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.