Friday, November 16, 2012

Strawberry Girl - 1946 Medal

by Lois Lenski,
read by Natalie Ross

Strawberry Girl, winner of the 1946 Newbery Medal, was the second book in Lois Lenski's American Regionals series, 17 books about the lives of children in different regions of the country, published between 1943 and 1968.

This story takes place in Polk County, Florida (in the center of the state, east of Tampa), in the early 1900s (according to the author in her foreword, although that could mean the first half of the century).   It centers on two Cracker neighbor families, the Slaters, squatters who raise cattle on open range, and the Boyers, newly-arrived landowners who want to raise strawberries and oranges.  The main characters, ten-year-old Berthenia Lou "Birdie" Boyer and twelve-year-old Jefferson Davis "Shoestring" Slater, epitomize the conflicts and (sometimes) cooperation between the two families.  The conflicts include killing each others' animals, and setting a fire hoping to burn the neighbor out.

In her Newbery acceptance speech*, Lenski said, "Because these are true-to-life stories, I have included...certain incidents which...authors, perhaps following some unwritten taboos, have not often used in children's books...We have not often put drunken fathers or malicious neighbors into a book for children.  I have done this, and I would like to tell you why.  These incidents are...true and authentic.  They have happened not once but a hundred times in this particular locality, and have been experienced by the children as well as the adults.  To leave them out and to pretend that such things never happen would be to present a false picture" (page 284).

Lenski spent two winters in Lakeland, Florida, meeting the people who would become characters in her book, and experiencing their lives.  She also did extensive research, as she did with her earlier historical fiction, including Newbery Honor Books Phebe Fairchild (1937) and Indian Captive (1942).  Much like the "lightning artist" in her story, Lenski carried her sketchbook with her in Florida.  "Always a crowd of children gathered, eager to watch a drawing grow on a sheet of paper - and eager to tell me many things I wanted to know...My drawing helped, as nothing else could, to break down the barriers of suspicion.  Drawing is a universal language which everybody understands" (page 281).

Lenski used local dialects in her American Regionals books, to provide authenticity.  Some reviewers, past and present, have criticized this.  In her acceptance speech, Lenski said, "Speech is so much more than words--it is poetry, beauty, character, emotion.  To give the flavor of a region, to suggest the moods of the people, the atmosphere of the place, speech cannot be overlooked...In the simplest of words, with only a minimum of distortions in spelling, this is what I have tried to convey.  There may be some children who will find it difficult reading.  But I am willing to make that sacrifice, because of all that those who do read it will gain, in the way of understanding 'the feel' of a different people, and the 'flavor' of a life different from their own" (pages 286-287).

An audiobook is an excellent way to experience this story.  Narrator Natalie Ross was outstanding with the dialect, and even did a little singing.   In the foreword of The Life I Live, Collected Poems, dated December 1964, Lenski said, "During the writing of the early Regionals, 1943-1949, I made a special study of American folksongs, in which I had long been interested, as well as a study of local dialects, and quoted some of these songs in my books."

The audiobook has two other positive features. At the end, Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, "talks about the context in which Strawberry Girl was written, and how the problems and conflicts we see in the book relate to our world today." Also, the audiobook clearly indicates the beginning and end of each disc with banjo music, and even has some overlapping text at each end.

The dialect might be hard for younger children to handle on their own, so for most elementary students, I'd recommend this book as an audiobook or a read-aloud.  Lenski's descriptions are so good that I felt I did not need her illustrations to picture the action and setting in my mind.    

I really enjoyed this book.  I learned a lot about life in central Florida in the early twentieth century, with its underground lakes, sinkholes, and artesian wells, scrub oaks and pines, and palmettos.  Not to mention the variety of critters they eat (like cooters, a soft-shelled water turtle) and encounter (alligators on the road, grasshoppers on the flowers, robins in the strawberries). Daily life on the farm (and the range) is described, as well as life in town - I loved Miss Liddy noting (on page 61) that "the millinery business shore is lively - you got to lend money, tend babies, make wax flowers, and stop dog fights!" And "quarrels did not keep people away from frolics" (page 82) - cane grinding led to candy pulling, while a drunk Sam Slater's shooting off his chickens' heads led to a chicken pilau feast.

The only thing I didn't like was the ending.  I've never been one for preacher-worship, and Sam's sudden conversion and swearing off drink seems too easy to be believable to me.  Nevertheless, I would like to read more of Lenski's American Regionals.  We have Cotton in My Sack and Shoo-Fly Girl in my university library, and I'd like to get a copy of Texas Tomboy, set in nearby San Angelo.

I can certainly see why Strawberry Girl won the Newbery.  Anne Scott MacLeod, in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers (1989), said, "Unusual, particularly for the 1940's and 1950's, is her focus on the poorer levels of American society. In all of [her regional works] Lenski presents patterns of life often invisible in children's books. For the most part, she does so with neither condescension nor sentimentality."  Taimi M. Ranta, in Dictionary of Literary Biography (1983), stated, "In the development of realism in children's literature, Lenski's work is an important point of departure on the way to the stark realism of the late twentieth century."

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[*Lois Lenski, "Seeing Others as Ourselves," in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955, edited by Bertha Mahoney Miller and Elinor Whitney Field, The Horn Book, Inc, 1955, pages 278-287.  This book, as well as the Strawberry Girl audiobook and a print copy, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.  A variation of this review appears on my blog, Bookin' It.]