Newbery Thoughts – The Matchlock Gun

coverEdmonds (Winner 1942) – This is a horrid piece of racist, warmongering, xenophobic propaganda that won the Newbery Medal in 1942 as America launched itself into World War II. It is a study in fear of invasion and the terror of “the other”. This is a short fast read, the paperback I read clocked in at 62 pages, and the reading level is easy with little introspection or discussion of higher issues. This is a book about the women and children who are left behind and the innate danger that finds them when the menfolk are off.

The setting is update New York during the French and Indian Wars and our protagonists are a group of Dutch settlers. I will say that this Revolutionary War era fiction was MUCH more popular in the past and was very prevalent when I was a kid around the bicentennial. It is interesting to see a group of people and an era of American history that isn’t represented often. That is about the only redeeming quality of this book for me.

It’s pretty racist. The family who are our heros are, in fact, slave owners. They live in mortal fear of the “Indians” who are invading their valley. The illustrations throughout the book show these Native Americans as lurking, sneaking, watching from the woods while the good mama, boy, and toddler girl, all grow more and more fearful of their safety. There is no attempt to humanize the enemy, far from it, in fact they are described as:

They hardly looked like men, the way they moved. They were trotting, stooped over, first one and then another coming up, like dogs sifting up to the scent of food.

I guess that kind of thing was OK in 1942 but it seems hardly worthy of accolades and laurels, unless of course you are a nation caught up in the fever of war.

I also find the incredibly bad parenting hard to take. The father, Teunis, goes off to “hold the bridge” but you get the sense that this is a bunch of guys hanging out more than actual soldiers. The only “Indian” they kill is one that they find crippled and injured in a stream. When one of his friends goes to the farm to check on his family the one thing that Teunis asks to have brought back is his flask of schnapps. Gertrude, the mother, chooses to not take her children to her mother in law’s house despite the fact that it is made of brick and populated by armed slaves for security. She thinks that they are safer, her and her two children, in their tiny cabin. This decision nearly costs her her life and those of her children.


Perhaps the thing that is hardest to take in this regard is that in the end she makes her ten year old son pull the trigger on the Spanish gun that the book is named for. She sets herself up as a lure (which is really just a terrible idea) so that she can lead her attackers into the line of fire of what amounts to a portable cannon. She makes it so that her child kills three people and nobody blinks an eye at it. In fact:

Trudy grew sleepy, after a while, and lost her interest in the dead Indians. She was no longer afraid of them.

That’s the little sister who is about four or five who then falls asleep on her brother’s lap while they are warmed by the fire of their house burning down while their mother is unconscious from blood loss next to them.

I’m glad I read this one even if I did hate it. It’s not a badly executed book, just prejudiced and xenophobic. This is a Newbery which acts as a mirror to its age, an age when the nation went to war, even our kids.  

Newbery Thoughts – Rascal

coverNorth (1964 Honor Book) – This is a memoir which is unusual in the Newbery world. This is the first straight up personal memoir I have encountered in my Newbery reading. It’s a pretty great book, light, fun, accessible. The prose is easy to take and the characters are likable one and all. North starts off with the best disclaimer I have ever read.

All of my friends in this book, both animals and humans, were real and appear under their rightful names.

A few less lovable characters have been rechristened.

In other words, this is all true but if I didn’t like you then while I may have changed your name you are still in here.

North lives in a kind of early 20th century woodland boyhood idyll. He fishes, climbs, and explores all with his inquisitive companion Rascal, a raccoon that he raises as a pet. The book is actually a record of the year that the two spent together from when Rascal was a tiny kit that had to be fed by hand until North finally releases him back into the woods. They have a great friendship and Rascal is a delightful and irascible companion.

There isn’t much conflict and there is little overarching story. The narrative is more one of anecdotes and incidents than it is a convention start middle end story. North is a great writer and he allows a lot to come through his good midWestern prose. He misses his mother, he wonders about the changing nature of the world around him, he worried about his brother off fighting in WW I.

While North and Rascal’s freedom is a major point of discussion in the book (as in they portraitcan’t possibly get enough of it), there are some cultural shifts which make reading this book now quite shocking. Sterling North was frankly neglected by his father. This is hard to hear and he has a very loving attitude toward his father but we also see that his father leaves him alone in their farmhouse for weeks at a time. Food is delivered, the boy is not hungry, but he spends long periods of time alone and without adult supervision. At the time of the book he is 11 years old and yet:

My father sent a postcard from Montana saying he would not be coming home for another ten days or two weeks. Fortunately we ran a charge account at the meat market and at one of the groceries. But to raise money for staples and hinges I had to dig and sell two more bushels of my potatoes. I was somewhat lonesome and very grateful for Rascal’s companionship day and night.

The modern reader would also have trouble with the way that Rascal comes into North’s life. He and a friend dig him out of his den after scaring away his mother and take him away. It is tough to read for the 21st century audience. The raccoon has a perfectly good and healthy mother, indeed she tries hard to shield and protect the kit, but North, who has lost his mother himself, takes him anyway. Then, when it is clear that Rascal is a full grown adult raccoon North abandons him in the woods. Much of this book is a hymn to a much loved animal but there are parts of it that are hard for modern animal lovers to take.

It’s really interesting to see this book in the context of the larger Newbery ecology. This was an honor book the year that It’s Like This Cat by Emily Naville won the prize. It’s REALLY interesting to consider them side by side. Both works have a young male narrator who has a prized pet which leads them into young adulthood. That is about where the similarities end and that is what makes it interesting. One is very rural (farmland Wisconsinrascaltree) one is very urban (NYC, Manhattan no less). Sterling North’s parents are largely absent and David’s parents are very present. One is a memoir, one is fiction (written by an author of another gender).

I think that the greatest difference, and the one that makes me feel that the Newbery Committee made the right decision, is that
Rascal looks backwards (an early subtitle which is not now used as much is “A Memoir of a Better Era”), while It’s  Like This Cat looks forward. Rascal looks back to a distant past when boys wandered undisturbed forests and a horse and chaise could beat a Model T in a race at the County Faire. It’s Like This Cat looks to the future of young people engaged in the modern world around them. Rascal is focused on “the good old days” while It’s Like This Cat is a consideration of our bright new future.