Strawberry Girl

strawberry-girl

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski. Originally published in 1945. 194 pages. Winner of the 1946  Newberry Award for Children’s literature.

We’re reading this to my 4th and 5th grade Florida history  co-op class and they seem to be enjoying it a great deal. Readers may recall that last semester we read The Lion’s Paw, another Florida classic children’s novel built on the life and topography of 1940’s Florida.

Strawberry Girl is probably one of the least childlike children’s book I have ever read (by post modern standards), but it’s a good book and not too heavy for children to read and enjoy.

Lois Lenski put a lot of time and research into the lives and culture of what are known as Florida Crackers. That is, native Floridians whose roots go much deeper than World War II. As described by Florida Backroads Travel:

He or she is from a family that was here long before the huge population explosions in Florida after World War Two. He or she is almost always Caucasian.

They and their ancestors lived in Florida and prospered before the days of cars, highways, mosquito control, air conditioning, medicare, social security and government welfare.

It is with this backdrop that Lois Lenski wrote Strawberry Girl, a tale of two Central Florida families whose heads bump heads. The new family in town, the Boyers, are farmers while the Slaters, who had lived on the neighboring property for generations, were cattlemen.

Before the Florida legislature passed a fencing law in 1949, cattlemen let their cows and other livestock roam pastures unhindered to graze wherever they desired. Florida was  very active cattle country at the turn of the century and is still a big cattle raising state. These free roaming cattle often proved to be quite a nuisance to adjacent homesteaders whose income was derived primarily from agriculture.

When the Boyers, wearied by the Slaters cows and hogs trampling their strawberries and eating their other crops, decide to build a fence around their property, a feud breaks out between the two families. Since the Slaters found the Boyers’ “biggety’ ways distasteful from the very beginning, it was a long simmering fight which boils over when Bihu Boyer puts a sound whipping on Sam Slater after Slater poisons his mule. Things escalate even further after that, until Lenski wraps up the book with a neat and tidy religious conversion at the end leaving the reader to surmise that afterwards, the families will live side by side in peace.

One of the first hurdles to get over when reading books set in the old South, is the dialect. I mentioned this when I reviewed Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was written in black dialect not long after Reconstruction. Even though this particular book explores Cracker culture which is white, it was still poorer people speaking in a Southern dialect, which takes some getting used to. However, it is well worth getting over that hurdle:

“Thar goes our cow, Pa!” said the little girl.
“Shore ‘nough, that do look like one of our cows, now don’t it?”
The man tipped his slat-backed chair against the wall of the house. He spat
across the porch floor onto the sandy yard. His voice was a lazy drawl. He closed his
eyes again.
“She got our markin’ brand on her, Pa. A big S inside a circle,” said Essie.
The man, Sam Slater, looked up. “Shore ‘nough, so she has.”
“She’s headin’ right for them orange trees, Pa,” said Essie.
“Them new leaves taste mighty good, I reckon,” replied her father. “She’s hungry,
pore thing!”
A clatter of dishes sounded from within the house and a baby began to cry.
“You’d be pore, too, did you never git nothin’ to eat,” said the unseen Mrs. Slater.
There was no answer.
The sun shone with a brilliant glare. The white sand in the yard reflected the
bright light and made the shade on the porch seem dark and cool.
“She might could go right in and eat ’em, Pa,” said the little girl. Her voice was
slow, soft and sweet. Her face, hands and bare legs were dirty. At her feet lay some
sticks and broken twigs with which she had been playing.
Pa Slater did not open his eyes.
If it isn’t obvious to my regular readers by now, I thoroughly enjoy reading books which explore the history of this state where I have lived my entire life. As it turns out, it’s a history far richer and deeper than Mickey Mouse. However, no matter where you hail from, this is an excellent book.

Grade: A

Grade level: 4th-6th

Content advisory: Violence, though mostly alluded to. Discussions of alcoholism, and killing of animals in retaliation. See full parental review of content at Plugged In.

You’re the Cream In My Coffee

cream-in-my-coffee-novel

You’re the Cream in My Coffee: A Roaring Twenties Novel, by Jennifer Lamont Leo. Published on September 15, 2016.

This is one of those instances where I eat my words and walk back a resolution concerning two genres.  The first is Christian fiction. The second is romance novels. This book falls definitively in the former camp and leans heavily into the latter.

I am far from alone in my trepidation when approaching the genre. You don’t have to look far to find page upon page of critiques of Christian fiction, and Christian romance in particular. This blogger offers a pretty comprehensive list of 8 things that can and often do go wrong with Christian fiction.

However, when a friend is published (and I consider longtime e-friends friends), you buy their books. You give them the press you would deeply desire that they give you, even when they write a genre that you’re a little skeptical about. After that, you pray that it is as good a tome as you hope it is. Fortunately, Jennifer does an admirable job of missing most of the landmines in that list of problems with Christian fiction.

Jennifer takes her readers on a journey with Marjorie Corrigan, oldest daughter of her widowed father and difficult stepmother in the fictional town of Kerryville, Illinois in the wake of WWI and during the years of prohibition. As the story opens Marjorie is 26 and engaged to be married to a well respected young doctor in the town. She is fond of him,  feels quite fortunate, and has resolved to be a good wife, even if she never feels the depth of love for him that she felt for her first love when she was just a girl of sixteen. Jack, her first love, was presumed to have died in The Great War.

With two months left until her wedding to Richard, Marjorie’s feet turn to ice. The lack of passion she feels for Richard alarms her. In addition to her wedding panic, she is experiencing fainting spells at the most inopportune times, causing rumors to swirl around her small town.

She heads to the Windy City to have some tests run on her heart, but the problem doesn’t lie with her physical heart and she decides to stay in Chicago for a time of respite and freedom before her upcoming nuptials, much to the chagrin of her fiance and stepmother.It is during her summer in Chicago that Marjorie gains clarity while simultaneously stumbling into more and more ways to complicate her life.

That’s as much of a spoiler as I want to give away. You can get a few more hints about the trajectory of the story from the Amazon teaser.

As far as Christian fiction goes, this is one of the better books I have read of the genre, which I summarily dismissed several years ago as a dead end literary road. Jennifer manages to infuse faith into the book without being overly preachy (at least most of the time), her characters have layers, and her story has a depth often missing from modern Christian books which focus on romance.

I like that the book is set in the 1920’s and that even though it has some modern themes running through it, the propriety of the times shines through without the pretense of perfect people living perfect lives. The 20’s were after all, probably as much of an influence on the modern morality shift as were the 60’s.  Jennifer does will with showcasing that reality and the realities of city life during the tumultuous period after the first world war.

Because I had sworn off Christian fiction while still reading the occasional bit of fiction where Christianity flowed as a a positive undercurrent, it was a bit of an adjustment to reacquaint myself with a story where the characters openly witnessed to, discussed Bible verses with and offered prayer between one another. I usually find it trite, formulaic, and frankly, annoying. In this case it was always well infused into the story line, so I was able to make the adjustment. The characters’ struggles with faith were more realistic, less formulaic and  less flaky than what I have read in previous Christian fiction.

Jennifer does an admirable job with this book. I’m still not sold on Christian fiction as a genre, but it was a relief to read a well written Christian novel whose characters inspired me to want to read on to the end to see how their stories panned out.

Grade: B

Jennifer Lamont Leo blogs at Sparkling Vintage Fiction.

Content advisory: This is a very clean book. There are references to alcoholism, the organized crime associated with prohibition, and the trauma many soldiers were left with after the war.

The Wind in the Willows

wind-in-the-willows

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. Originally published in 1908. 197 pages.

One of the biggest delights of homeschooling has been the opportunity to read classic books with my children that I never read -nor had read to me- when I was a child. One book that we recently used as a bedtime read aloud is this Kenneth Grahame classic. This is one of those timeless books that captures the imaginations of children across generational divides.

Our children thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of Mole, Rat, and Toad in this fantastical tale that often made you forget that you were reading about the antics of animals. That is, until those few moments when they have interaction within the human world.

The richness of the language made the book both refreshing and educational. I was occasionally stopped and asked for the definition of this word or the meaning of that turn of phrase. Overall, the adventures and lives of the characters was continuously riveting for both my girls and me.  There really isn’t much I can add here that hasn’t been offered again and again about this wonderful book, so I’ll wrap this up with a few quotes for the sake of those of you who haven’t read it. It is my hope that as you take in the rich and captivating writing, you might be inclined to pick it up, even if your kids are all grown up. Recall the words of C.S. Lewis.

This brought laughter:

“Secrets had an immense attraction to him, because he never could keep one, and he enjoyed the sort of unhallowed thrill he experienced when he went and told another animal, after having faithfully promised not to.”

This sparked conversations of winter:

“No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”

And this reminds of the importance of hospitality:

“There he got out the luncheon-basket and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.”

Grade: A

Seriously, read it. The adventures of the characters within, Toad perhaps most of all, are offered with humor, wit, and lessons of life woven between every interaction.

 

 

The Lion’s Paw

lions-paw-book

The Lion’s Paw, by Rob White. Published in 1946. 243 pages.

12-year-old Penny and her 9-year-old brother Nick live in an orphanage on the east coast of Florida. Nick doesn’t much remember living anywhere else and Penny just barely remembers a life before they came there. They hate it, and Nick dreams of running away, but his sister is terrified at the prospect. The orphanage doesn’t like it when kids run away and those who try are almost always caught and made an example of. She tries to talk Nick out of it, but he is determined.

Penny can’t let her little brother run off on his own of course so they escape together, running towards the ocean, hoping to find a boat in which sail away. They determined to start a new life away from the orphanage, which they referred to as the “eganahpro”, because they only ever saw the word written backwards through the wrought iron gates which held them captive.

After Penny and Nick make a run for it  and set off on their adventure, they have the good fortune of running into 15-year-old Ben on the wharf. Ben not only has the boat that he inherited from his father (an WWII Navy lieutenant  presumed dead after a year MIA), but life has thrown him a curve ball inspiring him to run away from his uncle’s as well. The three children set sail together on an adventure far too big for children of their age and station, yet rise to the occasion.

This is an obscure book which once enjoyed a passionate following among Florida readers and educators in the 1960’s and 70’s, and then was out of print for a very long time. I only encountered it because I was looking for books specifically about Florida and Old Florida life. Re-entering the market in 2004, The Lion’s Paw is again enjoying a resurgence among those who know enough to seek it out.

Make no mistake however, this touching, fast paced novel is good reading no matter where you live,where you’re from, or how old you are. C.S. Lewis’ admonition about the timelessness -and age defying quality- of a well told story certainly fits here. Rob White hits all the right notes as the children wrestle with trying to out run the adults searching the seas for their masterfully disguised boat, battle against nature, and grapple with their out fears and uncertainties about the future they face on a journey bigger than themselves.

If you have kids who might like a great story of children on an adventure at sea, you should try and get your hands on a copy of Robb White’s The Lion’s Paw. It might also be a great idea to print a map of Florida’s Okeechobee Waterway to track the kids’ trip from one side of the Florida peninsula to the other.

Grade: A

Content advisory: Mayhem and adventure on the high seas, but nothing the average 9-year old can’t handle. Lots of nautical terminology which provides a good opportunity for the kids to do some research on what it all means.

 

 

No Good

no good

No Good, by John Hope. Published in 2014. 137 pages.

No Good is the title character of this short novel I was introduced to when the author gave a copy of it to my husband to add to our library. Despite the fact that it is fiction, it took several pages of reading before I stopped experiencing the internal cringe I felt every time one of Johnny’s parents called out to him, “No Good…”

The interesting dichotomy is that No Good’s parent clearly cared about him a great deal,  but the prevailing sensibilities of our day were virtually unheard of in the time, space, and socioeconomic station in which No Good and his family lived. The cover photo illustration (logic dictates this is No Good based on the author’s description) no doubt offers an indication of No Good’s and his family’s situation. Pancakes and sausage are a luxury to get excited about, and a bath is a once week dip in a wash tub filled and placed in the center of the kitchen.

Since the reconstruction of Japan is mentioned,  I’ll estimate the era as the late 1940’s in the then small town of Sanford, FL. Since the climax of the story centers around the  murder of a white boy in which a Negro man is the prime suspect, the irony of Sanford as the center of all the action was not lost on me. I wondered if this were coincidental or by design.

I approached this book initially assuming that it was one I could pass on to our 10-year-old to read but as I delved further into it, I decided that it is best reserved for the early teenage reader. Some of the themes, which would have been digestible for a poor, more world wise fifth grader in the 1940’s, are too much for the average 10-year-old to appreciate. While the book was a delight to read, I don’t  yet want to explain the meanings of “the claps” or “bear-lesk”. This brings me to a portion of the book which I found thoroughly amusing.

When No Good, his adoptive brother with a bombshell of a secret, and a neighborhood girl decide to take the bus across town to the negro jail and investigate whether their friend had indeed been arrested for the murder that had gripped the town, No Good finds himself explaining how he even knew where to find the negro jail in the first place:

“How you even know about this place?”

“I helped my Uncle Travis take some trash to the dump a while back, and he told me all about it. Said it used to be a house of bear-lesk until the cops made it a jail for Negros.”

“Bear-lesk?” Josh asked.

“Uncle Carl said it was like a full service hotel.” I explained. “First class, I reckon.”

“How come they built a hotel next to the dump?”Jeannie asked.

I shrugged. “Guess that’s why it’s a jail now.”

I like this book. I like the setting, the fact that the author chose a class of people and a way of life that is largely neglected by fiction writers.  I like that a book with such sensitive themes, written with young readers in mind, is done tastefully and yet without shrinking back or sugar coating.

It’s worth a look.

Grade: B

Content advisory: Race related themes and terminology, boyhood mayhem and the violence which sometimes accompanies it (or used to before we decided in our infinite wisdom that boys should be neutered). Brief reference to sexual relations between No Good’s parents. Again, matter of fact and tastefully presented.

 

 

 

 

A Spool of Blue Thread

spool of blue thread

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler. Originally published in 2015. 368 pages.

I suspect this is the first piece of fiction I’ve ever read that was written in within 20 years of the time I actually read it. I don’t like post-modern fiction, for the most part. I stumbled on this one completely by accident as we were in the book section of a local Target looking for a good book that our oldest daughter could read on an upcoming cross-country plane trip.

The cover caught my attention at first. When I read the synopsis on the inside cover and saw that this was a story about family, family relationships, and the way family members see themselves fitting within those relationships, I was intrigued just enough to put it back on the shelf, go to the library, and check out a copy. Nope, not enough to pay for it.

Red and Abby Whitshank are the head of a close knit family comprised of four grown children and 7 grandchildren.Their roots don’t go back any farther than Abby’s deceased parents, Red’s deceased parents, and Red’s younger sister. In their words, they are all they’ve got.

The gist is that behind the facade of perfection that outsiders see when they look at the Whitshank family, they are just a bunch of ordinary people with ordinary struggles and skeletons in their closet just like every other family. Abby’s realization of this truth, that her family isn’t particularly special, is a hard pill to swallow frankly. And she dies before it is fully digested.

I can relate to that feeling, that your family is special, and because of that I was able to become engrossed in a way I might not have otherwise. Despite Anne Tyler’s acclaim (she wrote The Accidental Tourist* and won the Pulitzer in 1988 for her novel Breathing Lessons*), this book sometimes felt as if it could have been better executed.

The uncertain flow wasn’t enough, however to dampen my interest in the story and I was able to follow it through to the end. The characters were engaging, and I rather enjoyed the fact that the family home functioned as a type of character itself.

One of my favorite moments in the book was when Abby, the family matriarch, died and  her husband Red contemplated where she ended up after departing this life. The Whitshanks were not particularly religious people. Despite the fact that Abby’s death was accidental and sudden, her pre-writen instructions for her home going had specified both the church and the minister she wanted to officiate. She also asked that the thing not be too overtly religious, and the minister so obliged. Afterward, it seemed to Red that something was missing. As he recalled the eulogy that had been offered for his late wife, he asked their daughter:

“Where did he say she went?”

“To a vast consciousness,” Amanda told him.

“Well that does sound like something your mother might do,” he said. “But I don’t know. I was hoping for someplace more concrete.”

Red was a master carpenter and home builder so the line did double duty in the book, while also giving me a hint of  expression for what I thought about this book. There were characters who were not quite concrete.

The beautiful, extremely devout daughter-in-law who said  little, but left you wondering hoe she ended up married into an irreligious family..Red’s sister, who typified much of the spirit of discontent that was part of the Whitshank family legacy, was another.

All that said, A Spool of Blue Thread was a story told well enough to keep the reader plugged in until the end. Especially if you enjoy family dramas with their mix of the mundane, the profound and the emotional ups and downs that all families experience. The stuff that makes life interesting.

Grade: B-

Content advisory: I don’t think an advisory is warranted because Tyler is very tasteful in her presentation, but the first generation of Whitshanks that we meet in the book are Red’s 26 year-old father who had a scandalous relationship with his mother when she was 13. I hate trigger warnings, but you know it is these days.

* This is the first novel I have read of Anne Tyler’s. I might in the future be inclined to read one of her two acclaimed works.