fiction favorites…Strawberry Girl

Strawberry Girl, written and illustrated by Lois Lenski

“Whoa thar!” called Birdie.  “Whoa, Semina!”  The white mule stopped.  The girl thrust the plowshare into the ash-white soil again.  “Giddap, Semina!” The mule started on…
The sun shone with merciless brightness.  Birdie mopped her hot face under her sunbonnet…Her bare feet were black from the mucky sand.
Suddenly she noticed somebody hanging on the rail fence of the cowpen.  It was the black-haired Slater boy.  He had jumped off his horse and turned it loose to graze near by.  She wondered if he would speak to her.
“Hey!” she called.
“Hey!” came the answer.  “What you doin’?”
“I call myself plowin’,” replied Birdie. “Wanna help?”
“Shucks — no!”
“Big ole lazy, you!” retorted the girl.
“What you fixin’ to plant?”
“Sweet ‘taters, peanuts and sich.  That’s sugar cane over there,” explained Birdie, pointing. “Pa and Buzz planted it when we first bought the place.  It’s doin’ real well.  We’ll be grindin’ cane shore ‘nough, come fall.  Right here we’re fixin’ to set strawberries.”
“You purely can’t!” said the boy. “Can’t raise nothin’ on this sorry old piece o’ land but a fuss!” He spat and frowned.  “Sorriest you can find — either too wet or too dry.  Not fitten for nothin’ but palmetto roots.  Your strawberries won’t never make.”
Birdie lifted her chin defiantly…She turned the mule around and said giddap.

It’s central Florida, circa 1900, and the “Crackers”  — Florida’s backwoods settlers — are wrestling the land in a bitter struggle to make a living.  Birdie and her family, the Boyers, are recently arrived from northern Florida.  Their work ethic, big dreams, neighborliness, and savvy farming techniques contrast starkly with their neighbors, the Slaters, who live in abject poverty, suffering from Sam Slater’s alcoholism, mean spirit, and stubborn laziness. 

As the year passes, the Boyers set their hands to bone-wearying toil and persistent overcoming of setbacks necessary to turn their place into a money-making farm.  Grasshoppers and untimely cold snaps are tough enough, but the Boyers are also up against repeated sabotage by the surly Slater men.  The Boyers determine to walk a fine line — thwarting the destructive efforts of their neighbors, while still showing them the kindness and neighborliness they believe is the right path.

Lois Lenski won the Newbery Medal in 1946 for this tangy, authentic potrayal of the rugged life of these frontier families.  Besides providing a window into an otherwise hidden subculture, Lenski tackles the test of character which doggedly confronts the Boyer family throughout the novel.  Although their circumstances are more extreme than most of ours, these conflicts are a part of each of our lives, in which we have choices to make between cowardice and strength, revenge and kindness.  Thus, the book’s themes are relevant despite its dramatically different place and time.   Watching these families, and especially the two women, interact, is quite thought-provoking.  Sam Slater’s eventual change of heart comes from a religious conversion, which is presented briefly but exuberantly in the final chapter. 

Lois Lenski

Despite its title and a 10-year-old female protagonist, male characters and gritty action are predominant enough that this is a fine title for boys as well.  You might have to overcome the cover and title by reading it aloud to them, however!  Probably best for ages 8-12.

The Amazon link:  Strawberry Girl 60th Anniversary Edition (Trophy Newbery)