Feuding, Drinking, and Contrived Endings in Strawberry Girl

I frequently read to my oldest daughter at night before bed.  During the school year, this was a regular habit, which led to us reading four books at the same time, an experience I wrote about here.  However, now that school is out for the summer, we have been slacking.   We started reading Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl, winner of the 1946 Newberry Medal, but I ended up finishing it by myself.  Olivia lost interest.

The story is about two backwoods families in Florida in the early 1900s who end up feuding with each other.  It reminds me a little of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, with familiar scenes of plowing, singing, cooking, and beating up the school’s teacher.  Yes, that happens in Wilder’s Farmer Boy, and it also happens in Strawberry Girl.  Apparently, older boys back then didn’t take kindly to book learning.

Lenski’s protagonist is Berthenia, who goes by Birdie.  She longs to play the organ at church, she works hard in their family’s strawberry field, she cares for the younger children (even rescuing them from a fire), and she sometimes has a quick temper, especially when it comes to Shoestring Slater, a son of the family with whom her family, the Boyers, are feuding.

The feud consists of fence cutting, mule poisoning, calf stealing, snake throwing, saloon brawling, and jealousy.  Mrs. Slater is constantly upset that the Boyer’s have things that she doesn’t.  We come to find out that Mr. Slater is a drinker who often goes on benders, leaving his wife at home to fend for herself and using up all of the family’s money.  The themes of the book are obviously mature, but because it is a children’s book, we see these happenings through Birdie’s eyes.

My favorite part is the broken dialect with which the families speak.  They are uneducated, and Lenski writes the dialogue authentically.  This made the book fun to read aloud, for I found myself talkin’ like a backwoods cracker (as the Boyer family calls itself) as I read.  It made the story interesting and real.  My daughter Olivia enjoyed hearing this unique way of speaking, and took to trying out her own accents.

Although the families eventually learn to coexist because of a crisis in which Mrs. Boyer provides neighborly love, the resolution of the novel felt contrived.  When Mr. Slater realizes the sacrifices Mrs. Boyer has made for his wife and children, he suddenly changes his ways.  He becomes a teetotaler and begins attending church and acting like a saint.  It proved happy, and the Slater family suddenly had a desire for education and washing themselves, but it did not prove realistic.  Alas, this is a children’s book, so what more could I expect.  I also found it hard to believe that religion alone would cure all of this family’s ills.  I am religious, but I believe that people must have food in their bellies and roofs over their heads before they can accept spiritual nourishment.  I also believe that education is the key to lifting people out of poverty, not necessarily religion, although I am not discounting religious beliefs as a powerful force for good.

Overall, I am glad to have been introduced to Lenski’s talents, for she wrote and illustrated the book.  Her resume is impressive.  She graduated from Ohio State University in 1915 and pursued additional education in London.  She began The American Regional Series, giving children a glimpse into how children really lived, worked, and played in different parts of the United States. I admire Lenski, for as a child I always dreamed of becoming a children’s book author/illustrator.  However, my Olivia did not enjoy the book as much as I did.  Perhaps she is young yet.

Have you read any of Lenski’s work?  What else should we read from her long list of books?


19 thoughts on “Feuding, Drinking, and Contrived Endings in Strawberry Girl

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  1. unfortunately Lensky is not been translated into Italian but it could be a good choice to train with the English language.
    To my children I have always created stories. Every night, for at least 5 years, I told three different stories. All over … I invented more than five thousand short stories

    1. Wow! You need to write down your stories. Isn’t that how J. K. Rowling created Harry Potter? Your bedtime stories to your children could be the next big hit!

      1. no …. among few months will print a book with my short novel, but I do not think that will become a harry potter!

  2. I don’t know Lensky. My granddaughters are hooked on Harry Potter — for good or ill! But keep reading to her: it’s the best thing you can do (that and tell her stories).

    1. I can’t wait to get to Harry Potter with her. I don’t think she’s old enough yet, but my rule is going to be that she has to read the books before watching the movies!

  3. I love ‘Strawberry Girl’! I read it for the first time in elementary school, and I should go back and read it again.

    Lenski wrote another book called ‘Indian Captive’, based on a true story. I really enjoyed it when I read it, and re-read it every year or two. It’s set in the 1700’s, and is a really great read.

  4. I have a ten 1/2 year old, also Olivia so it happens. She does like reading but have found that when I have introduced her to books set in the past shes not great with them. I think she find it hard to visualise the characters lives. Saying that she loves episodes of little house on the prairie on tv. Also just to say, watching the first harry potter movie got her started on the books, the third of which she is taking on holidays this year.

    1. That’s a good point. My Olivia loves Little House on the Prairie books, but this one was tough. There were a lot of unfamiliar things. Thanks for the thought! What books does your Olivia like?

  5. I picked this one up last year while my boys were in Lego Club one afternoon at our local library. I read half of it then, put it back on the shelf, and then I finished it the next week while my little guy played at the train table. I thought it was delightful & a perfect way to pass the time in one of my favorite places. It’s funny how I still remember the circumstances in which I read this book. I remember really looking forward to our next visit so I could finish the story.

  6. Huh, I always thought that I had read Strawberry Girl, but it’s clear to me from reading your review that I have not. I’ll have to go back and read it, cheesy ending or no.

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