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blue willow

10 march 2019

Blue Willow, a durable children's minor-classic from the year 1940, is not exactly saccharine, but it's sanguine – in the non-bloody sense – to the point of saturation. A lot of bad things have happened to protagonist Janey Larkin, and as Doris Gates' novel unfolds, a lot more bad things might; but they don't, and in fact life becomes a bed of roses for Janey, her family, and their friends. However, it's the getting there that initially won Blue Willow its acclaim, and keeps it in print to this day. There's an edge of naturalism to Gates' novel that makes it surprisingly fresh after eight decades.

Janey is a child of the Dust Bowl. Her hard-working father, and the stepmother who's the only Mom she's known since she was a toddler, have made their tortuous way from Texas to California, and now are at the literal and figurative end of their road. They've squatted in a squalid shack on a ranch near Fresno and depend on the vagaries of the cotton crop in the area to supply them with a tenuous, and temporary, living. Mr. Larkin is determined that neither Mom nor Janey should work, so he has to pick a superhuman amount of cotton to make ends meet. But as the novel begins, ends are meeting, provisionally, even though the Larkins must pay $5 a month to a grifting overseer to keep a leaky roof over their heads.

Janey makes a good friend in Lupe Romero, daughter of the Mexican foreman whose home lies nearest the Larkins' shack. To an extent rare in children's literature in 1940 or now, the Romeros' ethnicity is incidental. They aren't exotic, they aren't heroic, they aren't demonized; they're just Mexican, and the tough conditions of agricultural labor have erased the cultural prejudices that might otherwise separate them from the Anglo Larkins. Blonde Janey envies Lupe her black hair, and is happy to have the Romeros mentor her in the ways of the cotton fields and even into generic elements of American life like a county fair. But Gates is not naïvely colorblind, either. As a white girl, Janey instinctively trusts policemen; Lupe distinctly does not. The two girls have an encounter with a white motorcycle cop that can make a reader apprehensive: at first, the cop seems to take to Janey, but then he accosts Lupe for merely existing. Come to find he's just a teddy bear of a guy who loves all kids and likes to tease them, but there's an undertone of distrust for authority that acknowledges American injustices without foregrounding them.

Meanwhile, the Romeros are comfortably off, but the Larkins are struggling. In fact, all Janey really has in the world, in the way of material comforts, is her blue willow plate. This heirloom, which one suspects is a rather common example of the popular pattern, means the world to Janey (she will eventually learn that it belonged to her birth mother, and that her stepmother has preserved it as Janey's link to that past). Gates takes Janey's investment in the plate seriously, and though the plate becomes a way for Janey to structure a hopeful mythology for herself, the text does not patronize her. It may be an ordinary object, but it is extraordinary in Janey's world. Treasures are defined by their context.

The main plot direction of Blue Willow is scanty enough. I will spoil it here. After some money that Mr. Larkin wins in a cotton-picking contest is exhausted when Mom develops pneumonia, Janey resolves to give up her willow plate to pay the rent. Of course the grifting overseer merely steals the plate, but when Janey visits her supposed landlord to see it one last time, the cad's imposture is revealed. Mr. Larkin becomes overseer as a reward for his hard work and probity, and the Romeros get together with the locals to build the Larkins a real house: significantly, an adobe house, marking their fixedness on and in the earth, after much wandering, and their acculturation to their Californian surroundings.

That's the sanguine part; that, and the way that Janey is an indefatigable reader: prestige children's books always seem to be meta- and to present reading about reading as the apex of literary value. When Janey, to Lupe's bemusement, prefers to read books at the library booth at the fair, rather than ride the merry-go-round, we know we are in the universe of a Good Book.

And then there are odd touches that both date Blue Willow and mark it as unique. At one point, Mr. Larkin waxes on about how much he loves cotton – it's not just a day's wages to him, it's a kind of commodity-as-belief-system. "Cotton wants only the best," he enthuses. But Mom adds: "Except people. … It doesn't seem to matter what sort of people work in the cotton, as long as there's plenty of them" (68-69). What is she talking about? Is it a progressive sentiment, an acknowledgment that labor is faceless and itself commodified under agribusiness? Or is she somehow casting shade on the long association of cotton-picking with African Americans?

It's hard to tell. Later on, a jovial Negro beats Mr. Larkin for first place in that pickers' contest, but the meaning of that event is also hard to place. Are we to understand that the black man is bred to cotton picking by his nature, or is he just a fellow worker, like the Mexicans in the story? Janey herself seems to be from finer stock than any old cotton-picker, even the white ones. Mr. Anderson, the landlord, tells the trashy overseer Bounce, at one point: "There's something in this child's ancestry you couldn't even begin to understand" (83). That one weird sentence seems to mark Blue Willow as of a piece with other minor classics like Caddie Woodlawn, where Anglo-American pioneers are necessarily scions of unacknowledged nobility, rising to the top again as the cream of their forbears did in the old country. But after that one odd reference, the theme sinks beneath the surface of the novel again.

The unsung heroes of the book are teachers and librarians (author Doris Gates was both). The passage where Janey meets her favorite teacher Miss Peterson (89-90) is memorable for its insight into dialect, register, and the social-class implications of English usage. Janey has caught a horned toad and is determined to hate her new teacher if the woman insists on calling it a "horned lizard." Miss Peterson says "toad" and passes the test. Teachers, beware: the smallest thing can connect you to your students or sever you for good.

Gates, Doris. Blue Willow. Illustrated by Paul Lantz. 1940. New York: Puffin [Penguin], 1976.