Friday, February 7, 2014

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski

My earliest memory of this book is from my early High School years.  It was below reading level, obviously, but I was still a fan of those Dell Yearling paperbacks and this one somehow found its way onto my bookshelf.  I had no idea until now that it was so old; I just knew that it read strangely.  But the book was intentionally written in a backwoods Florida dialect common for the time when the story took place.  Lois Lenski apparently did some pretty extensive research preparing to write this book, relying especially on WPA oral histories.  Many of the events from the book are based on them.

Our book's protagonist is Birdie Boyer, a young girl who has just relocated from the Carolinas to the backwoods of Florida with her family.  They have plans to farm the land successfully, having inherited an orange grove from the prior owners.  They also want to raise cattle and farm strawberries, which grow well in the Florida soil and bring in a nice profit.  However, things are made difficult from the beginning by inhospitable neighbors.  The Slaters have been living on the adjacent property for generations.  They believe that their animals are entitled to free passage through the woods, regardless of whose property they cross.  The Boyers soon have to contend with starving livestock let loose in the woods, stripping down their orange trees, wallowing in their strawberry fields, and digging under their fences (when the Slaters don't take it upon themselves to cut through the fences to escort their cows to the river, rather than going around).

Over time, things escalate between the two families.  Eventually, Mr. Boyer cuts the ears off of the Slater hogs he finds on his property as a warning.  The next time, he kills them and leaves them on the Slaters' porch.  The Slater men (and boys) set a fire in the woods and try to burn the Boyers out as retaliation, not realizing that some of their own children are playing in those very woods (and fortunately, emerge unharmed).  But eventually Mrs. Slater becomes slightly more friendly and sympathetic to the Boyers, although she's not able to make any overt gestures that her husband might hear about.

I won't spoil the ending, but I remember that even in High School I found it just a little too pat.  Did Ms. Lenski run out of conflict-resolution ideas?  Or is this something that really happened according to her research?  I'd love to have the answer to this one.

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