Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Three More Reviews

Caddie Woodlawn
by Carol Ryrie Brink
Recommended Ages: 10+

In the wee years of the twentieth century, an eight-year-old orphan girl named Caroline Ryrie went to live with her grandmother, whose name was also Caroline. The younger Caroline grew up listening to the older Caroline's stories about her frontier childhood in Wisconsin, around the time of the U.S. Civil War. So deeply did these stories enter the child's imagination that, in 1935, when she was grown up and married, she based her second novel on them. This novel. This Newbery-Medal-winning, beloved-by-generations children's classic.

The title character is a redheaded, tomboyish girl, based on Grandma Caddie herself. Slap in the middle of a big pioneer family, she spends much of her time having adventures with her brothers Tom and Warren. This delights her father, who likes to see her in robust health, but worries her mother, who wishes she were more like a lady.

As the final year of the Civil War goes round (1864-65), Caddie gets up to a lot of mischief - but she also shows wisdom, courage, and compassion. She single-handedly defuses a potential Indian massacre. She helps three halfbreed children get over the heartbreak of being abandoned by their Indian mother. She serves as the first audience of a wonderful, made-on-the-spot folk tale. She gives solace to a sickly girl, friendship to a lonely little sister, and comeuppance to a practical-joking uncle.

Caddie learns to plow, to quilt, and to repair clocks. Her schoolroom accomplishments include spelling bees, recitation, and saving everybody from a grass fire. She survives a terrifying lightning storm and a plunge through the ice on a frozen millpond. She bears witness to first love, the story of her father's strange childhood, and the uppity airs of a Boston debutante cousin. Caddie ultimately faces not one crisis but two: the first, for herself, as her parents' disagreement about her upbringing comes to a head; the other, for the whole family, when a letter comes that could change their lives.

It all adds up to a charming, beautifully written book full of endearing characters and memorable incidents. Carol Brink's grandma lived to read it, and she expressed amazement at how it caught the flavor of life and the colors of the characters so truly. You, too, may be amazed at the way this book brings to life that fascinating era. To think that it was a living memory when this book was written, passed down from the author's grandma to a child whose grandchildren may now be grandparents themselves!

In an Author's Note added in 1973, Brink relates how thousands of people have visited the museum commemorating the Woodlawn family's homestead, and how one can still visit the graves of some of the characters in this book. Perhaps it would be just as well to keep abreast of them in the world of books. Carol Ryrie Brink wrote dozens of works before her death in 1981, including the sequel to this book, titled Magical Melons or (in a later imprint) Caddie Woodlawn's Family.

Strawberry Girl
by Lois Lenski
Recommended Ages: 10+

This Newbery Medal winner was written in 1945 before the term "crackers," referring to the Anglo-Saxon farm folk of the central Florida woods, became a bad word. Taken out of the context of race relations in the civil rights era, it draws an appreciative picture of a unique, and in some ways beautiful, way of life. As the Boyer and Slater families scratch a living out of the poor, palmetto-infested soil, we share their struggle. Their struggle with the land. Their struggle with each other. Their struggle, on one hand, to preserve a way of life threatened by progress and industrial development; their struggle, on the other hand, to improve their life by adopting new methods of farming.

In great part, the struggle in this book can be reduced to a feud between the Slaters and the Boyers. Sometimes their wives and children wonder, and you wonder too, how it can end without shooting. The Slaters resent the Boyers for their "biggity" ways, their prosperity, and their insistence on fencing their land to protect their crops - land the Slaters want to drive their cattle across. The Boyers alternately like and loathe the Slaters, whose cows and hogs mess up their planted fields, and who play a series of nasty pranks.

This makes for a surprising amount of passion and drama, where you probably expected to find only local color, sweaty scenes of farm labor, and a heartwarming coming-of-age story. The realism and conflict give this book a remarkable intensity, compared to many other children's novels of the "growing up on the farm" type. Compared to such saccharine-sweet books, Strawberry Girl has more depth, more flavor, and more authenticity in the unique speech patterns and in the mixed, good/bad behavior of its characters. Even more than some past winners, this book really deserves its Newbery Medal.

For all this we have author and illustrator Lois Lenski to thank. Her numerous works include a long series of regional and historical novels for children, plus picture books on similar themes for even younger kids. Lenski was also tipped Newbery Honors for Phebe Fairchild: Her Book and Indian Captive. Finally, I am keen to note that Lenski's father, Lutheran minister R.C.H. Lenski, was the author of a major commentary on the New Testament, one that I can personally recommend.

The Hour of the Outlaw
by Maiya Williams
Recommended Ages: 12+

This sequel to The Golden Hour and The Hour of the Cobra continues the adventures of four young Time Detectives who owe their history-hopping powers to a strange, abandoned hotel on the coast of Maine and its founder, the brilliant inventor Archibald Weber. Twins Xanthe and Xavier Alexander, together with siblings Rowan and Nina Popplewell, must now attempt an assignment that has long eluded the skills of older and more experienced time travelers. If they can't find Weber's missing son and bring him back, the future of time travel - and of the world itself - may be in jeopardy.

Balthazar Weber was a troubled but brilliant kid. The troubled side took over in a big way when his mother died, leaving him alone with his work-obsessed father. Somehow he got the idea in his head that the old man wanted to kill him. Feeling betrayed and afraid, Balt took advantage of a field-trip to the year 1857 to escape while his father listened to a speech by Abraham Lincoln. He ran away to the California Gold Rush, taking with him his grandfather-to-be. If the proper timeline isn't restored, Grandpa Weber may never marry Archibald's mother. Balt and his father may never be born. And time travel won't exist to bring the four young time detectives home.

In nineteenth-century California, the twenty-first-century kids find more than they bargained for. Xavier and Xanthe find a world where dark-skinned folks like them are treated as inferiors at best, and may face dangers that never threaten their paler-skinned friends. Nina, the piano prodigy, finds herself in the spotlight as an innkeeper turns her talent and girlish looks to good account. Rowan succumbs to gold fever and nearly loses his mind. Xanthe finds out how little her life has prepared her to be useful in the roles open to her sex in 1857. And Xavier faces constant danger from bullets and lynch mobs as he adopts the "become a thief to catch a thief" mode of operating.

Their adventure includes encounters with historical persons (such as author Bret Harte), stagecoach robbers, Indian captives, and early heroes in black Americans' struggle for a better life. They visit a prospectors' camp, a saloon in the aptly-named Hangtown, and a part of the Owatannauk Hotel they weren't meant to find. They get asked hard questions. They play risky gambits. And they begin to learn about the role they may yet play as warriors, perhaps even saviors.

The final act of the story wraps up so quickly that, in spite of the daring and exciting action that fills it, it almost seems too easy. Actually, it's Balt's change of heart that seems too easy, given his seemingly irreconcilable break with his father. But the very end has enough uncertainty, perhaps even grim foreboding, to keep you wondering what will come next. So far, I have no knowledge of a fourth book in this series, or even if one is being planned. We'll just have to wait and see what the future - and the past - hold for the time detectives!

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