Strawberry Girl

Strawberry-Girl

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1946

Strawberry Girl

written and illustrated by Lois Lenski

Ages: 8 +

Interests: American history, farming, country life, history, Florida, violence, fighting, bad behaviour

HarperCollins: 1945

194 pages, 15 chapters

Next: Caddie Woodlawn, Thimble Summer, Little House in the Big Woods

Also by this author: “Roundabout” regional series – Bayou Suzette, Blue Ridge Billy, Judy’s Journey, Boom Town Boy, Cotton in my Sack, Texas Tom Boy, Prairie School, Mama Hattie’s Girl, Corn-Farm Boy, San Francisco Boy, Flood Friday, Houseboat Girl, Coal Camp Girl, Shoo-Fly Girl, To Be a Logger, Deer Valley Girl

Birdie Boyer’s family has just bought a homestead in Florida where they plan to grow strawberries. They have a lot to contend with before they can pick their first crop – drought, pests, fire, but most of all their ornery neighbours the Slaters. Short-tempered Mr. Slater drinks and is just looking to make trouble. When Mr. Boyer puts up a fence to keep the free-roaming Slater livestock out of his fields the two families find themselves in a full-on feud.

Lenski is most well-known for her picture books for the very young. (My own first favourite book was Cowboy Small.) Her illustrations may lead you to expect simple, cutesy stories, but in the case of Strawberry Girl, be prepared for a shock. Sam Slater is a violent, lazy drunk, who squanders his money, steals and cheats, and escalates the feud with the Boyers until he actually tries to burn them out. His two older sons beat the schoolteacher so badly that school is cancelled indefinitely.* There is no moral centre in this story – even Birdie’s relatively level-headed father gets riled enough to kill two of Slater’s pigs that trespass into the Boyer strawberry fields. On another occasion he lays a whipping on the younger Slater boy Shoestring for not caring properly for their animals. It could be a little shocking for young readers these days, the lawlessness and lack of police presence seems rather bizarre.

Pa Slater and the two older boys are fairly stereotypical, but Shoestring and Mrs. Slater have more complex personalities, torn as they are between family loyalty and shame over Sam’s bad behaviour. Birdie too, wavers between anger and sympathy for Shoestring and his mother. Even Birdie’s parents don’t always do the right thing, which makes Birdie (and the reader) uneasy about what could happen next.

Birdie herself as a character is not fully developed, existing primarily to react to the crazy events around her. She ponders the implications of these events however, particularly upon the prickly personality of Shoestring Slater. One minute he is tossing a snake onto her good Sunday hat and the next he is trying to make friends.

In one amusing moment in town Birdie knows it’s her father fighting in the saloon because she recognizes his feet under the door. She reassures her friend Miss Liddy that her father doesn’t drink, he must have gone in there just to speak to Mr. Slater. “Pa can beat the starch out of Slater, I reckon! He’ll take us home, soon as he gits done.”

I also like the fact that, despite the feud, whenever there is a social gathering Mr. Slater and Mr. Boyer act quite friendly to one another. This fact causes Birdie a lot of confusion, but it seems to be the way it was back then.

In the end there is a surprisingly sudden redemption for Sam, ending the feud, as he finds God at a gospel meeting and gives up drinking. The moral regarding proper neighbourly behaviour is present in this novel, but buried under a fair bit of vengeful violence.

The use of vernacular in the dialogue provides colour and personality, but may be a little hard for 8 or 9 year olds to follow. I was interested to see the term “cracker” used with pride to denote Floridian heritage (“Birdie was a Florida cracker.”), as I’m more used to seeing it used as an insult.

All in all, a surprisingly rough and ready look at the lawless early days of Florida homesteading. Pretty compelling, a little disturbing, but with a happy ending.

* Violence against male schoolteachers seems to be a common episode in children’s novels set in frontier times. One has to conclude that it was a frequent occurrence back then.

(this title available 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.