I hereby nominate Lois Lenski's 1946 Newbery Award winning book, "Strawberry Girl" for the Most-Misleading-Cover-Art-And-Title Award of the 20th century. Picking up this story, I was fairly certain that this tale would be a cutesy little number about a girl who picks strawberries for fun. On the cover, after all, you see a little blond barefooted child clutching a cache of yummy red fruit as she walks along in her sunbonnet. I was anticipating Strawberry Shortcake. What I got was "Tobacco Road" for kids. An oddly shocking delight.
Lenski prefaces this book with an explanation of Florida "Crackers". Personally, I've never heard this term used as anything but a base insult. Lenski, however, seems to think that the phrase is deserving of pride. Concentrating on the hardworking rural natives of Florida, she gives a little background on the history of these people in an effort to, "present vivid, sympathetic pictures of the real life of different Americans, against authentic backgrounds of diverse localities". In this case, Lenski interviewed "Crackers" on her own time and used their stories (watered down, as was appropriate) to write this book. The result is a seething concoction of barely contained violence and danger, centered on the lives of two very different Florida Cracker families.
The Boyers have just moved into the old Roddenberry house, and they've got big plans. Originally from Marion County, Carolina, the family attempts to settle into their new life and make friends with their neighbors. Unfortunately, those neighbors include Sam Slater. A nasty man with a penchant for drunkenness, Sam's just the kind of guy who doesn't mind causing his fellow man a bit of trouble once in a while. When the wild hogs and cows of the Slaters start eating the Boyer family's crops, tensions begin to rise between the two households. The Boyers are good hardworking people with pride and bright ideas. The Slaters could be categorized as white trash, never lifting a finger to feed their own animals and jealously coveting those nice things their neighbors have. Our hero of the story, Birdie Boyer, has her own problems dealing with Shoestring Slater, a boy roughly her age who's just as likely to brag or throw a snake on a girl's hat as he is help keep his father's pigs out of trouble or lament his own lack of education.
Lenski does an interesting thing with the beginning of this book. She begins it through the point of view of seven-year-old Essie Slater, leading you to believe that she herself will be the heroine of this tale. As you slowly come to the realization that her father is not the usual wise/good/loving pop found in most 1945 children's books, the text suddenly switches to the point of view of Birdie Boyer and Essie is never heard from again. Lenski's characters aren't as cardboard cut-outish as they first appear either. At the start, the Boyers seem good and the Slaters bad. Then odd occurrences make you begin to doubt this assumption. Mr. Boyer, in an attempt to teach Shoestring Slater a lesson, whips the boy harshly in front of his mother and sisters (who, understandably, are frightened and furious by this violence). Mr. Boyer is also prone to killing his neighbor's pigs if they get in his way, even sometimes cutting off their ears as a sign. He won't even create a path for Slater's cattle herd to reach the nearest water source, instead fencing up the area and getting mad when it's cut down. The Slaters also win your affection at odd moments. Birdie is quick to blame Shoestring for anything he does wrong, but the boy is a good egg in a bad situation. He has to juggle his family's expectations while figuring out for himself what the right and wrong actions he should take really are.
A lot of this book is enjoyable partly because it goes the "Little House On the Prairie" route and explains the day-to-day goings on of the Boyers' lives in interesting ways. In what other children's book will you learn exactly how to grind sugar cane and pull it for fun afterwards? Or the ins and outs of raising strawberries in naturally sandy soil? What other book explains the intricacies of Florida weather in the spring and summer? Or tells you how to create roses out of paraffin? Part of the charm of "Strawberry Girl" is in describing how the old Florida pioneers did it. Less impressive are Lenski's pictures. It was with a heavy heart that I discovered that Lenski considered herself an artist first and a novelist second. That's too bad because the illustrations in this tale are particularly poor. I just couldn't like 'em and I suspect they'll easily deter many a prospective boy reader with their girlyness.
For a surprisingly dour and sharpely written novel about roughing it, definitely try "Strawberry Girl". You might find that the ending suffers from being a little too pat (there's a happy finish there that jars with the realism of the rest of the text) but all in all it's still a very interesting read. For a good Florida based kid's book, both this and Carl Hiaasen's, "Hoot" are excellent choices. A sobering but enjoyable tale.