Sunday, January 24, 2016

Reading Through History: Downright Dencey by Caroline Dale Snedeker (1927)

One day, while walking home from school, young Quaker girl Dionis "Dencey" Coffyn joins in with some of her schoolmates in throwing stones at a boy named Sam Jetsam, who is universally disliked by all the children on Nantucket because his mother, Injun Jill, is frequently drunk and might be a witch. When her stone hits Jetsam and draws blood, Dencey becomes immediately contrite, and begs the boy to forgive her. At first, he resists, even when Dencey visits him at his home and offers him gifts, but then he decides she can have his forgiveness if she will give him her copy of Pilgrim's Progress and teach him how to read it. Though Dencey will be in serious trouble with her own family if she is caught, she can't bear the thought of not being forgiven, so she agrees to this plan. Thus begins the friendship that will serve to convert Jetsam and rescue him from his squalid and abusive living arrangements.

Though I was skeptical at first when my husband recommended this book, it ended up being quite manageable and enjoyable. Though the friendship between Dencey and Jetsam is at the center of the story, there are many other intriguing plot points that kept me reading: the history behind Dencey's parents' marriage, the differences between Dencey's Quaker beliefs and those of her Congregationalist grandfather, the abuse of Jetsam by Injun Jill and the community's willingness to look the other way, the influence of the War of 1812 on children whose fathers were sailors, and the day-to-day routines of a Quaker household. Each of these threads provides valuable insight into a slice of history which most kids today probably will not encounter in their regular social studies lessons. The story also celebrates the good of religion, showing the ways in which patience and love toward a non-believer, or toward someone whose life has involved great pain, can slowly bring about conversion.

The language in this book is a bit rough in some places, especially by contemporary standards. There are racial epithets and other strong language, and Injun Jill's drunken tirades are not easy to swallow, especially knowing how badly she treats Jetsam. These are not flaws in the book, just illustrative details that help the reader understand the characters' motivations and actions, but it does make me think a reader ought to be over the age of 10 or so before attempting to tackle this book. The second part of the book regarding Dencey's parents' marriage, and Jetsam's and Dencey's own thoughts about possible marriage as they mature, also may not appeal to a younger child.  I would probably not choose to read this book aloud, either. There is so much dialect that I could hear well enough in my head but would have no idea how to speak out loud and have it sound the way it is intended.

Downright Dencey reminds me a lot of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, and I think reading the two books together and comparing them would make a great middle school language arts assignment. This book will also be of interest to anyone who has read Honey Bear by Dixie Willson, as the illustrations in both books are by Maginel Wright Barney. The pictures in Downright Dencey are limited to small black and white drawings at the start of each chapter and one full-color cover image, which is not necessarily what I expected when the cover said, "Illustrated by Maginel Wright Barney," but it was still worthwhile to check out this different style from Barney.

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