Saturday, January 13, 2018

Newbery Award Challenge - 1950s

I found the winners from the 1950's to be the best crop thus far in my chronological study of Newbery Award books.  Easily.  As a result I got rather detailed in my reviews below, perhaps excessively so!  I expect I'll find the stories increasingly enthralling as they start to approach an era I can related to more fully.  That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how much enjoyment I got out of a book about sailing, say, or fighting in the Civil War.  Those wouldn't be subjects I'd usually choose to read, but perhaps I pigeonhole myself.  I liked the sailing stories a lot, actually.
There was some interesting overlaps between these '50's books.  Husking Bees (in which young people gather and shuck corn as a festive group activity) were a serious force in the dating world of both Rifles for Watie and The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  If an ear of corn was shucked revealing red kernels it earned that person a kiss!  Birds were described as singing so loudly that they just about split their throats in Blackbird Pond while Nat, from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, splits his own throat cheering for President Washington as his procession passes through town.  Three of the books had "weekend" written as two words, as in "week end."  Pokeberry juice was used as ink in both Rifles for Watie and Miracles on Maple Hill.
1950 - The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
I rather like the metaphor that runs through this story and which gives the book its title--if one runs into a wall they must find a door to get through it.  Sometimes this was quite literal as when Robin sneaks out of the north door to summon help for the castle under siege.  More often it was metaphorical--a personal obstacle to be overcome.  Robin is a young boy of a noble family about to be trained into knighthood.  His father has gone off to fight for the King during conflict between the English and the Scottish while his mother has gone to be a Lady-in-Waiting for the Queen.  Then Robin is afflicted with illness that leaves him crippled and unable to fulfill this destiny of knighthood.  This is one of the many walls Robin must find a door through--finding his new destiny.  Robin learns to adapt to his limitations--crutches serving as one door through the wall--and in the end he saves the day and is greatly honored by his family, friends, and the royal family.  It was a good story and a quick read.
1951 - Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
This is a story based on true events.  Of course, they're embellished and fictionalized and all that, but the story is rooted in history.  Amos Fortune was an African prince who was captured along with many others and shipped to America.  Slavery is horrible--the capture and boat trip were just terrible to envision.  In America, Amos is "lucky" enough to end up with masters who mostly treat him with decency.  He is still owned as their property though so I can't say it is actually decent, but it could have been worse.  At about 60 years old he is freed and he spends the rest of his life saving up money to improve the lives of others.  He eventually frees several other people from slavery.  He was a leather tanner well-known for the skill and quality of his work.  He seemed to be held in fairly high regard in his community, though he certainly still ran into folks that ripped him off and treated him poorly just because he wasn't white and they could.  It was an okay book, but not tremendously outstanding or anything.  Amos certainly had a remarkable life though.  No doubt about that.
1952 - Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
Ginger Pye is a pet story so that appealed to me right off.  While my Ginger is kitty-cat the Ginger in this story is a little terrier pup.  Jerry and Rachel dust the pews in church in exchange for $1.  They take this dollar and buy Ginger from a neighbor.  I love that before they decide to get Ginger Jerry and Rachel spend time discussing whether it will make Gracie-the-cat (and that's how she's referred, hyphens and all) jealous.  After they decide Gracie-the-Cat wouldn't mind they're both super excited to have a dog.  Ginger is a smart dog--he makes the front page of the town paper by climbing up the fire escape outside Jerry's classroom with a pencil Jerry'd dropped on the way to school-- and life is going on well until he is stolen from the yard on Thanksgiving Day.  The kids are beside themselves with worry and sorrow and spend pretty much the rest of the book searching all over for Ginger.  This leads to interesting settings and interactions along the way--scaling the face of East Rock, sneaking past sleeping "tramps" in the woods, and so on.  Ginger is eventually reunited with the family for a happy ending--though the bad guys still got away.  (They ran off to join the circus, no less!)

There were a number of quaint little things that caught my attention in the story.  After the chief of police suggests it might have been an "unsavory character," who took their dog they call the dognapper Unsavory, like it was his first name, throughout the book.  They're convinced it had to be a man because, well, I guess children and women didn't commit crime back in the 1950's.  Or something.  Jerry even admits that he didn't know an unsavory character could be "just a boy...thought it had to be a man."   It also comes up that the town jail hasn't been used in ten years.  Inexplicably the crows is "disappointed it was not a murder," when the cops say it was just a dog that was taken.  I'm not sure what to make of this.  That we all want a little excitement?  That even in a quiet, crime-free town we're prepared to expect the worst?  I'm not sure.  (It made me think about an exhibit I attended of Pulitzer winning photos.  What a depressing lot that was!)  When Jerry and Rachel dust the church pews Rachel realizes she doesn't have a hat and so holds her handkerchief on her head while dusting.  My mom grew up in the cover-your-head-in-church-era, but I certainly didn't.  I do have an interest in headcovering as a religious practice though.  The kids also collect scrap wood for the fire at construction sites.  They play on the second floors of the "skeleton houses" and they were such "good climbers they never fell down and broke a leg or anything."  Though their mom made them promise not to play in the houses that had been plastered since they got plaster on their new coats.  This cracked me up.  I cannot imagine parents letting kids play on a construction site like that today.  Nor can I imagine a contractor being cool with it in this litigious age.  Linguistically I noted "pickaback" ride instead of "piggyback," as I grew up calling it.  Matt and I decided that arguments could be made in favor of each.   I spotted one typo, too.  On page 70 the word "and," is used, but it doesn't have an A at the front.  Ooops!  Someone messed up their typesetting!  I also learned that German Measles is what we call the Mumps today.  Lots of fun outdated tidbits in this one.
1953 - Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark
Secret of the Andes was a sweet little story.  I'd say the main premise is that oftentimes we when want "more" and then finally get it we realize we really had everything we needed all along.  The story is that of a young llama shepherd named Cusi who has grown up (with a herd of llamas) in an utterly isolated mountain valley under the guidance of an older shepherd named Chuto.  They're both descendants of the Incas, but the Spanish conquest has basically eliminated their way of life.  Cusi knows nothing about this.  He's never even met another human besides Chuto, let alone a Spaniard.  Cusi realizes he wants a family and after finding a pair of golden sandals, which he takes as a sign, Cusi leaves Chuto, the llamas, and his valley behind to seek a family for himself.  He unknowingly meets his mother, visits a secret Incan community, trades at the market of Cuzco, the holy city, and more.  He eventually is welcome into a family after getting caught up in their mob of children.  However, on a sleepless night without stars or llamas he realizes that he still doesn't belong and that he already had a family.  Chuto and the llamas were all the family he needed.  It was a story about traditions, faith, family, and finding yourself.   There was a lot of coca chewing and chichia drinking, even among the children, but I suppose that is a very socially acceptable cultural norm down there.  I grew up in the D.A.R.E. era though so it strikes me as out of place in a kid's book.
 1954 - ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold
I didn't really enjoy this book very much.  The writing style struck me as fairly immature.  This may make it more realistic since the narrator is a 12 year old boy, but I didn't care for it.  It was often written in fragments.  Miguel is also incredible self-centered, again perhaps accurate, but unpleasant.  For example, when he gets a compliment he always pretends he didn't hear it well so that he can ask for it to be repeated and thus hear it said twice.  Miguel hates feeling like just another cog in the machine of life.  He wants to be acknowledged, to have his worth validated.  He wants his family to consider him a man and allow him to go up into the mountains on the annual summer sheep drive.  And he tries too hard.  Eventually he makes a wish on the feast day for the family's patron saint.  He gets his wish--to go on the drive with the men--but learns that sometimes even when you get what you want you might still not be happy.  Miguel is allowed to go with the men only when his brother gets drafted and must leave to serve in the military.  Miguel immediately wishes he could do anything--even not going on the summer drive for five years!--if only his brother could stay with the family.   So, I guess the moral of the story was okay, even if the story itself was only so-so.  I did jot down one new expression that I liked.  Miguel tells his brother not to ask for his opinion since he has only been "grown up" for a couple hours.  His brother replies that is exactly why he wanted to ask, because Miguel hasn't been grown long enough to have gone "stale."  I thought that was good stuff.
1955 - The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
This one was my second favorite of the 1950's books.  It centers around a school in a Dutch village called Shora.  Storks, legend to bring good luck, nest on the rooftops in all the villages around them, but not in Shora.  The children, at the suggestion of the teacher, spend most of the story seeking an old wagon wheel to put on the roof of the school as a nesting platform.  Wheels seemed to be THE platform of choice in Holland.  The quest for a wheel was adventure enough, but that is just the start.  There is Janus the legless outcast who finds new life through the stork-wheel project, a couple lost children, a huge storm that threatens the storks, and a harrowing ocean rescue.  I just couldn't wait to find out if Shora would get her storks or not!  It was full of charming tidbits, too.  There is a celebration where the children get both chocolate milk and fatballs on the same day!  The children usually receive these treats  only on the Queen's birthday and "Santa Claus Day," respectively.  There were a few dated terms and expressions, "I've got it all doped out," meaning it is all planned and arranged, a female custodian being called the "janitress," the word "lunkhead," being used as an insult (I quite like this one and might adopt it).  There were also closet beds which I had to Google to see if it was really as straightforward as it sounded.  My favorite old-time bit though was the community newspaper.  Shora gets one copy of the paper  and it is shared by the whole town.  The dad's read it aloud to their family for one hour and then pass it along to the next family.  The act of reading the paper is described as "all-important, almost sacred."  There is also a tremendous deal of importance to the paper since "..it was in the paper so it was to be believed.  It was news, it was a fact."  In this era of alternative facts and fake news this was all the more noteworthy to me.  I am still puzzled by one line though:  "Linda, being a little girl, knew ten times more words than Jan.  Linda could express herself."  Why would a little girl know more words that a little boy?  Both genders go to school in the book....  Is this a jab at women being chatterboxes?  Or men being dense?  I just can't quite puzzle it out.
1956 - Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
This was a book that made me a little dubious as I first picked it up.  I don't know much about the days of sailing ships.  Or boating in general, really.  I've read a few other sailing stories that I enjoyed, but even the title didn't inspire a lot of enthusiasm in me.  But, I was not to be disappointed by the tale which is the fictionalized biography of Nathaniel Bowditch.  Nat is a smart young man--sometimes too smart for his own good.  In his younger years he is often short with people when they're not as quick as he is.  Nat dreams of being a "Harvard man," but with hard times he is pulled from school to help his father, the cooper.  They are so poor that Nat doesn't even have proper clothing, but denies any discomfort saying "boys don't blubber" and "only sissies need winter coats." Despite the fact Nat works from "can-see to can't-see" making barrels his parents eventually realize they have no choice and Nat is apprenticed for nine years to keep books for the ship chandlery.  This would be the first of many shipping terms that I had to look up, followed by yardarm, becalmed, and a idioms such as "lost his anchor to windward" or "sail by ash breeze."  At one point the ate some cookies and spelled the singular as "cooky."  That was new to me, too.  While indentured Nat continues his own education--reading anything he can lay hands on, learning Latin because it was the "language of scholars and scientists," and eventually becoming quite proficient in a multitude of languages.  At one point he complains about the difficulty of learning French only to have a Frenchman tell him that English is no cake walk.  He uses three words that are spelled the same save for the very first letter and yet which are pronounced in three very different ways--rough, cough, and dough.  It was a good point.  All languages are difficult in their own way, I think.  Once free of his servitude Nat goes to sea.  He becomes increasingly disappointed in the accuracy of sailing books and charts as well as the short comings of the current methods of navigation.  He invents a new way to take lunar readings which eventually becomes the new standard.  The coolest part though is that on every voyage Nat teaches all the sailors how to navigate themselves.  These are men that were never expected to do anything greater than act as manual labor for other captains.  Under Nat's guidance though many go on to captain their own ships.  They all find a new sense of self-worth.  The importance of education and life-long learning was a major theme throughout the book.  One bit I really enjoyed was when Nat was learning all about the ship and ship-building.  Each person thought the segment they were working on was the single most important.  It was a tremendous illustration of interconnection.  Each piece is important, but without the rest it wouldn't be worth much.  The life of a sailor's wife seemed a hard lot and there are many tragedies along the way, both on shore and on land.  All in all, I liked it quite a bit.
1957 - Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen
Miracles on Maple Hill is a tale about transformation, family, the powerfully harmonious and inspiring rhythms of nature, and reconnecting with an estranged world.  Marly's dad, Dale, has returned from a POW camp a changed man.  He is distant, short tempered, and tired.  In an act of desperation Marly's mom, Lee,  orchestrates a winter trip to the Pennsylvania countryside of her youth in an attempt to help Dale reconnect with himself and his family in a tranquil setting.  Her plan works as one small miracle after another reveal themselves--in the form of friendships, family, weather patterns, trees, maple syrup, critters, and more.   The family grows together and as individuals as they discover how much they're capable of and how many "miracles" fill their days.  Much of the story centers around the maple grove owned by the neighbor couple--tapping trees, boiling down sap, bottling the syrup for sale.  This was particularly interesting to me as Matt's aunt Verna tends maple trees at her place in Minnesota.  She gifts us a pint or two of syrup every year and I guard and savor it jealously--mine, all mine!  (I do share with Matt, of course.)  It was a pleasant story, quint without being old-fashioned, and a very easy read.
1958 - Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
This would be another Newbery book which was a nice surprise in that I didn't expect to like it all that much.  Rifles for Watie is the story of a Kansas farmboy named Jeff who dreams of becoming a soldier during the Civil War.  I have great respect for veterans, but as someone with tendencies that border on pacifism it is hard for me to wrap my mind around a burning desire like that.  Jeff can't wait for battle.  He misses the first couple his unit is involved in and is just beside himself about it.  Of course, he eventually does experience combat first hand and realizes that it is a lot more complicated than he'd thought.  Jeff does well as a solider.  He is kind--even to rebels--and his kindness is always rewarded.  He falls in love with a rebel girl who initially hates his guts, acts as a Union spy only to become so entangled in the Confederate army that he considered abandoning his duties for the north and fully joining in with the rebel soldiers, and thwarts a conspiracy to bring repeating rifles to the Confederate troops, repeating rifles being a serious advantage over the common single shot models used.  The conflicts of interest, the variety of motivating reasons that encouraged both Confederate and Union men and boys to enlist, and the humanity of both sides of the conflict was tremendously well illustrated, at least for a YA novel.  Jeff ultimately decides to go back to the Union army when the rebels intend to raid Kansas, where his family lives.  This hits too close to home.  I thought that is so often true.  We are mostly highly motivated by the things that affect us personally, not unknown other people in abstraction.  It is noted though that Jeff is "disturbed by all their kindness," and that he "felt mean about being against them in the war."  I received an unintentional entomology lesson from this book.  Jeff and the soldiers were plagued by "gallinippers."   This caught my attention because I thought that gallinippers were harmless, albeit freakishly large, relatives of the mosquito.  Turns out that the bug I grew up calling a gallinipper is actually a crane fly and not a mosquito at all.  I've also heard them called "mosquito hawks."  After reading up about them I am glad to have never encountered a true gallinipper.  They sound like mosquitoes on steroids.
1959 - The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The last book of the decade lays claim to being my favorite of the decade.  I can easily discern that my childhood-self would have absolutely adored The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  It would have been one to read over and over like The Island of the Blue Dolphins or Little House of the Prairie.  Its a shame I never knew about it before now.  Kit, the lead female character, is an educated, independent woman raised on the lush, sunny island of Barbados.  Her relatively progressive upbringing  puts her at odds with the conservative residents of the Puritan village she moves to following the death of her grandfather and parents.  She is particularly at odd with the uncle who takes her in, though she gets on well with her cousins and aunt.  She mystifies them sometimes, but they know she is good at heart.  Kit is very likable, albeit very pampered.  She is generous in part because she has always lived in comfort.  She has a very kind heart and goes out of her way to help people.  This lands her in hot water when she starts associating with the poor old Quaker woman who lives by Blackbird Pond--a woman commonly regarded as a witch for not following the ways of the Puritans.  Kit develops a friendship with a small girl named Prudence and a young seaman named Nat, both of which further complicate things.  When an unexplained illness breaks out among the children Kit and the old woman are accused of being witches.  While Hannah escapes trial and is whisked away to safety by Nat, Kit is not so lucky.  I was quite eager to learn her fate as the trial unfolded.  This story check several boxes of interest for me--female protagonists, rebellion against excessively strict social mores, early American history, and religious folks.  It ends well and had enough drama as to be a page turner.
I tried really, really hard to finish the 50's by years end, but did not quite make it, finishing  The Witch of Blackbird Pond on January 2nd.  Now, I'm off and running with the 1960's winners.  There are a couple titles I am especially looking forward to in this decade--The Island of the Blue Dolphins and A Wrinkle in Time, the latter of which I've been meaning to read for sometime now.

3 comments:

  1. That's a pretty impressive list of books...

    ~Have a lovely day!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I so loved The Door in the Wall! But I should read it again, as it was a long time ago.

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    Replies
    1. I had never heard of it before, but must say that I enjoyed it a great deal! Yes, perhaps it is time for you to revisit the tale!

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Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas. I value the advice and friendship that you share with me!