Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: Strong Wings by Mabel Louise Robinson (1951)

Connie Sayres, her brother, Cricks, and their sister, Merry, have often spent the summer in Maine, in a house owned by their parents. This year, though, with their parents away selling plays and the funds running lower every day, they realize they will need to stay beyond the summer, until they can afford the trip home to New York. Connie, who is the eldest, and has some college courses under her belt, decides to take a job as a substitute teacher at the local one-room schoolhouse to keep food on the table. Her siblings dutifully attend the school and do their best to get along with their classmates, all of whom are Maine natives. As Connie struggles to get a handle on her job and on her finances, she also leads the family through a number of struggles and adventures including refurbishing a boat, fighting a fire, befriending various locals, and even causing friction in the relationship of a long-established local couple.

This book is similar in some ways to last week’s Old School Sunday title, The Worry Week, but whereas The Worry Week is mostly fun and lighthearted, Strong Wings explores true life and death situations. While I didn’t think the descriptions in this book were quite as strong as those in Mabel Robinson’s Newbery Honor book, Bright Island, I still thought the writing overall was wonderful. Each character, however minor, springs fully to life, and the reader is invested in the well-being of the Sayres kids, as well as in the future of the Maine community where they are living.

Robinson does a lovely job of revealing truths about her characters and setting in subtle ways, rather than writing out pages of direct exposition. The reader learns about life in this part of Maine as Connie does, piece by piece, as events unfold. The reader also comes to really admire Connie’s strength and perseverance. So many young adult novels published today have an angsty tone to them, where teens are resentful of the parents who do not care for them in the way they would like. Connie recognizes her role as someone who can keep her family together while her parents work on improving their lives, and she rarely becomes angry at them for interrupting her college education with their inability to pay. Some might argue that Connie takes on too much responsibility on behalf of her parents, and that the parents in this story are somewhat irresponsible and neglectful. I didn’t really see that as the focus of the novel. Rather, this is Connie’s coming of age story, and she is able to grow up by challenging herself and learning her true capabilities.

Strong Wings was published in 1951, and it reminds me a little bit of other 1950s children’s titles I have read, including Miracles on Maple Hill and A Lemon and a Star. Like those books, this one focuses mostly on family relationships and on the impact one family has on its surrounding community. Strong Wings has a decidedly more mature tone, however, and I think it compares better to Beverly Cleary’s First Love books, especially the least romantic one, Sister of the Bride. Strong Wings is a good choice for girls seeking a strong female heroine who is not obsessed with boys and fashion, but who makes true differences in her family and community, and who comes into her own as she struggles to make sense of who she is in the absence of her parents and college friends.

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