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strawberry girl

7 november 2014

Lois Lenski's 1946 Newbery Medal novel Strawberry Girl is the tale of a family of Crackers. The term "Cracker" has lost any positive associations it once had, but just 70 years ago, it stood for yeomanry, as Lenski terms it, of "Anglo-Saxon purity of type" (ix). Lenski even gives the term an etymology: from the characteristic sound of a cowman "swinging his whip back over his shoulder, then whipping it forward in a startling crack" (97).

"Cracker" had been a positive term in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), so we have more than one data point for this observation. Mitchell contrasts "Cracker" (always capitalized) to "white trash," a term Lenski avoids. But the class contrast between Cracker and trash is implicitly at the heart of Strawberry Girl.

Strawberry Girl focuses on a feud between two neighboring families in the piney woods of central Florida, just after the turn of the 20th century. Curiously, the initial perspective is that of the trashy family, the Slaters. (I recall that the trashy family in GWTW is called "Slattery.") The Slaters are shiftless and their father is a drunk. They let their hogs and cattle run wild, and they don't bother planting crops because what's the use. But they note that a new family is moving into the next-door farmstead, long abandoned as hopeless. And the new family has quite a different attitude.

The Boyers, honest, hard-working Crackers, are determined to fence, plant, manure, and generally improve their plot of ground. The Slaters are jealous and indigent, a dangerous mix. The plot of Lenski's novel is marked by the annual challenges of agrarian life, punctuated by bitter and violent disagreements between the Boyer and the Slater menfolk. Meanwhile, the women and children of the families form peaceful alliances that ultimately prove more durable than all the (figurative) cockfighting.

An awful lot of Strawberry Girl is devoted to men or boys beating up other men and boys. When some Slater boys defy the village schoolmaster, he goes after them with a bamboo pole, and they beat the daylights out of him, after which the teacher departs the novel and does not return. Jefferson Davis "Shoestring" Slater, the charming but feckless younger son of the brood, is constantly getting walloped for misdemeanors or just general "sass." When patriarchs Bihu Boyer and Sam Slater aren't killing each other's livestock, they're pounding each other with their fists.

Tone and ideology in Lenski's portrayal of violence are complicated. It's not slapstick; these are not puppyfights. The issues that the men fight over are not trivial, and their disagreements are often so intractable that a fistfight seems the only possible arbiter. Religion eventually softens the Slaters and unites the community. When Shoestring Slater spies on a traveling preacher's dinner, his debilitated mother asks Mrs. Boyer to "whop him good" (186). The preacher himself mildly turns to the Bible. And Mrs. Boyer later explains to Shoestring why he hasn't gotten whopped this time:

"I can't whop you … I mean, I can't. … You're too big. I'm too tired from nursin' your Ma to undertake sich a hard job as that." (189)
There's a tough, perseverant, realistic feminism behind the character's words. Violence can't correct bad behavior; it can't even correct violence. Opting out of a cycle of violence withdraws what the violent crave most: respect for their physical brutality.

As the few quotations I've drawn from Strawberry Girl suggest, Lenski makes an elaborate attempt to depict regional dialect. In fact, Strawberry Girl is just one of the many books that she published with a partially ethnographic motivation. Among her other titles are Texas Tomboy, Coal Camp Girl, Bayou Suzette, and To Be a Logger, all illustrated with Lenski's distinctive stylized drawings. These books range from still in print to hard to buy, though none of them seem to be truly scarce, and they are held by hundreds of libraries. If they're anything like Strawberry Girl, they spend a lot of time delineating local lifeways, especially rural ways of making a living, close to the land, with plenty of manual labor and constant improvisation in the face of shifting circumstances.

The Girl herself is oddly one of the blander elements of the novel. Much of Strawberry Girl is told from the perspective of Birdie Boyer, a Cracker ingenue old enough to realize that Shoestring Slater likes her, but not old enough to kiss him or anything. Birdie is strong-willed, emotionally perceptive, and inherently drawn to music and the verbal arts. Literacy is not rampant enough in Birdie's Florida for Strawberry Girl to follow the usual Newbery pattern of making its heroine a voracious reader. But as the novel closes and a new schoolhouse goes up, we sense that the next generation will more than make up for lost reading opportunities.

Lenski, Lois. Strawberry Girl. 1945. n.p.: HarperCollins, 2008.