Eleanor Estes (1952)
Read to: K - any age that will let you
Read independently: 3rd - 8th grade
Both my 7y1m son and i thoroughly enjoyed this book! Finally, finally a book worthy of a medal. From her unique and easy-flowing style to her engaging and vocabulary-building story and on every intriguing and entertaining page in between, Ms. Estes has produced a high-quality work completely and totally suitable for children of any age.
First things first: Ginger Pye is a dog. A male dog named Ginger that belongs to the Pye family. If you've ever enjoyed the Henry and Mudge books or Cam Jansen you will definitely enjoy this book. There are similar facets of dogs and kids and adventure and mystery but Ginger Pye is much more enjoyable. I think what contributes to the superior likeability is the length because it gives much more time for character development and audience bonding than Henry or Cam. Also the style; at least to an adults ears, is much less choppy. While Henry and Cam certainly have their value for early readers, for our purpose of bedtime reading, Ginger Pye is just the book we are looking for. This is a book for book buffs. Ms. Estes drops more names (of books0 than a society debutante. Within the first few pages the siblings talk about books being " 'I' books" but it is never explained what that refers to. Ms. Estes touches on a lot of subjects in these 300+ pages. There is a minor reference to Santa but rest assured, unlike Ms. Cleary (see Parents Be Warned), nothing is blown here. And in the next paragraph she's writing about historic Boston and reminding us of Johnny Tremain. She also squeezes in some vocabulary lessons like a funny anecdote about Rachel thinking "detestable" meant "awfully nice" (p. 177).
It is the story of ten year old Jerry and his nine year old sister Rachel. They have a cat that's been in the family longer than they have. Jerry wants a dog and he is considerate enough to contemplate how it will affect Gracie the cat. Rachel is also a very thoughtful girl. She is friendly to kids who are picked on, and even takes a stand for them. After a less-than-warm welcome when they knock on a school-mates door, " 'Maybe he did not have any Thanksgiving dinner,' said Rachel, who was always ready to make excuses for anybody, even the unpleasantest people." (p. 155) In today's age of over-the-top bullying, that alone would make a good story. It is not the focus of this story however. Regardless, the interspersement of Rachel's good qualities are yet another benefit of this book. "She wondered if the disappearance of Ginger Pye was punishment for saying these two things that were not true." (p. 157)
The time period of the story is not defined. It was most likely written for current day which now, over sixty years later, looks a little different but for the most part everything is still plausible. It's just a few odd things that young kids might not even notice, such as getting a plate of food for a dime at the 5c & 10c store. Ha! Imagine Dollar General with a diner in it!
Jerry and Rachel have a nice sense of community and extended family. their grandparents and three year old uncle (Bennie) live within walking distance, they know many of their neighbors, and are allowed to roam all over their small town.
There had never been a dog in the Pye family before, only Mama and Papa and Jerry and Rachel and Gracie. Naturally it came as a jolt to try to imagine life with a dog when life had been going along so long without one. / But Mama did not hesitate long. She said that it would be very nice to have a dog and, since Mama was Mama, she did not ask Jerry where he was going to get the dollar. Rachel did though. She asked again where Jerry was going to get the dollar. Jerry muttered he wasn't sure just yet so Rachel knew it was going to be a hard thing to do. (p. 19)
As the plot proceeds, an older neighbor boy, Sam Doody, stops by and asks if Jerry can sub for him in his duty of dusting the church. Truly an act of God, Sam offers Jerry $1 pre-payment. Rachel wanted to help too, thinking, "She might see God." (p. 39) And Uncle Bennie tagged along too. The children, for the most part, were as reverent as one needs to be in an empty church on a Saturday. "Since Rachel had neglected to bring a hat, she had to put her handkerchief on her head." (p. 41) Neither did they allow Uncle Bennie to bring his wagon inside or run around. But they did come up with a unique way of sitting on the duster and sliding it across the pew.
So naturally Jerry gets his dog that evening and the children fully enjoy the intelligent puppy. Often presented through a dogs' eyes - like the first time Ginger discovered another dog in the house (which was really his own reflection in the mirror). Or when Mrs. Pye told Ginger that he may have to stay on the leash. Ginger's reaction:
Leash! Hated hateful word. Ginger shuddered. The leash was coiled like a snake on the stoop right now. It was an awful thing to have on the neck. Ginger had suspected it was awful and he was wary of it the first time Jerry fastened it on. But he had not imagined, no dog could possibly imagine, how very awful, how completely horrible a leash was, until he had one on. // When he had the leash on Ginger would struggle to get it off, pawing at it, shaking his head wildly, and showing the whites of his eyes. And if forgetting for a moment he had the dreadful thing on, he made a dash for the Carruthers' cat, wham! The leash would nearly break his neck and down he would fall, gasping and rolling on the sidewalk. // ... // Whenever Ginger saw the leash coming he would cower and quiver, hoping Jerry would change his mind and put it, perhaps, on Gracie [the cat] instead. (p. 125)
Ginger also did not understand where Jerry went every day (to school). "There Ginger had been - on the trail of Jerry, to find out where he went always. And then this! This fight with a cat! He had fallen into temptation after all. What a reflection upon his character!" (p. 131) He refocuses and eventually does trail Jerry to school, even finding his pencil along the way. This one natural dog act was perhaps one of the defining moments in his life because it demonstrated how intelligent he was which, unknowingly to the reader, caused covetousness in the heart of a fellow student.
Within a few months though, the puppy disappears from the backyard as the extended Pye family is eating their Thanksgiving meal. This is where the mystery and sleuthing begin. Unfortunately the children's over-active imagination steers the investigation in the wrong direction. Also their natural childhood naivete causes them to trust some who should not be trusted. However their uncanny instincts and observational skills aid more than they realize. Perhaps the pre-cursor to the modern day sibling set of Jack & Annie, this dynamic duo remains calm and resourceful at all times. Jerry and Rachel went around town looking for Ginger. When they returned home, "Rachel and Jerry were too tired and too heavy-hearted to say anything or to eat anything ... They went upstairs to bed... and neither one of them had the thought to play the Boombernickles story game, the game that they had played every other night for so long they could not remember when it had started. They just... put their heads down under the covers and cried. In private one could cry. On an occasion like this, when they had lost their dog, they could certainly cry." (p. 162)
As daily life continues without Ginger it is peppered with traditional childhood experiences and adventures as well as daily routine and family life. The children frequently reminisce of Ginger and never cease in their efforts to find him. Each and every time they are out and about there is the hope that they will find him, that today will be the day.
"Oh Ginger," gasped Rachel, hardly able to bear it that they did not at least know where he was. She knew not to cry though, because she was nine years old and children that age did not cry in Cranbury. She usually managed not to cry anymore when she felt like crying. Until now, when they didn't find Ginger, the main times when she found it almost impossible not to cry were the times in school when an awfully sad story was being read outloud. ... more story names dropped that I'm unfamiliar with ... she would have to keep swallowing hard to keep from crying out loud and disgracing herself and all girls of nine in general. She would dry her tears on her petticoat under her desk, hoping it was supposed she had a cold. (p. 153)
One of the activities they did while looking for Ginger was go to "skeleton houses" and pick up scrap wood for their family's fireplace. It is one of the places they are closer to Ginger than they realize. One day after Easter, "Jerry sat on a stool in the kitchen eating an apple and thinking. He was thinking - here Ginger Pye had found Jerry in the classroom when he was only a little puppy. Yet he, Jerry, couldn't find Ginger, though he was a boy ten years old. And it was not that he didn't think of unusual places to look either. he even looked in the movies." (p. 198)
I was a little surprised that after four months Mrs. Pye didn't try to counsel her children into accepting that Ginger was gone for good. Perhaps she didn't realize they still believed in his return or perhaps she just thought it would work itself out. There's really not any time spent on such a discussion between mother and children but perhaps that's a good thing because without the continual hope there wouldn't be much of a story.
A few times the kids went places with Sam Doody. "Sam Doody rode his jalopy with great style, one long leg flung carelessly over the door and dangling outside. And in great style he drove up to a corner drugstore and he treated all of them to a fifteen-cent ice cream soda. All together this cost him forty-five cents. Rachel and Jerry appreciated this further generosity on Sam Doody's part, for it would take dusting one half of the pews to earn that much money, and they knew how hard that was." (p. 218)
Even in the tragedy of loss, Uncle Bennie provides much comic relief. Like his counting, "1, 2, 3, go, 4, 5, 6, ..." or the time he found a robin's egg and thought it was an Easter egg and bit into it.
Finally on page 274 of 306, Jerry and Rachel start to zero in on the thief. Of the new suspect Jerry says, "He said in the school yard the other day that he and his pop - he hasn't any mother - were going to join a vaudeville show. ... // 'He might have an act with that fierce dog he owns,' said Rachel. // And then suddenly the same thought struck both of them. The fierce dog might be a ruse. The dog for the act might be Ginger!" (p. 274-275) Then they engage in some "reconnoitering", another great vocabulary word. (p. 277) The police become involved and a crowd gathers. The police explain that "a dog is gone" and tell the crowd to disband. The crowd is "satisfied with this tidbit but disappointed it was not a murder" (p. 282) which I found completely unnecessary but hardly a deal breaker in this fantastic story. When they are reuinted with Ginger there is some concern over injuries and mistreatment but it is easily offset by the joyous reunion so as not to be too upsetting. "Jerry and Rachel cried. They had not cried in public when Ginger was stolen. But they cried now, seeing his hurting head. The couldn't love Ginger enough to make up for all the long months he had gone without loving." (p. 296)