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?