by Monica Shannon
Age: 8 +
Interests: Bulgaria, farm life, customsViking Press: 1934
Also by this author: California Fairy Tales, Goose Grass Rhymes, Tawnymore
Dobry, whose name literally means “good day”, is a peasant boy living with his mother and grandfather on a farm in Bulgaria, some time in the 1920s or 30s. He is cheerful and works hard on the farm, though his mind is increasingly not on his chores. He is obsessed with sketching and making sculptures from wood and clay. Will he leave the family farm for art school in the city? His mother is against the idea but his grandfather, a vivacious storyteller and eccentric, is in Dobry’s corner. As time passes and the village goes through the festivals and local customs of each season, Dobry grows ever more intent in honing his craft, and wooing his sweetheart Neda. The book ends on the very day Dobry is to leave the village, and he promises Neda he will come back to her.
Peasant life is pleasantly drawn here, and the author waxes most eloquently on the theme of their spiritual attachment to nature. Grandfather’s stories and the fairly bizarre local rituals provide extra colour. The social life of the village is centred around the twice-annual visit of the gypsies with their trained bear, who walks on the men’s backs to massage them in the fall, and who swims in the river in the spring, signalling it’s warm enough for everyone to bathe. Another striking ritual is the annual ice-melting contest, which is just what it sounds like: the men of the village remove their shirts and lie down on a snow bank. The first to melt his way to the ground is the winner.
Apart from the weirdness of Bulgarian customs, this novel is a pretty tame read. It’s a pretty picture of a way of life long gone now, which has its own value, and it’s not without its charm, but there is very little drama. Dobry strolls through life, happy and carefree. His interest in art grows, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned about whether or not he will be able to pursue it as a career. There is one scene in which Grandfather debates the point with Dobry’s mother, but other than that there is really no conflict at all.
Dobry was one of the more elusive Newbery titles to find, and I can see why. Many other past winners have been reprinted to entertain new audiences, but this one just doesn’t have much to offer readers today. It has not aged all that well, and is steeped in the sweet, toothless kind of writing for children that was so popular at the time. I found it a bit of a chore to read, and I consider myself to be pretty forgiving!