I could probably say this at the beginning of every Newbery reading challenge post: this is one I’ve been actively avoiding for years. Again, it has Newbery written all over it—Newbery in the bad sense, the one where adults choose edifying and acceptable books that children ought to be reading in order to learn something—about history, about morals, preferably about both. That’s why I avoided reading this book.
And I wasn’t exactly wrong in that prejudice. This meticulously researched historical fiction, set in New Hampshire and written in the form of a fourteen-year-old girl’s diary, is filled with interesting details of daily life and the work it took to keep home and farm going. I learned a lot about what life in a rural New Hampshire community in 1830 would have been like. The story is mostly focused on friendship and family, but the details of daily work suffuse the story: hemming, cooking, building fires, mending, scrubbing, planting, sweeping. Plus, there is the requisite maple sugaring scene. If any of my readers have designs on winning a Newbery, my best piece of advice is to include a scene where the main characters make maple syrup.
This was another novel where I felt the scenery and setting were especially finely rendered. I felt chilly just reading the copious winter scenes.
And there were plenty of moral lessons, including my favorite, “trust, and not submission, defines obedience.”
One surprising addition to the story was the issue of slavery. New Hampshire would seem to be far removed from slave debates, but part of the drama of the early entries comes from a runaway slave that Catherine glimpses in the woods near her home. After struggling with her conscience, she decides to help the slave, and he later thanks her in a way that is unexpected and moving. Catherine’s teacher gets in trouble for reading anti-slavery Boston newspapers to his students.
Even though my prejudice about the book wasn’t entirely wrong, it wasn’t entirely fair either, because I found this to be a very enjoyable book—and a book that I myself would have enjoyed very much in 1980 when it won the award. Even though I love a short Newbery, I was still a bit sad when this one ended. I wanted to know what would happen next for Catherine.
The only thing I really did not like about the book was an ill-conceived framing device that gave away the key plot points on page one. The journal is bookended by two letters from eighty-five-year-old Catherine to her namesake great-granddaughter. Catherine is sending the journal of her own fourteenth year to her great-granddaughter on the girl’s fourteenth birthday. So before the story even starts, we find out three major plot points: this was “the year that was also my last on the farm tho’ I did not know it then. It was also the year that my father remarried, and my best friend, Cassie, died.” Cassie doesn’t die until page 110 of the 144-page book, but I was predicting her demise on every page and found it impossible to become invested in her as a character or even to care that much when she did die, simply because I was expecting it all along. Her death comes as a shock to Catherine, and it should come as a shock to the reader too. Same with the father’s remarriage. The point of a journal is that each day is chronicled and saved as it occurs, and without foreshadowing, because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. The framing device seriously undermined the value of using the journal as a structural device for telling this particular story.