Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone, a biography by James Daugherty, won the Newbery in 1940. It's one of the few Medal winners that is currently out-of-print, and is consequently somewhat expensive and may be hard to obtain. Many libraries do have old copies of it (my copy, one of two from the small Saline District Library is copyright 1962; I noticed that the much larger neighboring Ann Arbor District system only has one copy, which is on permanent reserve in the Reference Collection).

I hate to say it, but I'm glad this book is out-of-print. It has replaced The Matchlock Gun (1942) and The White Stag (1938) as my least favorite of the thirty-six Newbery books I've read so far. I thought that the story and the descriptions (with the exception of the casual racism) were actually very well done in The Matchlock Gun, and the artwork was gorgeous in The White Stag, but I couldn't find any such redeeming qualities in Daniel Boone.

James Daugherty did the many illustrations (as well the cover and the text) in Daniel Boone, and although I like WPA-era murals and posters in general, I found the pictures in Boone just plain creepy. The green and brown coloring on the black & white outline drawings just added to the general fugliness of his strangely contorted figures. It's like they all have bowling balls under their clothes, and even the illustrations that don't show wickedly muscular Indians terrorizing cowering settler maidens are weirdly unsettling.

The Newbery Companion (a book that is almost entirely readable and searchable through GoogleBooks) suggests here that Daniel Boone is appropriate for Grades 5-9. (Amazon's assigned reading level of "Baby-Preschool" is obviously an error). I think that kids this age would be mostly bored by Daugherty's ode to Manifest Destiny, which is full of flowery passages like this:
So Daniel Boone grew lean and strong with his toes in the good black dirt, with the ring of the anvil in his ears, strong and sure-handed with tools and guns, and his head as clear and cool as the hillside spring above his cabin home (p. 14).

He had often dreamed of a way, some river trail or hidden pass that would lead surely over the mountains to the unknown plains. It might be the gateway to a new America, a fabulous western world with a destiny of glory like the towering storm clouds in a fiery sunset (p. 27).

The lives of these movers on the Wilderness Road and forest settlers were a rough and violent saga full of lights and shadows, sweet and bitter as the wild persimmon, rough and tough as the shag-barked hickories, fierce and tender as the tall waving corn of the valleys (p. 52).
The following passage, where Daugherty writes about Daniel Boone's first biography, (written by a schoolteacher named John Filson, who interviewed Boone and published his account when Boone was 50 in 1784) is particularly ironic in light of Daugherty's own choice of language:
What a story he must have heard! Mr. Filson embalmed it in elegant language and dullness and reflections on the beauties of nature (p. 80).
Daugherty's biography rests very lightly on the historical facts. I was frustrated at the beginning by not even being able to figure out exactly what time period the book was set in (no Googling until I finished!) - not until page 26 (over a quarter of the way through the book) is a date even mentioned. And then you realize that it's 1765, and that Boone must have been born at least a couple of decades before this (as a matter of fact, Daniel Boone was born in 1734 and died in 1820).

The French & Indian War and the American Revolution are never mentioned as the primary causes of the Native/English/American violence repeatedly described in Daniel Boone. The reader is left with the idea that the "bloody tales of massacre, torture, and desperate escapes" (p. 38), as Daugherty puts it, are probably due to the nature of the Indians, who are variously described as savage, savage demons, rats in the night, outlandish, infesting the woods, cat-eyed, and as doomed as the buffalo. One passage does also describe "The splendid copper-gleaming images of the dreaded Indian chieftains [that] emerged suddenly out of the dark green forest background" (p. 39).

But by far the most disturbing part of the book for me was the gratuitous inclusion of the following passage from The Autobiography of David Crockett - meant to illustrate the destruction of an Indian village, I guess:
We took them all prisoners that came out to us in this way; but I saw some warriors run into a house, until I counted forty-six of them. We pursued them until we got near the house, when we saw a squaw sitting in the door, and she placed her feet against the bow she had in her hand, and then took an arrow, and, raising her feet, she drew with all her might, and let fly at us, and she killed a man, whose name, I believe, was Moore. He was a lieutenant, and his death so enraged us all, that she was fired on, and had at least twenty balls blown through her. This was the first man I ever saw killed with a bow and arrow. We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it. I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh was broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him, though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian, when his dander is up, that he had sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters (p. 24-25).
So what age group is this appropriate reading for? I know I don't want my 11 year old to read that, especially when it is not portrayed as a particularly bad thing, but just as part of frontier life or as a characterization of "The Indian". This kind of violence may have been common in the 18th century, but I don't think it's something to be celebrated, or even casually mentioned in children's literature, as it is in Daugherty's Boone.*

Daugherty's graphic (pardon the pun) art is still controversial, by the way: check out this 2006 newspaper article on the display of one of his murals in an elementary school in Connecticut: Mural's Content May Stop Its Return to School.

In short, I was alternately bored, fairly disturbed, and annoyed by this book, and I don't think its shortcomings can be easily dismissed as a product of its time (especially when it is compared to other earlier winners, like Caddie Woodlawn, Call It Courage, and The Story of Mankind). I didn't even learn that much about Daniel Boone, except when I started searching for information online on sites like Daniel Boone: Myth and Reality in American Consciousness (an American Studies project at University of Virginia). I would recommend kids interested in learning more about Daniel Boone and Euro-American settlement in the Ohio River Valley look elsewhere. Almost anywhere else, in fact.

*I can see using that passage as part of a lesson like this one (for Grades 6-8, from the History Channel), but that's clearly not the situation here.


Sandy D. said...

Oh, and here's what Michelle F. Bayuk had to say about Daugherty's Boone: "Daniel Boone (1940 winner, James Daugherty, Viking) is fortunately out-of-print, but it was (and is) a real travesty that an apparently intelligent committee would choose a book of dubious scholarship and horrible insensitivity as something good for children to read. The book is racist, misogynistic, and quite frankly, not a work of nonfiction. It is the glorification of a man who, according to the author, never does anything wrong. When bad things happen to him (like losing his land—twice—because he fails to file the paperwork), it's not his fault. Daniel Boone, after all, is a man's man and a great hero. Why should he have to deal with little things like seeing to his own future? What is interesting is that the immediately proceeding Newbery winner is Thimble Summer (1939 winner, Elizabeth Enright, Holt) in which a girl acts with equality with the boys in the story. The book immediately following, Call It Courage (1941 winner, Armstrong Sperry, Simon & Schuster) is a fine attempt at presenting an island culture to a young audience. Given that the children's literature of the time was fairly progressive, we can't blame the pre-World War II isolationism or rhetoric for the committee's incongruous choice. Daniel Boone is both a travesty and a conundrum."

Part of the reason I liked her article so much, I guess.

Amanda said...

Excellent posts, this and the last one. Thanks too for the link.

Sandy D. said...

Thanks, Amanda.

I just checked that Allen Co. Library ranking here - and saw that Daniel Boone was ranked 85th out of 86. Amos Fortune must be *really* bad. :-/

Anonymous said...

Worst. Newbery. Winner. Ever. And I'm so glad you didn't like "The White Stag" either. What was it with celebrating guys like Boone and Mr. The Hun?

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