Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reading Through History: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski (1945)

In this, one of Lois Lenski’s many children’s novels featuring the people and culture of a specific American region, the reader meets Birdie Boyer, the daughter of a farmer who has just moved his family from North Carolina to Florida to grow strawberries. At first, Birdie and her family are friendly toward their new neighbors, the Slaters, but their overtures of friendship are met time and again with cruel suggestions that their strawberry crop is likely to fail, and they should go back to North Carolina. The rivalry escalates as time goes on, with alcoholic Mr. Slater becoming increasingly violent and belligerent until even his own family begins to suffer.

This book is such an enjoyable read. Far from being a frivolous feel-good book about a girl and her strawberry patch, this is a story driven by the frustration, anger, and rivalry that arise from the competing priorities of farmers and ranchers. Lenski makes wonderful use of local color, writing all the dialogue in the dialect of the region. Reading the book aloud is a delight, and the language, though foreign at first, comes easily after just a chapter or two. The plot is exciting, and involves everything from fire to illness, but also includes the everyday details of events like a church picnic and a shopping trip.

Unfortunately, this otherwise excellent novel - which won the 1946 Newbery Medal - has a very disappointing ending. Mr. Slater is redeemed in a strange and contrived turn of events that does not match the rest of the book and shies away from the darker tone of the rest of the story. Perhaps Lenski felt this was necessary, given her audience, but it leaves the reader feeling somewhat deflated after such an enjoyable roller coaster ride of a story.

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