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.  

One thought on “Newbery Thoughts – The Matchlock Gun”

  1. That mural used as an illustration is actually a picture of my X times great grandmother- it’s in a museum . She was the first white woman killed in the state of Virginia by Indians . She did not live .

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