Book Review: Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski (1945)

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From the back cover:

Set in the little-known backwoods region of Florida, [Strawberry Girl] is Birdie Boyer’s story; of how she and her fierce Cracker pride battled nature, animals, and feuding neighbors to become the best “strawberry girl” the backwoods ever knew.

I confess: I picked this one out of the used books bin for the obvious reason.

The newly-released, 60th anniversary edition has a different back blurb, which doesn’t mention “Crackers.” I don’t know if they censored the text, too.

Strawberry Girl is a middle grade novel–about right for a fourth or fifth grader, depending on their tolerance for dialect–along the lines of the Little House Series.

From the Forward:

Few people realize how new Florida is, or that, aside from the early Indian and Spanish settlements, Florida has grown up in the course of a single man’s lifetime. In the early 1900’s, the date of my story, Florida was still frontier country, with vast stretches of unexplored wilderness, woodland and swamp, and her towns were frontier towns thirty and forty years later than the same frontier period in the Middle West.

After the Seminole War, 1835-1842, Anglo-Saxons from the Carolinas, Georgia, and West Florida drifted south and took up land in the lake region of Florida. … Their descendants, in the second and third generation, were, in 1900 and the following decade, just prior to the coming of the automobile, living in a frontier community, with all its crudities, brutalities, and cruelties. The “Crackers” lived a primitive life, an endless battle went on–a conflict with nature, with wild life, and with their fellow man. …

Like their antecedents in the Carolina mountains, the Florida Crackers have preserved a flavorsome speech, rich in fine old English idiom–word, phrase and rhythm. Many old customs, folk songs, and superstitions have been handed down along with Anglo-Saxon purity of type, shown in their unusual beauty of physical feature, and along with their staunch integrity of character. …

My material has been gathered personally from the Crackers themselves, and from other Floridians who know and understand them. I have visited in Cracker homes. … All the characters in my book are imaginary, but practically all incidents used were told to me by people who had experienced them.

Assuming Mrs. Lenski is accurate, there’s a great deal of interesting material here. For starters, yes, apparently “Florida Crackers” are a real thing and not just a slur, and even have their own (small) Wikipedia page. (So do the “Georgia Crackers.”) According to Wikipedia:

Florida cracker refers to colonial-era English and American pioneer settlers and their descendants in what is now the U.S. state of Florida. The first of these arrived in 1763 after Spain traded Florida to Great Britain following the latter’s victory over France in the Seven Years’ War.

Georgia Cracker refers to the original American pioneer settlers of the Province of Georgia (later, the State of Georgia), and their descendants. …

By the 1760s the English, both at home and in the American colonies, applied the term “Cracker” to Scotch-Irish and English settlers of the remote southern back country, as noted in a passage from a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.” The word was later associated with the cowboys of Georgia and Florida, many of them descendants of those early frontiersmen.[1]

There is some debate, it appears, over the word’s origin, whether from Shakespearean usage, “to crack a joke, to boast,” ie, people who were loud-mouth boasters, or from the sound of a whip cracking as the cowboys drove their cattle to market.

Today, of course, the term is much more likely to be used as a slur, eg, “creepy cracker.”

The Scotch-Irish are more commonly known as Appalachians. Lenski’s characterization of her informants as “Anglo-Saxons” is therefore perhaps not entirely true; indeed, her main character’s last name, Boyer, is most commonly French. (This is not an insurmountable issue–plenty of French Huguenots settled in the American South after getting kicked out of France, and had long intermarried with everyone else.)

“Purity of type” is a phrase one doesn’t hear much anymore.

My main regret about this novel is that it is told from the POV of the Boyers instead of the Slaters. The Boyers have just arrived in Florida from “Caroliny,” and their goal is to start a commercially viable farm growing oranges and strawberries, which they send by train to markets in other states. The Slaters have been in the state for 4 generations (since grandpa Slater fought in the Seminole Indian Wars,) and are subsistence ranchers. While the Boyers’ experiences are interesting, I understand the motivations of commercial farmers pretty well. I’d rather learn more about the Slaters’ POV–their lifestyle is far less common. Since the Slaters are the antagonists, they just come across as dumb/lazy/mean (though not all of them.)

The book’s principle dram revolves around conflict between the Boyers’ lifestyle–which requires fencing off the land, hard labor, and long-term planning–or the Slaters’ lifestyle–which involves hunting and occasionally rounding up freely-ranging hogs and cattle. The Boyers’ fences interfere with the Slaters’ hogs and cattle getting to food and water, and the Slaters’ hogs and cattle ate and trampled the Boyers’ crops. Before the Boyers showed up, the Slaters had few neighbors, and free-ranging livestock weren’t really a problem. So from the Slaters’ POV, they had a perfectly good system going before the Boyers had to go move in next door. (Or did they? What was the TFR for folks like the Slaters?)

I’d really like to know how common this pattern was–did many places get settled by, shall we say, wilder, more impulsive, violent folks (mostly Borderlands Scots and Scots-Irish?) who were willing to take their chances fighting Indians in untamed frontier areas and favored hunting, fishing, and ranching, and then once they’d done the hard work of “taming” these areas, did more English and German settlers fence everything off, start commercially profitable farms, and displace them? (A kind of gentrification of the frontier?)

You may have noticed Birdie’s bare feet on the cover; Lenski mentions bare feet often in the narrative, and the manure spread on the fields for fertilizer. This, as you know, is a recipe for hookworm infection–which 40% of Southern children suffered from.

Hookworm infections cause anemia, malnutrition, malnourishment, lethargy, and death. In fact, the Southern stereotype of lazy, pale, gaunt, and impoverished people–personified in the book by the Slaters–is due, in large part, to the effects of mass hookworm infection.

The book takes place around 1900 and the few years after. The first public hookworm eradication campaigns started in 1910, and there was another big campaign going on in Florida at the time the book was published. So I suspect hookworms were on the informants’ and author’s minds when describing their old lifestyles, in a “we didn’t know!” kind of way.

The book also depicts two older boys (teenagers) getting in a fight with the school master and beating the tar out of him. Interestingly, in the first chapter of Farmer Boy (in the Little House series,) Almanzo Wilder is worried about the older boys at his school beating the tar out of his teacher. (Farmer Boy is set in Upstate New York.) Was beating up the teacher some kind of regular thing?

As is typical for the time, there’s a Prohibition theme (technically, Prohibition never fully ended in parts of Appalachia,) with the grown ups clucking moralistically over the antagonist’s habit of spending all of his family’s money on alcohol and then going into alcohol-fueled rages.

Unfortunately, the ending is not very good–it basically feels like the author decided she was done writing and so the main antagonist spontaneously found Christ and decided to stop being lazy and mean, but this is an overlookable flaw in an otherwise good book.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski (1945)

  1. “Was beating up the teacher some kind of regular thing?”
    If we take the song lyrics at face value, seems likely: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/10/02/simpler-times/

    Probably the best-recorded incident of this sort, and possibly the original source for all the songs (see the stuff about making a bonfire of the desks), took place at Rugby School in 1797 when the students mutinied and blew down the headmaster’s door with gunpowder, stopped in the end only by a band of special constables armed with swords. (https://www.archive.org/stream/historyofrugbysc00rousuoft/historyofrugbysc00rousuoft_djvu.txt, ctrl+f great rebellion)

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  2. I’d really like to know how common this pattern was–did many places get settled by, shall we say, wilder, more impulsive, violent folks (mostly Borderlands Scots and Scots-Irish?) who were willing to take their chances fighting Indians in untamed frontier areas and favored hunting, fishing, and ranching, and then once they’d done the hard work of “taming” these areas, did more English and German settlers fence everything off, start commercially profitable farms, and displace them? (A kind of gentrification of the frontier?)

    Well, that’s the theme of the “Farmer and the Cowman” song in Oklahoma!…

    [Farmer:] I’d like to say a word for the farmer
    He come out west and made a lot of changes
    He come out west and built a lot of fences
    [Cowman:] And built ’em right acrost our cattle ranges!

    [Farmer:] The farmer is a good and thrifty citizen
    No matter what the cowman says or thinks
    You seldom see him drinkin’ in a barroom
    [Cowman:] Unless somebody else is buyin’ drinks!

    [Cowman:] I’d like to say a word for the cowboy
    The road he treads is difficult and stony
    He rides for days on end with just a pony for a friend
    [Farmer:] I sure am feelin’ sorry for the pony!

    [Cowman:] The farmer should be sociable with the cowboy
    If he rides by and asks for food and water
    Don’t treat him like a louse, make him welcome in your house
    [Farmer:] But be sure that you lock up your wife and daughter!

    So there’s a cultural memory of this happening in Oklahoma Territory, just as /Strawberry Gir/l reflects a memory of the same thing in Florida. And the kind of cultural conflict that’s remembered is…exactly as you described.

    (See also Oklahoma!’s “cowboy-turned-farmer + farmer’s daughter” romance vs. its “cowboy + rancher’s gal” romance. The farmer’s daughter has to fend off the overly-committed, socially-inept farmer to wind up with the functional one; the cowboy and rancher’s gal are both “wild” and wind up agreeing they both will *stay* wild, within limits. IOW, “overly committed and socially inept” is the stereotypical failure mode for the farmer type, while “overly wild” is the stereotypical failure mode for the cowboy type.)

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    • I don’t think I’ve seen Oklahoma since I was a kid. Thanks for the memory. :) I knew I’d heard murmurings of this sort.

      I wonder how much–if any–of the divide comes down to ethnicity.

      Just looking at my own family, I can see similar stories. Now that I think about it, I really should ask my grandparents. They probably know something on the subject. Hrm… Like they say, more research required.

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