Friday, December 28, 2012

Blue Willow, by Doris Gates

The picture shown at left is the image on the cover of the copy I read.  One of the great things about this book is that, despite being so old, it keeps well and would still be enjoyable by a contemporary audience.  It has been reprinted numerous times with covers with current appeal, so I'm glad that this isn't one of the Newbery books that has fallen out of print!  On to the summary.

Janey Larkin's family is one of many dislocated by the Dust Bowl.  Former ranchers in Texas, they had to sell their property years ago and now live as migrant workers, living where they can (often in their car) and moving as often as every few weeks.  Janey's biological mother died when Janey was almost too young to remember her, but she loves her stepmother, and never refers to her as anything but "Mom".  Similarly, Mom doesn't resent Janie in any way and they are a completely whole and happy family together.  This shouldn't necessarily be unusual in a children's book, but I feel like it is.

The one memento that Janey has from her biological mother's family is a blue willow china plate, depicting a Chinese house, a bridge over a stream, and a willow tree.  Because she has been essentially homeless for years, the picture on the plate takes on a special significance for her.  If she ever, finally, has a real home again, she wants it to be just like that image.  The blue willow plate is also the one nice item that the family has remaining from their former life.  Although it is treasured by the entire family, it belongs to Janey, who keeps it carefully packed away (Mom won't let such a nice item be displayed until they have a proper home to show it in).

This season, work has brought the Larkin family into the San Joachin valley in California.  Dad has taken work picking cotton, and the family decides to occupy a shack they found abandoned by the side of the road.  They figure that even if they are discovered and asked to pay rent (the shack is, after all, on the property of the man owning the cotton fields and more besides), as long as it's a reasonable price it would be preferable to staying in the laborers' camp.  Once they have moved in, a little Mexican girl of Janey's age drops by to visit.  Lupe Romero lives across the street with her parents, younger brother and baby sister.  Janey is skeptical at first- frequent moves don't really lend themselves to developing friendships or social skills- but Lupe's sincerity and good manners win her over.  She and Lupe quickly become close friends, and Janey is amazed to learn that Lupe has lived in her house for an entire year!  She hopes that she will have the luxury of remaining in one place for so long, too.  Then she might get to attend a proper school, instead of learning math on the fly from her father, and reading from the pages of the family Bible, the only book she has ever had access to.

Despite eventually having a monthly rent of a steep $5 demanded of them by Mr. Anderson's grouchy foreman Bounce, the Larkins settle in happily.  Janey is able to attend the fair in Fresno with the Romero family (children are admitted free!) and she learns that sometimes friends offer things out of kindness, not pity.  They enjoy fishing for catfish in the local river, and Dad gets to participate in the annual cotton picking competition.  And best of all, Janey is able to attend school and read real books under the care of a teacher that she loves.

At the end of December, however, circumstances change.  The cotton harvest ends and there will be no more work for farm laborers.  Also, Mom becomes ill with pneumonia, and they have no money with which to pay for a doctor or medicine, or the rent that will come due mid-January.  Additionally, Mom is too sick to be moved.  Janey decides to use her blue willow plate and try to exchange it for a miracle!

I really enjoyed this book and finished it all in one sitting.  Younger readers of chapter books will find the story and Janey herself easy to relate to.

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