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)."


Sandy D. said...

Also, I absolutely loved this amazon review: "On the cover, after all, you see a little blond barefooted child clutching a cache of yummy red fruit as she walks along in her sunbonnet. I was anticipating Strawberry Shortcake. What I got was "Tobacco Road" for kids. An oddly shocking delight."

Mackenzie A said...

This is the best book ever because I had to read it for a book report for my humanites and when we had to stop I just wanted to keep reading but we couldn't. Well that's what I have to say about the book Strawberry Girl.

Anonymous said...

I used to love this book, back when I was in grade school!