They Were Strong and Good

CALDECOTT MEDAL WINNER – 1941

They Were Strong and Good

Robert Lawson, author and illustrator

New York: Viking Press, 1940

62 pp

age: 5+

Interests: American history, family, family history, pioneer life, war

A brief account of the lives of the parents and grandparents of the author; a personalized view of American history and the lives of real people around the time of the Civil War.

Robert Lawson writes in the Foreword:

“This is the story of my mother and my father and of their fathers and mothers.

Most of it I heard as a little boy, so there may be many mistakes; perhaps I have forgotten or mixed up some of the events and people But that does not really matter, for this is not alone the story of my parents and grandparents, it is the story of the parents and grandparents of most of us who call ourselves Americans.

None of them were great or famous, but they were strong and good. They worked hard and had many children. They all helped to make the United States the great nation that it now is.

Let us be proud of them and guard well the heritage they have left us.”

A beautiful book, with full b&w illustrations on one page, and sparse text facing. Lawson tells what he knows about his grandparents and parents. From a sailing captain in the Caribbean to a farmer’s daughter, to a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose son runs off to fight in the Civil War, each character is made to seem very human, colourful, and admirable. As the flyleaf, their stories are told “in the simple prose of a young and slightly boastful boy.”

There is dignity in the characters but also great humour. When the farmer’s daughter marries the sea captain it says simply that “she did not like sailing on the sea”, and the illustration shows her leaning over the rail. His paternal grandfather was always fighting something, alternating as a soldier and a preacher, riding a mule from town to town to “fight with Satan.”And the look on the face of the prim little girl (his mother) as she passes some lumberjacks whooping it up in a small Minnesota town is priceless.

A more sombre tone follows with the story of his father fighting for the South in the Civil War, to the bitter end, as his regiment is decimated around him. (Nothing too gory is seen, and the reasons for the war are not explored.) Then he walks back to Arkansas, through a ruined wasteland.

And then, there’s the controversy, such as it is. The copy I saw, in a special collection of the Toronto Public Library, was the 14th printing, in 1966, but retained the original 1940 wording. A couple of changes were made sometime after that, changing a mention of “Indians – tame ones” to simply “Indians”, and changing the reference about his father’s “colored boy” to “Negro slave”. The illustrations remained unchanged. (I’m not sure what year those changes were made. Details of the revisions can be found on Wikipedia – accessed April 17, 2011.) The original version, as I read it, was pretty tame and straightforward, given from a child’s point of view. The worst of it is the depiction of the Indians as begging for food – the author’s mother as a little girl didn’t like them, and the illustration shows them running, chased away from the house with food in hand. Some explanation of their plight, a little historical background from the parent reading the book would be helpful here. I see that the book is still in print, though copies in my Public Library system are nearly nonexistent.

In conclusion: this is a very moving account of the lives of real people living in interesting times. It conveys the great pride and love the author feels for his family. An effective way to introduce the idea of family history and the family tree. (Also an exercise in American patriotism.)

(This title at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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