This book is set in Florida, when it was still frontier country - in the scope of history that really wasn't too long ago. The Foreword talks about the "Crackers" as a group of people. In current times that might be a derogatory term or even a racial slur, but in the context of this story it is not. the term might be along the lines of hillbilly. it could have a negative connotation when used by others but when the people to whom the term refers classify themselves as such it almost sounds like they are proud of the status. Not that they are the smartest people on the planet. As demonstrated on page 34 when the two older Slater boys make an appearance at school. When the teacher confronts them after Gus tripped a little girl, the following exchange occurred:
(Gus) "She don't belong to come round this way."
"We don't have to come to school, nohow," said Joe.
"Pa says he needs us to home," Gus went on.
"To hunt rabbits? To trap quail?" Mr Pearce's voice was soft with sarcasm.
"Pa said we don't need to git book-larnin'," boasted Joe.
"Do you come to school," said Mr. Pearce gently, "you must study your books."
Gus and Joe threw their books on the floor in active defiance. "Jest try and make us!" they answered with a laugh.
The actual "Cracker" term is historically explained finally on page 93:
Suddenly a loud, shuffling noise filled the air, a rumble made by the tramping of sharp hoofs, and the mooing of cattle. Above the commotion, loud shouts rant out. ... Miss Liddy hurried over. "The Crackers are coming," she explained. "Just cowmen with their cattle! Hear how they crack their long rawhide whips. They're driving a big herd to market... ." She paused. "Folks born in Florida or who have lived here a long time are called crackers - after the cowmen."
"We're Crackers!" said Birdie proudly. "We was born in Marion County!"
The author clarifies her intentions in the Foreword when she writes:
Here is a real and authentic corner of the American scene, a segment of American life.
In this series of regional books for American children, I am trying to present vivid, sympathetic pictures of the real life of different kinds of Americans, against authentic backgrounds of diverse localities. We need to know our country better; to know and understand people different from ourselves; so that we can say: "This then is the way these people lived. Because i understand it, I admire and love them."
A woman after my own heart!
It should be noted that the rod is not spared in this book. Surprisingly (to me) it wasn't only parents that whipped their own children but other adults could also. It wasn't in an abusive way but this old-fashioned and unfamiliar method of discipline may be unsettling to some. It's even mentioned in the story that some of the little girls cried when the Slaters were getting in trouble. And on page 131 Mr. Boyer, "grabbed [Shoestring Slater] by the shirt collar, pulled a strong but limber branch off a tree and began to lay on strenuous blows." In spite of Mrs. Slater's yells to stop, "Mr. Boyer did not stop until he had done a thorough job." On page 179 even a preachers says, " 'Take that boy out and whop him!' said the preacher angrily. 'That'll learn him to be mannerly!' "
The story begins at the Slater's house with seven year old Essie telling her father about the new neighbors in the Prologue. But the rest of the story is told from ten year old Birdie's viewpoint - she is one of the new neighbors in the Boyer family.
The Boyers are generous with the Slaters, especially in the areas of patience, forgiveness and understanding. On the first visit Mrs. slater and the two young girls make to the Boyers', the little girls ask what it is hanging by the wash shelf on the porch. When Birdie realizes they've never seen a comb she jumps right in and cleans and combs them and shows them the finished product in a mirror and then sets to work on their brother, Shoestring.
There seems to be a connection between Birdie and Shoestring - a bit of a love/hate relationship so common between youth too young to manage the complexity of their too-mature feelings. Fantastically though, the book never goes there. it doesn't even imply that the two lived happily ever after together in the future. I'm confident that if there ever were a sequel, they would - but I'm so glad it wasn't a focal point. Especially because as a grown-up I was reading Angelology at the same time and had a far-fetched pairing forced upon me (and then when I finally subscribed they didn't see it through).
Another thing that is not a huge focus is the strawberries. They do grow them and have a bit of struggles with them in a way that shows responsibility to the title but not obsession. On page 23 Birdie sees, "a horse lying in the middle of the strawberry field. At first she thought it was dead." No worries though - it wasn't, but it did a number on the already ailing strawberry plants. And on page 143 Birdie sells strawberries in town and the people call her Strawberry Girl. It's about the one and only time. I think a more accurate title would be Repentant Man - but that's probably not a draw for the target market.
Although the story has a lot about growing things and farm life, there are many other plot experiences that kids can relate to. One such experience is the first day in a new school. After hearing Birdie speak, the other kids laugh at her and call her a Yankee. She eventually sets them straight and gets a warm welcome - for all its worth. The school house is soon destroyed and Birdie only sees the girls on occasion. At least Birdie had time to appreciate being the new girl and getting to sit by the open window before it was all ruined by the Slaters.
The Slaters are rather angry because they feel like the Boyers ruined their access to take their animals to water when they put up a fence around their crops. Oddly - they put up a fence to protect the crops from Slater animals that were allowed to run free instead of being cared for properly. so this feud runs throughout the book with the Slaters doing mean things and the Boyers trying to take the high road but Mr. Boyer occasionally strikes back. He tries to do it out of view of his family but sometimes Birdie is aware - although the payback is never to the degree of the initial account. If it were left to the women things would've been handled differently. Such as when the Slaters were threatening to cut the Boyer's fence and drive their cattle through, Mr. Boyer was not at home. Mrs. Boyer got flour and sprinkled it over the strawberry plants. The Slaters thought it was poison and took their cows in another direction. Or when Birdie discovered Shoestrings snake in a cage with a live rabbit for food - she mustered up the courage and freed the rabbit. At one point the two fathers finally meet. Their conversation is so laden with innuendos it would make a dramatic movie scene. Younger readers probably won't catch all the implied tension, but some of it is unmistakable:
"I'm a peacable man," said Boyer, "but sometimes I lose my temper."
"Mighty glad to hear it!" said Slater, slapping him on the back. "I'm peaceable myself. Course we all know there's some matters that can only be settled with a shotgun!"
"There's the law, suggested Boyer.
"Wal - round here, a shotgun's more useful than the law, and handier, too!" Slater laughed. (p. 144)
The children's feelings are much more obvious. After Shoestring throws a snake on Birdie, "she was so angry she wanted to kill him. She hated him with a cold hard hate. She hated his overalls and his black felt hair. She hated his thin ace, tight mouth and half-shut eyes. She hated every bone in his skinny body. Her anger was black enough to kill him, but he ran so fast she could not catch him." (p. 47)
A couple days later Birdie finds a note tacked on the front of their home saying, "will git you yet jest you wate." Birdie disposes of the note and doesn't tell her father. Obviously this is a deceptive and dangerous lie by omission. About the same time she discovered the note Shoestring came by with a raccoon. Even though she's mad she can't keep herself from speaking to him. He asks her about the note and she points out that if he'd go to school he'd be able to read it. Shoestring advises Birdie that Mr. Boyer cut the tip of the ear off the Slater's hog 9after it got into their garden). The two kids decide to work together to try to keep their fathers from shooting each other.
In spite of all the meanness there are some nice things that happen in this story - like getting a look at traditions long gone - such as a neighborhood candy pull. It was hosted by the Boyers and began with grinding cane. in spite of being enemies, even the Slaters turned out for the occasion - "...quarrels did not keep people away from frolics, [Birdie} knew that. It was an unwritten law of the backwoods." (p. 82) The syrup was boiled down, poured on plates to cool, then pulled like taffy by pairs of children. It was also an opportunity to reference folk songs of the time.
Soon enough though, things are back to normal. The animosity between the two families reaches its height with two events. First the Slaters kill the Boyer's mule. It's enough to make Mrs. Boyer want to move back to where they came from. But Pa won't give up. He say, "There's always a way to git ahead when you've got a mind to!" Then the Slaters set a grass fire that almost burns the Boyer's house down. not knowing it was arson, Birdie goes to the Slater's for help fighting the fire but they refuse. Mrs. Slater wanted to help her neighbors but Mr. Slater wouldn't let her. As Birdie returns to the chaotic scene she realizes that the Slater girls were playing with her little sister right in the path of the fire. Everyone does get out safely but the school is a loss. Shoestring says, "Now they ain't no more school to go to, I wisht I might could go." (p. 156)
Mr. Boyer consistently tries to keep the high road, believing, " 'Any man drinks all the time is shore to come to a ban end,' said Pa. 'He hurts other folks, but he hurts hisself most. Iffen he don't change his ways, he'll suffer for all the harm he's done'." (p. 161) One night Mr. Slater was so drunk he "shot the heads offen all of [Mrs. Slater's] chickens" (p. 164) and then takes off. So Mrs. Slater invites all the neighbors for a "chicken pilau" - some kind of cookout. At the end of the night the two Mas discuss Mr. Slater and agree he needs "a change of heart" (p. 168). Mr. Slater stays away quite a while. During this time period Mrs. Slater becomes ill and Mrs. Boyer and Birdie move into the Slater house to help.
In the end Mr. Slater repents. When asked how it happened he says:
When I come home and found my wife and young uns had been lyin' at death's door, I begun to think. Did I not have kind, forgivin' neighbors, they'd a been dead. Then the very next night I got sick myself, and thought I was fixin' to die. So I decided I'd better start livin' different. But it was Brother Jackson who pointed out the error of my ways. He told me the harm of drinin' liquor and of swearin' and backbitin', gossip and anger. So when the spirit come upon me, I was ready. My heart was changed. I'm fixin' to lead the good life right on. (p. 185-186)
Then everything wraps up nicely. Early in the book, p. 41, the Boyers attended their new church for the first time. Birdie was quite impressed with the organ. The organist was named Miss Annie Laurie Dunnaway. At the time it seemed like just another page in the book but in hindsight you can see it was a key point. At the end of the book Birdie's parents surprise her with an organ of her own and arrange for her to take lessons from miss Annie Laurie Dunnaway, who also just became the school teacher. For me this was an extra spoonful of sugar that over sweetened the tea. it just didn't seem consistent with the book when they characters worked hard page after page and barely held things together that they would splurge in such a way. I could believe their har dwork finally paid off - but put some away for the next rainy day! At least Shoestring finally enrolled in school and someone (Miss Dunnaway) finally corrects the poor English the children speak. The organ scene plays the fading music.