it was a young harmless blacksnake, but that did not change her feelings.

"You! You!" she yelled, shaking her fist at the boy.

She was so angry she wanted to kill him. She hated him with a cold hard hate. She hated his overalls and his black felt hat. She hated his thin face, tight mouth and half-shut eyes. She hated every bone in his skinny body. Her anger was black enough to kill him, but he ran so fast she could not catch him (p. 47).
If only Birdie had sustained this level of passion in the story, or Lenski had described more about Birdie's feelings and her point of view. Birdie is curiously passive for most of the story, which is why I think that even the most exciting passages (grass fire threatens Birdie's house and younger siblings, alcoholic neighbor threatens her family and poisons their mule) left me curiously detached.

Caddie Woodlawn, now? She's a memorable character. So is Lucky, from The Higher Power of Lucky - in fact, I liked Lucky so much that I just checked out Lucky Breaks, the sequel to The Higher Power. (I didn't think Lucky Breaks was as noteworthy as The Higher Power, but Lucky managed to keep me reading with the force of her personality alone).

What did interest me in Strawberry Girl was Lois Lenski's obviously well-researched description of the hardscrabble life of Florida farmers and ranchers in the early 1900's. A little Googling shows that Strawberry Girl was the second installment in Lenski's American Regional books, which seem a bit like today's American Girl books (without the accompanying merchandising), featuring girls and a few boys in different settings in the U.S.

In her autobiography (Journey into Childhood), Lenski wrote that she was struck by the fact that there were "plenty of books that tell how children live in Alaska, Holland, China, and Mexico, but no books at all telling about the many ways children live here in the United States (p. 183)." So that's kind of cool, especially given the regional homogenization that has occurred in the last half century.

The language Lenski uses in Strawberry Girl is interesting, too - I particularly liked the word "biggety", which means stuck up. The characters have wonderful names: Birdie's father is Bihu Boyer, and her sisters are Dixie Lee Francine and Dovey Eudora Boyer. Birdie's full name is actually Berthenia Lou Boyer. And then there are the Slaters, the neighbors that the Boyers feud with - Jefferson Davis (aka Shoestring, who throws the snake), Essie, Zephy, Gus, Joe, Sam, and Azalee Slater. Classmates include Mary Jim, Lank, Rofelia, Latrelle, Coy & Loy (twins), Shad, Billie Sue, Roxie May, Kossie & Kessie, and Olema.

I'd never heard of cooters (they're a kind of edible turtle), or chufers (aka chufas), which the Boyers feed to their hogs along with sweet potatoes. Thank goodness for Google again, which tells me that chufas are the edible tuber of the nutgrass or yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentas).

In her foreword, Lenski writes a bit about "Florida Crackers" (check out this explanation of the term: What's a Cracker?), and the two families in her book are both Crackers through and through. The Slater family is so poor that the kids have never seen a comb or a tablecloth, and they consider their new neighbors, the Boyers, biggety. The Boyers feed their livestock instead of letting them range free, build fences to protect their crops (a major source of conflict in the story), and can afford luxuries like a new cooking stove and store-bought summer hats.

This Florida Cracker Homestead site shows what I imagine the Slater family cabin looked like (and isn't too different from some of Lenski's illustrations). Speaking of the illustrations, some of them were pretty interesting, and I was glad to see how cane grinding worked, but Lenski's style of pencil drawings just didn't do much for me. From Lenski's biography, I gather she was more well-known as an illustrator than an author, too.

Finally, like many other reviewers, I really didn't care for the ending. All the conflict in the story, suddenly solved by a Camp Meeting? I just hope Pa Slater really did stop drinking. He might do a lot worse than shooting the heads off his wife's chickens otherwise, since his new job has him touching off a fuse in the pits for phosphate mines, running as fast as he can, then listening to it "go BOOM and blow the whole place up! (p. 187)."