A reviewer on Amazon mentioned that Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl has the most misleading cover ever. I completely agree. The cover (not to mention the title) of this Newbery novel from 1945 gives the impression that this would be a sweet little book of exactly the sort that never quite makes it to the top of my stack. Nevertheless, I read it a few years back because I was reading everything I could find about pioneer Florida. This book astonished me. The same Amazon review I mentioned called the book “a seething concoction of barely contained violence and danger.” I agree with that too.
The Strawberry Girl of the title is Birdie Boyer. She and her large family are new to the barely settled Polk County, Florida, where they intend to grow strawberries and other fruit. They are hard-working and thrifty, very capable and determined to bring beauty and civilization to the scrubby pine and palmetto forests of Central Florida. Their nearest neighbors are their polar opposites. The Slaters are lazy and shiftless, convinced that the sandy soil of Polk County can’t yield produce. “Can’t raise nothing on this sorry piece o’ land but a fuss,” one of them says. As was the custom in Florida at the time, the Slaters let their cattle roam free, catching them about once a year to sell or butcher. Which leaves them the rest of the year to drink and fight.

The Slaters’ free-range principles collide with the Boyers’ horticultural efforts, and things get ugly in a hurry. Not what you would expect from that Strawberry Shortcake cover illustration. There’s a lot of meanness and ugliness in this book, and a sweet, lovable protagonist trying to pick her way through the middle of it. I wouldn’t recommend handing this book off to your fourth-grader to read on her own, but it could make for some great conversation if you read it together.

I think of Strawberry Girl as The Yearling lite. Like The Yearling, it’s a very accurate and un-sentimental depiction of frontier life in Old Florida. It’s not even half the length of The Yearling, which can a little long for young readers. I do have one quibble, however, and it concerns the dialect. Lois Lenski obviously did good research and took good notes when she visited with “Cracker” families in Florida, but in a number of places their language doesn’t quite ring true in her story. The rhythms aren’t quite right. And for some reason, non-native speakers of Southern English have a devil of a time with the “fixing to” construction. They know that Southerners say “I’m fixing to,” but they have a hard time knowing exactly when and under which circumstances they say it.

  • Aaron Roughton
    3:26 PM, 3 January 2011

    I’m fixing to read this here book right here.
    There’s a good chance she ran into some of my ancestors, as they happened to be settling in that area at the same time. They were probably the mean ones.

  • Sondorik
    3:57 AM, 4 January 2011

    Hmmm…interesting! Many of the happiest memories of my childhood were made in Polk County, FL. And a few of them involved strawberries. Will definitely have to check out this book and its saccharine cover.

  • sally apokedak
    1:45 PM, 4 January 2011

    Well, I’m fixin’ to disagree.
    Hmm. The truth is that I read the book when I was in the third or fourth grade and I don’t remember any violence. I have a vague picture in my mind of her brothers fighting with the neighbor boys, or something. Some fight in the house with benches and boys flying around. But I don’t remember any real danger or seething violence.

    I barely remember the book, really. But you know how you remember what you thought about a book long after you remember the actual story. I remember that I really liked the book and I remember that I thought it was very funny. I guess the danger went right over my innocent little head while I was laughing at lines like, โ€Canโ€™t raise nothing on this sorry piece oโ€™ land but a fuss.โ€ So I think it’s a fine book for a fourth-grader to read, depending on the fourth-grader. One that isn’t too astute will do just fine with it, apparently.

    I have a copy on my shelves. I’m going to give it another gander. You’ve got me wondering, now.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    2:02 PM, 4 January 2011

    First, Sally, let me congratulate you on your proper use of the phrase “fixing to.” I know you haven’t been living in Georgia all that long, but you’re already talking like a native.
    As I look back through what I wrote yesterday, it occurs to me that I may not have communicated how much I like Strawberry Girl. I think it’s very good. I also think it’s a much scarier book than you remember. Its dangers feel very real. You’re right that there’s little open violence. But it’s the lingering threat of violence–the willful meanness of neighbors who might kill your stock or burn down your house–that is so scary.

  • Jess
    6:55 PM, 4 January 2011

    I read it twice, once when I was about eight and once about three years ago. Still, all I remember is that someone came over to borrow sugar and everyone was all nice and polite, Birdie’s family did something clever with flour on the strawberries, and someone didn’t get a pair of overalls because his father wasted his money drinking. When I was eight, I liked it. Three years ago, I liked it, but a little less just because that wasn’t the kind of book I was liking then. Anyway, I think I agree, although I love the cover, the cover is misleading. Also, as far as I know, I still like the book. Ha.

  • Jess
    6:56 PM, 4 January 2011

    Don’t read the above comment if you think that some of the statements spoil the book. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Drew
    8:43 PM, 4 January 2011

    Well, . . . I guess I’ll have to check this out. I think The Yearling suffers from the assumption that it’s merely a “Boy and his Fawn” story. Bambi + Old Yeller or somethin’.
    I find myself reminding people that it won the Pulitzer, not the Newbery. I have to admit that the cover of “Strawberry Girl” did, indeed, communicate something about “Little House on the Prairie” level. Interest to learn that it’s not.

  • Drew
    2:15 AM, 5 January 2011

    By the way, several years ago at our University Library, I found a copy of a Florida guidebook from around 1910 or so. (The book itself was a 1940s facsimile edition of the earlier book.) The 100-year-old descriptions of Florida were fascinating, particularly because I had been reading The Yearling when I found the guidebook. Florida was a wild and crazy place!

  • Drew
    2:21 AM, 5 January 2011

    This isn’t the one I referenced above, but it’s similarly fascinating:

  • Jonathan Rogers
    5:19 AM, 5 January 2011

    Drew, you’re right–Old Florida was a fascinating place. Decades after the frontier had closed, parts of Florida were still as wild as the Wild West ever was. And The Yearling is one of the best things ever written in this country.

  • Dryad
    1:47 PM, 5 January 2011

    Drew–Little House on the Prairie was intense.How many times did they run out of food, or have Pa nearly die?

  • Steve S
    7:28 PM, 5 January 2011

    When I was in Florida last week there was a fascinating documentary on the local public television station about the construction in the 1920s of the Tamiami Trail connecting Tampa and Miami by way of the Everglades. “Escape to Dreamland” was the name of it. Trailer at: Lots of speculators, crooks, robber barons, circus freaks, Seminole Indians, and other sundry colorful characters. I think they said that the 1910 Dade County census counted about 300 people.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    8:03 PM, 5 January 2011

    Dryad, you make a good point. We tend to speak of Little House as being sweet–and much of it is–but there’s plenty of genuine danger. I think about the one where the mean boys beat up the new teacher. I’m a little vague on it; doesn’t Pa go and whip them with a belt? Anyway, that’s what Strawberry Girl feels like all the way through.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    8:10 PM, 5 January 2011

    Steve S, that documentary looks great. Makes me want to go see the Tamiami Trail for myself. I’ve always said Florida has every bit of the goofiness of Georgia or Alabama with about seven or eight layers of other kinds of goofiness laid on top of it.
    To anybody who’s interested in Florida, let me recommend Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, which is a whole lot better than “Adaptation,” the movie based (sort of) on the book. The ghost orchid, the star of that book, is the original for the frog orchid in The Secret of the Swamp King.

  • Canaan Bound
    2:09 AM, 6 January 2011

    I probably would have read this book…but then I read Jess’ comment…and now the suspense has all gone out of it.

  • sally apokedak
    4:39 AM, 6 January 2011

    LOL @Jess and Canaan. You all make me chuckle.

  • Jess
    4:54 PM, 6 January 2011

    ๐Ÿ˜ฎ My sincerest apologies, Canaan Bound. I shall now go hide in a hole and wish I were a worm. Madame Apokedak, allow me to repremand you. This is not a laughing matter. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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