Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ginger Pye

I was looking for something light after reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry last week, so I turned to Ginger Pye for my next Newbery winner. I thought the 1950's era story of a puppy and his family would be a charming read, kind of like Roller Skates, but set in a small town. Since I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, and still maintain a rather love-hate relationship with the community, I like reading about how small towns are portrayed in kids' books, whether they're historic or contemporary, ridiculously idealistic or humorous or filled with gritty realism.

Well, I was wrong on a couple counts. First all, although Ginger Pye was published in 1951, it's set in a much earlier era. I sat and tried to figure out exactly when the story took place by thinking about the trains, the "jalopies", and the general technology used in the story (milking cows by hand, gas lights, pier-glass mirrors, a "horsehair parlor"), but not a whole lot of date-specific things are actually mentioned in Estes' fictional town of Cranbury (which I later read was based on West Haven, CT), which is located somewhere between Boston and New York.

I turned to the Internet next, where people stated with great certainty (and in all but one case, mistakenly) that the story was set in 1919, 1924, the 1950's, and even the 1960's and 70's. The latter dates were a particular stretch, given the book's publication date and the fact that it is NOT science fiction.  Anyway, one post mentioned the date on a newspaper in one of Estes' illustrations (on pg. 161), and I checked, and it is indeed 1919. This is a bit earlier than I would have guessed, but since the story is such a timeless one - based entirely on the activities of a couple kids, their family, their dog, and a couple of neighbors - the date doesn't actually matter much.

The second thing I was mistaken about was that the story was going to be charming. I didn't find Ginger's story (or more accurately, Jerry and Rachel's story) charming so much as mostly insipid and meandering.There were a few nice parts - I particularly liked Rachel's "reasonable unreasonableness" - but mostly, I was bored. I did like Ginger's point of view, and the ending was rather satisfying - but these were little sparks of interest in a sea of wholesome family bland. Maybe reading it right after Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was a mistake, because I couldn't help comparing the sibling interactions, the historical setting, and lots more in the two books, with Ginger Pye coming up distinctly lacking.

I didn't care about the Unsavory Character (a man in a yellow hat, not to be confused with the one in Curious George), I hated Estes' illustrations (shown here on the original cover), and the most fun I had was comparing the historical differences of kid behavior and parenting then and now. Talk about your free-range kids (and dogs - leashes were not just optional but totally disparaged).

Jerry and Rachel (ages 10 and 9, respectively) go swimming at the reservoir by themselves, sometimes taking their 3 year old Uncle Bennie with them. One of their favorite places to play is on a "skeleton house" - the framework of a house under construction. If this were gritty realism instead of an idyllic small town story, someone would have drowned, or fallen into the basement hole from the top floor scaffolding, or gotten tetanus, or something like that. Even German measles (rubella) wasn't a big deal in the book. There just wasn't enough drama for me, even when things did happen. And the fact that Jerry and Rachel's mother met their father when she was 17 and he was 35 didn't seem quite so romantic to me as it was told in the book, though the fact that he was a famous "bird man" (aka an ornithologist) was a little interesting - but not enough to make me truly care.

I haven't read anything else by Eleanor Estes, so I'd be interested in hearing how this compares to her other books, which people talk about with some affection. I can see how some people might enjoy the rambling narratives by Jerry, Rachel, and Ginger....but I really didn't get much out of it.