Friday, December 30, 2016
The Newbery Challenge - 1930s
So…I guess I grossly overestimated things when I declared that I intended to read all the Newbery Award books this year. Ha! Not. Even. Close.
I did make quicker progress through the second decade Newbery Award winners than I did with the first decade's worth. Even still, at just two decades per year it will take me more like five years to finish this project. As I am in competition with no one and I made the “rules” for this challenge I shall just take my time and enjoy the process, however long it might end up taking.
1930 - Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field
I thought that the premise for Hitty was very shrewd. Children's books quite often feature exotic, foreign lands and/or teach moral values. Rachel Field found a way to cover a lot of ground on both fronts by making the narrator of the story a doll, Hitty. Because she is sturdy and made of wood Hitty travels the world and "lives" for a long, long time. Departing from rural life in Maine Hitty goes to sea on a whaling ship where she is lost in a storm. From there it is just one adventure (or perhaps mishaps is more appropriate) after another. She lives with a "Hindoo" snake charmer before being bought by a missionary family who bring her back to the states. She spends decades in an attic before being found by a Quaker girl and, ultimately, finds herself in an antique shop in New York, where she decides to write her memoirs. The doll narrator was a keen mechanism for teaching about different religions, races, and time periods in a way that a human narrator could not. Of course, given the time it was written, there are a few paragraphs that were a bit racist or sexist--and there was the one scene where a teen boy mimes "making love" to the doll on his knee that I just can't see making a modern children's book.... All in all the story was good, though not outstanding, but I thought it was a cleverly written book.
1931 - The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
The Cat Who Went to Heaven was a rather odd story, I thought. It read quickly though and, of course, I am drawn to a book with a cat as a central character. The story is set in Japan and features a poor, down on his luck artist and his housekeeper. They have almost nothing, including food, but none the less take in a stray cat. The cat seems to pray before their household statue of the Buddha. This prompts the artist to resume praying himself, a habit he'd let fall by the wayside in his despair. Before long he is commissioned to paint a portrait of the Buddha being visited by all the animals as he is dying. Turns out, according to tradition, the house cat was the only animal that didn't go pay respects. So, they're barred from achieving Nirvana as a result. Cats don't go to heaven, according to Buddhist tradition. I didn't know any of that, as I am no Buddhist scholar, but it plays a central role in the story. The cat grows depressed that all the animals are to be memorialized in the painting except her own race. It breaks the artist's heart so he adds a cat to the work, despite the fact it defies the traditional story and upsets the priests. And then a miracle happens. It was nice, albeit a rather peculiar tale, if you ask me.
1932 - Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer
Waterless Mountain chronicles the development of Younger Brother into Little Singer, a "Navaho" medicine man. As I just mentioned above, the story is a classic case of exposing young people to different cultures--the native tribes of the American southwest in this case. Set in a time when the "Navahos" practice corn pollen rituals and hold traditional wedding sings, but where there are also trading posts and automobiles making inroads into their culture, Younger Brother is caught between worlds. He has a great respect for the Big Man (the white man at the trading post) and while paternalistic, the Big Man treats the natives fairly well. He is trying to improve their lot, but at the same time is trying to assimilate them. As a result it was slightly problematic for me as a modern reader, but...it is what it is. More than for the Big Man, Younger Brother has an even greater respect for Uncle, who is instructing him in the singing of sacred songs and helping guide Younger Brother along his natural calling to become a medicine man. There was a passage about the importance of singing and dancing--and how all things in nature sing and dance--that really makes me happy. I have to agree. It was a fine story, but not all that remarkable. One thing that did stick with me was the supreme importance of the corn plant to the "Navahos." It goes well beyond daily diet. Their cigarettes are rolled in corn leaves. They great the day with a corn pollen ceremony. They celebrate with corn cakes baked in earth ovens. And so on. That was interesting. American history is briefly touched on as the deportation of the Navajos to Fort Sumner known as The Long Walk, but it is primarily a more personal narrative of the young boy's life.
1933 - Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis
The first paragraph of Young Fu filled me with, well, I guess dread wouldn't be too far off the mark. I got only as far as Fu Be Be directing the "load-coolies" and had to bust out the dictionary. In the end, I was very pleased with the book--it just took several chapters for the drama to build and the story to really take off. Young Fu and his mother, Fu Be Be, move to the city so that Young Fu can apprentice at a well-esteemed copper shop. His father, a poor farmer, has died and Fu Be Be has secured this opportunity for her son, though she doesn't like the city. The story is woven through with life lessons and values from traditional Chinese culture, things like, "character is made by rising above one's misfortunes," or "jealousy is a strong passion for a youth to conquer." I even added a few new proverbs to my repertoire, my favorites being, "laziness never filled a rice bowl," and "the shallow teapot does the most spouting, and boils dry most quickly." In addition to learning the word, "coolie," I also picked up a few other linguistic oddities. For example the word, "outside," was never used. Instead the word, "without," was used in its place. When company came over the children were ordered without to play. People who lived without the city walls were in more danger. [As a matter of coincidence I subsequently saw this same usage of "without" in a much more contemporary book about the great California earthquake. This prompted me to get out the Oxford English Dictionary where I learned this usage isn't as uncommon as I might have thought--though it is now used either in literary or archaic sense. Now, back to Young Fu...] Every time the word, "reenter" was used there was an umlaut over the second e, as if people needed help remembering how to pronounce it. The word, "role," had an accent circumflex over the top. I thought that was unusual, but it wasn't actually the first time I'd seen it so far in my vintage Newbery
reading. I did some searching online and found numerous interesting articles about it, a couple I will link here and here. At the end of the book were paragraphs offering some historical context for the major themes of each chapter--Transportation, Education, Foot Binding, Coinage, Sanitation, Bandits, Floods, Marriage Customs, etc. That was very interesting--though I am highly dubious about their origin story for foot binding. The book was decidedly anti-Communist--when Fu tells his mom about a speaker he heard urging taking from the rich to give to the poor she quickly inform him, "that has always been the ambition of the lazy." This attitude isn't surprising, really, given when the book was published and especially when I noted that the book had been used as part of the U.S. Government Reorientation Program in Germany and Austria. All in all it was a charming little tale about overcoming obstacles, the importance of hard work and honor, and what it means to be an adult.
1934 - Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia MeigsI will just start by saying that I have never read Little Women. I know a bit about it--picked up here and there from comments and references in popular culture. I initially had thoughts of apprehension about reading the biography of an author whose work I'd not read. However I realized that Young Fu and some others I'd been dubious about had turned out quite good so I reframed my thinking and entered into the story of Louisa May Alcott with some optimism. While very flattering to the central figure there is no doubt that she had quite an interesting life. I had no idea that the Alcotts were family friends with the likes of Thoreau and Emerson, for example, or that they started a sort of commune called the Fruitlands where they practiced simple living, vegetarianism, academia, and commonly owned property. Louisa's efforts as a war nurse during the American Revolution was remarkable. Her devotion to her family was the cornerstone of her life and life's work. I think I shall have to pick Little Women up now that I've read Invincible Louisa and see what I've been missing. This book continues the trend of oddities such as spelling "role" with a circumflex accent over the R. It also had an interesting spelling variation in that the S was doubled on the word, "focussed."
1935 - Dobry by Monica Shannon
Dobry was an interesting book, mainly in that is set in Bulgaria, a country I don't know much about. It is the story of a young boy, Dobry, growing up in the countryside. I learned that in Bulgaria folks nod their head to mean "no," and they shake their head to mean, "yes." My initial thought was, "Well. That is weird." Until I realize there really wasn't anything that made sense about the fact I was raised to do the opposite. I thought it was weird enough that I looked it up and it is, indeed, true. Weird is just what you don't know. I was charmed by their Christmas tradition which holds that children should put a piece of paper under the eaves of their house so that when the Christmas bird flies down from the north he will leave them gifts of nuts and fruit. There is a religious undertone to to the book, but it was a part of Dobry's peasant life, like the Christmas story not preaching or proselytizing. At one point his grandfather tells him, "...no animal is too bothered with himself... That grace of God we pray for in the church--that must be what the animals have already. ...We're greedier than animals are, too--much greedier. I don't know what is the matter with us." I liked that an awful lot. I also found the importance of snow to these northern people very interesting. "Snow is the most beautiful silence in the world," they say. They even have Snow Melting Games where the men lay out in the snow with no shirts on and see who can melt the deepest hole while everyone in the community watches and cheers! How is that for a festival!?! I checked online and cannot find any references to it though. I don't know if that means it wasn't that common or if it just has fallen by the wayside and been forgotten. Like so many of these vintage books I had to marvel at the differences in time and place. Dobry is dazzled when he witnesses an array of foods he’d never seen before, things like pineapple, citron, nectarines, bananas, almonds, and pecans. Bananas are the most commonly sold fruit in the United States, according to my Produce Manager husband. My whole life there have been all of these things--and I grew up in a small town on the Great Plains! It’s remarkable! Oh my luxurious modern life! Following the trend of noting spelling and word irregularities, I have a good one from Dobry. The word “boulder” was spelled as, “bowlders,” every single time it was used. It came up enough, actually, that I suspect the Bulgarian hillsides must be scattered with them. Lastly, I had a swell chuckle when I read that "..each guest belched to show his appreciation..." for the meal prepared for them. I can remember my sister, Sarah, always trying to use that as an excuse for burping at the table. "You know mom, in some places a belch is the highest compliment to the cook." My mom never bought into the idea though.
1936 - Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
Caddie Woodlawn reminded me of the Little House books. It was a charming, simple tale, chronicling a year in the life of a Caddie. Caddie is an independent tomboy growing up on the frontiers of Wisconsin. She is intelligent, skilled with her hands, brave, kind, and generous. She is friends with the area Native Americans in a time when many white folks are simply scared of them. She stands up for her beliefs and speaks up for the little guys. All in all a rather classic be-like-the-protagonist type children's book. It was fine, but not terribly outstanding. Don't get me wrong--Caddie Woodhouse--the inspiration for Caddie Woodlawn was a remarkable woman. I'm glad her granddaughter jotted it down for the rest of us to enjoy. As was the case when reading Dobry, I had to marvel at how life has changed in just a few generations.
1937 - Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
Roller Skates is a cute little story about a young girl, Lucinda, spending the summer with family friends in New York City. I liked Lucinda a lot. She is kind and smart and very outgoing. She talks and makes friends with people everywhere she goes—the Italian boy from the corner fruit stand, the Irish policeman, Rags-and-Bottles, the traveling hobo. She becomes involved in their lives and they in hers. Sometimes this connection is just pleasant, but more often it is deeper than that. She tries to help her friends in any way she can—from just spending time with them to making small gifts for them to arranging a doctor for the poor neighbor girl when her parents cannot afford to do so. I think that was the big takeaway for me—that the small, everyday interactions we have with people can be transformative on both ends. That every day is important. Every person important, too. Lucinda also likes the theater and music in a deeply felt way. I loved this passage from when she goes to hear the symphony. "And the music iteslf! It emptied her completely of all her contents, as if she had been a box, a jug, a vase; and then it filled her full again of iteslf, to overflowing. It was at the end as if she were nothing but a container for it." I love that. I’ve been there. I was tickled when Lucinda and her friend, Tony, take a ride on the carousel and win free rides by catching the gold ring as they go round. When I get together with my friend, Hannah, in Missoula this is one of our favorite traditions, too. Some things don’t change, I guess. In an interesting linguistic realization I learned that it isn’t “handsome cabs” that people ride around NYC (and other places) in. These horse-drawn conveyances are actually just “handsom cabs,” without the e. They were designed by a guy named Joesph Handsom. I thought that was quite interesting. Matt was quick to point out this was a reason that actually reading books was superior to having them read to me. I’d have never made this connection if I’d been reading an audiobook since I wouldn't have noticed the spelling differences and investigated. He's right, but that doesn't mean I'm about to stop listening to audiobooks.
1938 - The White Stag by Kate Seredy
In an instance of totally-judging-a-book-by-its-cover, I thought The White Stag was going to be a Christmas story. It was red with a star and a reindeer on it. It was coming on Christmas time when I read it, too, so the seed was already planted in my mind. Turns out it was actually a sort of biblical tale about hearing the voice of god, sacrificial alters, signs, and prophecy which makes up the origin myth of Attila, the Hun, and as it turns out, the Hungarian people. It was only okay. A quick read, but not terribly memorable just a couple weeks later. The story is, apparently, part of Hungarian folklore, though it seems that modern scientific study doesn't really hold up much evidence that ethnic Hungarians are actually related to the Huns. I'm certainly no expert on the matter and must confess to have done only the most cursory follow-up research.
1939 - Thimble Summer by Elizabeth EnrightThe Thimble Summer is Garnet’s lucky summer. During a drought she finds a silver thimble while exploring exposed parts of the dried up river bed with her brother. Afterwards the drought breaks, they make a new friend, her pig wins at the county fair, and all sorts of good stuff happens. Garnet attributes this to the thimble being lucky. It is a rather standard tale of adventures with friends and lessons learned as part of growing up. Garnet is a girl who sometimes bumps unhappily against the limitations of her time and gender. She is rather independent and quite resourceful. I liked the section where Garnet and her best friend get locked inside the library after closing. Since it is locked with a key and there aren’t telephones they are trapped until they get the attention of someone on the outside. I almost closed the library with someone still inside once. It was a very fast read, even for me, and I am kind of a poky reader.