I liked reading about the round of seasonal chores in a Bulgarian village. A lot of the story reminded me of an old-fashioned ethnography, with its dispassionate depictions of the peasants plowing, planting, hoping for rain, taking their cows to mountain pastures, harvesting tomatoes and peppers, winnowing wheat, and making bread (note the hanging peppers and the bread and oven on the cover). There were some mildly interesting and exotic words to ponder, and a few nice descriptions of food:
Roda served cherry sladco to all her guests. They sat on three-legged stools around the jamal fire which had only new air to warm up because the windows looking onto the village street were open to let the music of rain and the smell of rain come into the room. Grandfather brought in a tubful of red peppers at a time and got out a jug of sauerkraut juice from a cubby-hole back of the jamal. Peppers went on strings so fast that he could do nothing at all except serve his guests and refill the pepper tub (p. 35).I think sladco is some kind of sweet, but it's not listed in my food dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary, and when I Google sladco I get a thousand hits for a Russian candy company. A jamal is apparently some kind of clay fireplace stove (again, too many hits, given its popularity as a first name). I also liked the spelling of "bowlder" for boulder, the Wickerwockoffs, the descriptions of the tunnels through the snow in the village in the winter, and some of the Christmas and New Year's traditions that Shannon describes, although at times it seems like she's trying to load as many extraneous facts about Bulgarian culture as she can onto poor Dobry's shoulders.
The "massaging Gypsy bear" - first mentioned on the second page, and then appearing periodically - is just bizarre. Did such a thing really exist? Did this bear not have claws? Was it really that exciting to have a bear walk on your back? It's a little hard to believe that this gave "every peasant man in the village" something that "wiped out all thought of his summer toil and gave him the feeling that a long vacation gives to other men (p. 93)".
I don't know if the gypsy bear was stranger than when Dobry envies the older men in the village who have icicles on their chest hair in the winter. When Dobry says "I'll be proud the day I can stride in here, clinking at the chest. It's a noise I love even better than the noise of sledge bells on our oxen (p. 131)", all I could do was goggle at the page in disbelief. And then there's the idea that if you sneak a piece of pig's skin to munch on at night from the slaughtered animal hanging in your house, the ghost of the pig will ride on your back. But these passages did keep me from being bored, as I was with some of the other Newbery winning exaltations of "simple" cultures (see Secret of the Andes and ...And Now, Miguel, for instance).
But what happened to Dobry's father? He must have died sometime after Dobry was born (there's a story about him on the day of Dobry's birth), but no one seems to mourn him, not even Dobry's mother, Roda. Then again, it was hard to care much about any of the characters in the book, given the way they are portrayed. Dobry is interested in art instead of farming, but this big conflict in his life isn't even mentioned until page 80 (of a 176 page book). He's really just a generic happy Bulgarian peasant boy and his mother is a hardworking farm wife. Dobry's grandfather is a hearty man who is most notable for the number of things he is able to keep in the sash belted around his waist (on page 46, this includes "two loaves of bread, a goat cheese, garlic, and his tall wooden salt-and-paprika box," along with six tomatoes!), and of course his ability to melt snow with his body heat.
I really didn't like the illustrations by Atanas Katchamakoff (including the original cover), and agreed with Alicia's comments on them. I didn't like the stories that Grandfather told in the book, either - I think my least favorite was the story of Hadutzi-Dare and the Black Arab. I did wonder why the illustration for this story was listed in the front of the book as "Heidout-Sider Pulling the Water Buffalo with a Chain" (are Hadutzi-Dare and Heidout-Sider different translations of the same hero?), but not enough to research it after a cursory Google didn't enlighten me. I also didn't like the fact that the chapters are neither titled nor numbered, and that the only way you can tell it's a new chapter is by the fact that there's an illustration on the upper third of the page.
I didn't much care for Shannon's descriptions of Dobry's art, either:
Only youth could have brought the freshness Dobry brought to his Nativity, and only a primitive genius, Indian or a peasant like Dobry, could have modeled these figures with strength, assurance, sincerity - untaught in any school (p. 146).I would be very surprised to hear that any kids today care for this book.