Ordinarily, a book like this wouldn't rate too high by our standards. The reasons are simple—the plot seems contrived (at least for the last ten pages), and the theology is pretty wonky. In fact, these elements work together, making an otherwise excellent book peter out on a weak note.But this book does rate high in our book, despite these problems.
Lois Lenski wrote Strawberry Girl after spending time with the types of people she writes about. Florida homesteaders lived in a time-warp that lasted much longer than that of other frontierspeople, and even in the 1940s there were still whole communities out in the swamp and pine forests living in log cabins, eking out a hardscrabble life, immune to the advance of modern technology.
The novel follows the Boyers through the eyes of 10-year-old Birdie. The Boyers are a Florida family returning from a sojourn in North Carolina who seem "uppity" and "biggety" to their white trash neighbors, the Slaters. Sam Slater is a drunk, his wife is bitter, his boys are violent and mean, and his smaller children are dressed in rags and underfed.
By contrast, the Boyers are hardworking, kind, generous, church-going folks who take care of what they own and tend their crops and stock to yield good returns. It doesn't take long for Sam Slater to start an all-out war with Pa Boyer, and pretty soon the animal kill-count is high and human lives are being endangered. Not only is Sam Slater mean, Pa Boyer has a temper.
In the end, the two men reconcile after Slater gets religion at a camp meeting and immediately becomes a new man. This is both the contrived ending and the bad theology: all tension eases into a happy ending because Slater changes at the last minute, and his conversion is very much a moral about-face rather than repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. This is sad, but it's an accurate depiction of frontier religion, particularly of the revivalist variety.
But this isn't what makes Strawberry Girl so good. What sets this book apart are the descriptions of life in the Florida wilds before civilization had encroached that far. We see a community sugar cane grinding and syrup making, the hard work of planting and harvesting strawberries, a brush with an alligator, and much more.
We also see a lot of violence, some of it undoubtedly unnerving for more sensitive or really young readers. Two of the Slater boys beat the school teacher so badly he almost dies; Pa Boyer kills three of Sam Slater's hogs; Sam Slater poisons the Boyer mule; and Pa Boyer fights Sam Slater in a bar.
Yet this isn't gratuitous violence. In the context of the near-lawless Florida wilderness, we get the sense that this kind of violence was simply a part of daily life. In Strawberry Girl, it adds a layer of realism many children's authors avoid, and though the ending is contrived it does make it all the more welcome because of the struggle that precedes it.
Books about unfamiliar cultures are perennially popular among readers of all ages, and children in particular. This one is even more interesting because it deals with a group of people who lived in our own country not that long ago, but whom many are unaware even existed. This is an excellent novel, and offers a fascinating glimpse into a disappeared way of life.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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