Saturday, September 25, 2010

Downright Dencey, by Caroline Dale Snedeker

When I first saw the title of this book, the picture I had in my mind was that of an incorrigible tomboy who gets herself into neighborhood scrapes. I was so completely wrong! In the context of the publication date, the word "downright" is actually used in its obsolete form, meaning "forthright".

Of the books I have read for this blog thus far, this one is my favorite! It's charming and easily-readable.

The book takes place in 1800's Nantucket, when whaling was still the island's primary industry and a great number of the island's inhabitants were Quakers. Young Dionis Coffyn ("Dencey") lives with her parents and a large number of cousins. Her aunt died in childbirth while her uncle was away at sea, so her mother, Lydia, took in all of the children so they would still be a family when their father returns. Also in her life, if not in her home, are her Congregationalist grandfather (who gives whippings in her father's absence, and scares her with hellfire and brimstone sermons) and her aunt Lovesta (who is attentive and loving, unlike Dencey's own mother, who is severe and distant).

While walking home from school with a group one day, she sees a group of boys taunting the island outcast, Sam Jetsam. Sam has no proper last name- his father found him shipwrecked during a voyage and brought him home to his Indian wife. He abandoned the family shortly after that, but life with Indian Jill is also no picnic- she is cruel and violent. Sam is also unruly and uneducated- and perfectly scornable by those of more elite parentage. Although she was only a witness, Jetsam assumes Dencey to be one of his tormentors and calls her a "nigger-face, portugee girl". To be honest, I would have chosen to omit the "n-word" from my summary of this book, but I found it interesting that in this time and place, it indicated Portuguese origin (this is corroborated elsewhere in the book), which was utterly shameful.

Dencey, with her dark complexion and brown hair, has always felt a bit touchy about her appearance when compared to the other Coffyns and Coffins, and immediately gives chase. She eventually succeeds at striking Jetsam with a thrown rock, but when she sees the cut in his shirt and the blood on his back she is immediately remorseful. She knows that she has injured some one much less fortunate than herself, but when she tries to apologize, Jetsam pushes her away and assaults her with a barrage of epithets and foul language.

Dencey knows that she must receive Jetsam's forgiveness, and her mother agrees to go to Injun Jill's home with her to ask for it. However, Lydia becomes preoccupied in helping caring for a woman whose husband's ship has just sailed into port (unfortunately, with the husband's dead body aboard). Dencey picks out her favorite keepsake, a gift from her father, as a peace offering, and slips off herself to speak to Jetsam.

Jetsam is still angry and breaks her gift, but when he sees Dencey's persistence, he tells her he wants her book. The Pilgrim's Progress is the only book that she owns all to herself, and she often uses it at school to instruct the younger pupils. But she is willing to make the sacrifice and agrees to give it to Jetsam, to her great sadness. After a while, Jetsam admits that the book is of no use to him, as he cannot read. He offers Dencey a bargain: he will forgive her, but not until she has taught him to read, using the book.

Dencey agrees, but finds herself having to sneak off and lie perpetually to her mother, as she knows she would never be permitted to associate with Jetsam in public, let alone in private. These sins are extremely troubling to her, but after time she is found out by her mother and forced to confess everything.

I won't spoil the remainder of the book for you, but there's a whoooooole other half beyond what I've described. It's such a fun and easy read, and the characters, even the peripheral ones, are well-developed and three-dimensional. I fully recommend this one!

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