Friday, May 19, 2017

Newbery Award Challenge - 1940's

One more decade of Newbery winners down.  Seven more to go.  I got all long-winded in my assessment of this decade.  Overall I enjoyed them though and I think that is why.  I especially enjoyed the titles from Adam of the Road on through the end of the decade.  I've been lobbying Matt to read Johnny Tremain for the last two months (since he never has before).  I even brought it home for him from the library.  But so far, no luck.  The 21 Balloons was pretty dang fantastic, especially for a book I'd never even heard of before.
1940 - Daniel Boone by James Daughtery
This book is, as one would quite rightly expect, the biography of the American frontiersman Daniel Boone.  Daniel Boone was certainly brave and strong in all the standard sense of those words, but all in all I found the book problematic in its one-sidedness.  I tried to keep in mind the period of time the book was about.  I tried to keep in mind the period of time in which the book was written.  Still.  The language used about the Indians was just terrible. Things like, "infestation," "red dogs," and "prowling Indian varmints."  There was no acknowledgement in the text that the natives were having their land and way of life taken from them.   It is all presented as though they were just being unreasonable and "interfering" with the settling of the land in a civilized manner.  I guess, in an act of karma, after helping settle the frontier Daniel Boone doesn't end up owning any land himself until towards the very end of his life.  The book, of course, portrays this as a great injustice to a man who worked so hard to tame the land.  I found it to be rather fitting, myself.  To be clear, I like historical accounts of our founding fathers and explorers.  They did amazing things and helped shape the way we live today.  Our history is important.  I like it to be honest though, too, not just glowing praise.  I didn't find that to be the case here.
1941 - Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry
This is the story of a Polynesian boy named Mafatu who, after being traumatized by his mother's death at sea, becomes cripplingly fearful, especially about the ocean.  For a Polynesian male this is an egregious way of living and he is mocked relentlessly--and teased for doing "women's work" of building nets and tools instead of fishing, like a man.  Eventually Mafatu attempts to prove himself and ends up on an essentially deserted island.  No one lives on the island, but it is the sacred offering place of cannibals from another nearby island.  Mafatu proves himself much braver than even he thought through a handful of different encounters on the island--and the skills he acquired at his "women's work" are incredibly valuable to him in his isolation.  In time he goes home to his people--including his proud father--who all treat him much better now that he has proven himself brave like a man should be.  It was a charming little story, albeit steeped in some very rigid gender lines.  It is a tale that emphasizes the all too commonly perpetuated belief that men must prove themselves through act of danger and bravery before truly entering the ranks of manhood.
1942 - The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds
The Matchlock Gun is a story about settlers in early America--before America was a country, actually.  It is based on a true story.  Believing attacks by the French and Indians are eminent Edward's dad and his militia friends head to cut them off, leaving Edward to help his mother care for the house and his younger sister, Trudy.  Somehow the attackers get past the guard and Edward and his mother hatch a scheme to defend themselves with a family heirloom--the matchlock gun twice as tall as Edward.  By obeying his elders and showing bravery in the face of fear Edward kills attacking Indians and saves his family.  It was a super quick read, if not all that spectacular.  It did have some very quaint metaphors and events, which appealed to me.  Things like, how Mama's hands had a "clean buttery smell," or how when young Trudy needs distracted so Edward and Mama can save the day she is put on her parent's bed with "a doll made out of a handkerchief...a large lump of maple sugar and some silver spoons."  I like the simple and folksy like that.
1943 - Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
I thoroughly enjoyed this story.  It had just enough drama to keep me engaged and wanting to flip through the pages and was chock full of new-to-me words. I'd definitely rank it as one of my favorites thus far.  The tale follows Adam, son of Roger the Minstrel, from one adventure (or misadventure) to another across medieval England.  Adam loses his dog and gets separated from his father and spends much of the book trying to reconnect with them.  I must confess it was a mind-boggling prospect for me--imagine just wandering the country from village to village asking passersby if they've seen your lost family?!  To someone used to email, phones, GPS, photographs, news broadcasts, the internet, police stations, and all the other modern trappings of keeping tabs on people I cannot hardly imagine.   Of course, Adam is a much more self-reliant and assured youth than I would have been at the same age.  He also "played the oyster" by turning his misfortune into a wonderful, epic story he could preform for people in his profession as a minstrel.  I quite adored that expression--playing the oyster.  Adam is smart, savvy boy on the border of manhood.  He meets people from all ranks of life and had a broad range of life experiences which serve him well on his journey--though which also give him pause to wonder about how the world works.  While serving a private court he is confused when a girl beloved by his friend, Simon, must marry someone else--someone she doesn't love and whom doesn't love her.  It is explained to Adam that, "It doesn't matter what she'd rather do...She's only a girl.  She's got to do what she's told."  In all the songs and tales Adam knows the premise is frequently one of devotion and honor towards a fair maiden and bravery in the face of danger to win her attentions, admiration, or love.  And yet, in reality, Adam learns, it doesn't matter if the girl is won over or not since she has no say in the matter.  I loved how this made no sense to Adam.  I quite enjoyed this glimpse at life in medieval England.  It seems a hard life and a beautiful one.  It is a life of hard work, but there were moments of art and music, too.  The rich could pay for a minstrel to sing through the carriage window to relieve the tedium of travel.  The poor could listen to them perform on street corners.  Everyone was working hard to get their daily bread, but they still took time to strap shoulder bones to their feet and go ice skating, too.  I like that.  I certainly think a happy life is one with a balance in work and leisure.  Too much of one or the other and things get askew.   For those with a language obsession like my own here are some of the new or fantastic words I jotted down while reading:  fabliaux (a tale told in meter which is usually a bit humorously lewd), almonry (a place where alms are distributed), neatherd (cow or oxen herd), surcoat (a loose robe worn over armor), cotte (a medieval outer garment), Candlemas (a Christian holiday), lavabo (a ritual washbasin) , comfit (a candy containing a nut or see covered in sweetener), coif (close-fitting cap), haircloth (a stiff cloth made or horsehair woven with either linen or cotton), portmanteau (a large bag or suitcase, usually leather, which opens into two equal parts), palfrey (a type of riding horse highly valued in the middle ages), wyvers (a legendary reptilian creature especially common in heraldry), tiltyard (a place where jousts occur).  And there were so many more.
1944 - Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
I totally dig Johnny Tremain.  It is an excellent book.  I remember reading it for the first time when I was a 5th grader.  We received extra credit if we spent a school day with our hand taped together in a facsimile of Johnny's injured hand.  The experience left quite a vivid impression on me, even all these years later.   I considered skipping past Johnny Tremain in my Newbery challenge since I've read in several times already and, as recently as 2015.  However, since I enjoy it so thoroughly I decided to just revisit it again.  It is a fantastic story about the talented, but proud and arrogant Johnny Tremain who through a series of trials, friendships, scandals, and world events learns to be a more thoughtful, kind, and all together better person.  The development of his character is a really strong component of the story.  Set in Boston just prior to the Revolutionary War the book is scattered with historical figures, such as John Hancock and Paul Revere, and Johnny gets swept up in the fight against British rule.  It is a compelling and relateable (albeit fictionalized) account of this dramatic period in American history.  I highly recommend it.
1945 - Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
I liked Rabbit Hill.  It was a quaint little animal story.  Just the sort I would have loved and read over and over had I discovered it as a girl.  It reminded me of an American version of Watership Down in many ways, but without all the warfare and tyranny.  There is even a little map of the area in both books!  I mean even the setting isn't that far removed--though instead of a "down" the story takes place on a hill.  Both center around rabbits with humanized traits.  For example, Mother Rabbit stirs a pot of soup and Little Georgie wears a knapsack.  The story follows the excitement stirred up when "New Folk" move into the house on Rabbit Hill.  They plant a big garden and refuse to poison, trap, or otherwise harm the animals that live on the hill with them--much to the consternation of the neighbors.  They love animals and admire St. Francis of Assisi.  In the end, the animals and humans realize there is enough to go around for everyone and live in harmony together.  Even the skunk and fox stop raiding the chicken coop because the cook always leaves fried chicken and other yummy garbage scraps for them. It is a bit too-perfect (and unrealistic from a biological point of view) of an ending, but oh, what a sweet one.  There was one point of linguistic interest for me.  The skunk loves "garbidge," which I learned is an antiquated spelling of the word that dates back to the 1600s (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).  Father Rabbit is a more refined, southern gentleman and when he used the word it was always "garbage."  I thought that was an interesting point of class distinction.
1946 - Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
I got a lot of enjoyment out of Strawberry Girl, a sort of Little House on the prairie story, but set in the early 1900s in the untamed landscape of Florida.  The story's main drama comes in the form of a feud between neighbors--The Boyers who are new to the area and the Slaters who've been on the land for a couple generations already.  Through telling the story the reader is exposed to some of the language and customs from the poor-white, rural "Cracker" culture of the time, which I thought was an interesting contrast and parallel to the frontier stories from the west.  Unsurprisingly I was quite taken with the language of the book--the conversational dialect was rather fascinating:  "Hits" instead of "It is," "book-larnin'" instead of "book learning," "shore," instead of "sure," or "purty" instead of "pretty."  [As an aside, I can remember my sister, Sarah, teasing me for saying "shore" while playing Barbies in the basement of our childhood home.  It is so strange sometimes what the brain saves clearly like that.]  The story has a happy ending though there is sure a lot of meanness in it--retaliatory poisoning of livestock, arson, threatening notes, drunks neglecting their children, etc.  There is a Christian element in that the antagonist of the story is redeemed and finds a new way of life through the purchase of a Bible, a traveling minister, and demonstrations of goodwill and charity from his neighbors.  There were loads of fantastically named characters throughout.  Folks like Shoestring and Zephy Slater, Dovey and Bihu Boyer, Kessie Cook, Rofelia Marsh, or Azuloy, the orphan.  As with the Little House books my favorite parts were the glimpses of how people lived during that time and place--the day The Boyer family and their neighbors crush the sugar cane harvest, boil down syrup to use for the year, and have a candy-pull for the kids or the process by which the strawberries are harvest, packed, and shipped to the hungry "Yankees" up north.
1947 - Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
Miss Hickory is a funny, quaint, rather adorable story in which the protagonist is a doll made of a twig with a hickory nut for a head.  It is a story of self-discovery and embracing change and growth.  Miss Hickory's world is turned upside down when her human neighbors move to town for the winter leaving her to fend for herself with the squirrels and pheasants and such.  She is a bit stubborn and judgmental, that Miss Hickory, but she is good deep down and ultimately sees the error in that.  It is a very homey, earthy, old-fashioned sort of story.  Of course, that all appeals to me quite a bit.  I just about cackled with glee when Robin reclaims his nest and insults Miss Hickory with a derisive, "Cow-Bird!"  (For a brief overview of cowbirds see this post.)  I couldn't wait to share that one with Matt.  I also happened to read it at just the right time in that Matt and I were invited to walk through a local apple orchard as it was in peak bloom.  The very next day I was pleased to read the orchard descriptions in Miss Hickory and it all tied together in a seamless, delightful bow of synchronicity.  I had another meaningful coincidence with the term "redd-up/out," which my blog friend, Margo, used in a post about clutter and tidying up and which I then read less than 20 minutes later in Miss Hickory.  I'd never heard this term before--it is quite regional--so to run across it twice in such rapid succession delighted me.  And because I am, well, me and must know more this sent me running for the Oxford English Dictionary.  Redd-up" is considered a regional American expression, chiefly northern. It is Scotch in origin, but also used by the Northern Irish. The earliest recorded use of "redd-up" is from 1880.  "Red" or "redd" without the "up" is even older (earliest citations being from the late 1400s) and again, chiefly Scottish. It still meant "An act or the action of clearing away, removing, or tidying up," but could also be the "act of clearing the throat." The OED says use of this word is quite rare while "redd-up" is still common--at least regionally--in the northeastern parts of the country.
1948 - The 21 Balloons by William Pene du Bois
This was one another of my favorite Newbery reads so far.  The 21 Balloons is a fanciful adventure story that brought to mind Gulliver's Travels in its amusing absurdity.  Professor Sherman leaves San Francisco in a lightwight house suspended from a large hydrogen-filled balloon.  His trip doesn't go according to plan and he soon finds himself on the island of Krakatoa--which isn't uninhabited as is commonly thought.  On the island are 20 families and a diamond mine.  It seems clear to me that William Pene du Bois was mechanically minded--and a fan of balloons.  The people of Krakatoa have invented all sorts of convenience gadgets and the author helpfully included sketches of many of them.  This includes things like a bed with a continuous sheet which--when cranked around--end up in the basement running through the wash before being cranked back around to the topside of the bed again.  Bingo, bango--clean sheets every day.  They've set up an elaborate and yet functional "restaurant form of government" in which each family only has to work on day a month.  Of course, they're the richest people in the world on account of their diamond mine.  That helps.  As with everything though the mine comes with its own set of problems, too.  It was a fun, fast, enjoyable read which, like I said, I'd never even heard of before starting my Newbery reading.
1949 - King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry
I've enjoyed horse stories since I was a little girl.  I don't even know how many times I must have read Black Beauty.  Apparently this Marguerite Henry must really, really love horses--animals in general, but horses specifically.  She's written something like 15 or more books on them.  King of the Wind is her only Newbery Award winner.  This book is about a strong Arabian horse, Sham, and the small, mute boy, Agba, who loves and cares for him.  Sham is given as from the Sultan's stables.  Agba, the horseboy, goes with wherever Sham goes--for better or worse.  Sham is continually undervalued by the Europeans because he is small, fiery, and has an usually high crest.  He is sold and bartered from one place to another as a beast of burden.  Only Agba knows he is the best horse around, but since he is mute he has limited abilities to express this fact.  Eventually--after many a trial (and one whipping scene that was so upsetting that I had to take a little break from reading) Sham's merit is realized and he gets to start living the good life.  With that the bloodline of the Goldolphin Arabian is born.  I don't know basically anything about horse racing, but apparently the Goldolphin Arabian's heirs would win race after race and Sham became one of the fathers of a new breed of modern thoroughbred racehorse.  It was a nice story, a mixture of misfortune and triumph, history and fiction.
Follow the links for my reviews of the 1920's and 1930's Newbery winners.

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