Monday, July 30, 2012

The Winner's Circle: Shen of the Sea, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman (1926)

Few Newbery-winning authors are as obscure as Arthur Bowie Chrisman, possibly because few winners of the prize had literary careers that were as slight. Chrisman's first book of short stories, Shen of the Sea, took the 1926 Newbery, but despite the fact that he lived for nearly three decades afterward, he published only three more books: two additional short story collections, both long out of print, and a local history volume about Clarke County, Virginia. For all practical purposes, Shen of the Sea is the only thing associated with Chrisman that anyone other than a serious children's lit specialist will ever encounter.

The first thing to understand is that this is probably not a book that could be written today, and it's certainly not a book that could be published today. In order to deal with it at all, we have to have that understanding up front.

Although Shen of the Sea is subtitled "Chinese Stories for Children," it has no source notes of any kind, and none of the tales are recognizable versions of any standard Chinese folktales. All of the stories, in fact, seem to be either entirely Chrisman's invention, or so wildly changed from their original form as to be unidentifiable. This is true despite the fact that a large number of the tales are porquoi stories about the origin of such things as chopsticks, china plates, tea, and kites.

Indeed, Chrisman's "China" is a sort of hazy fairyland, one constructed almost without relation to any place or time that may have really existed. Although there's a definite fondness for the idea of China in his writing, his grasp on the details of the country and culture is tenuous at best -- perhaps understandably so, given that he knew only a handful of words and phrases in the language, and, unlike Elizabeth Foreman Lewis and Elizabeth Coatsworth, never personally visited Asia. One simply can't read this book and expect to find cultural or historical accuracy.

So, it's fairly off-putting to 21st-century eyes. It fails any given test of authenticity, and it smacks of cultural imperialism, to say the least. Those are the facts, plain and simple.

And yet, Chrisman's wry humor and folk-style plotting are still effective. I found Shen of the Sea perfectly readable; it wasn't a chore to trudge through in the same way that something like Smoky, the Cowhorse was. It's more comparable to The Matchlock Gun in that the writing is perfectly fine even when the content isn't -- and if Walter Edmonds' finely-tuned prose runs circles around Chrisman's sometimes stilted English, Chrisman doesn't consistently demonize and inhumanize his non-white subjects like Edmonds does. Is that faint praise? Maybe. You certainly couldn't give Shen of the Sea to a kid without any explanation, and you might not want to give it to them at all.

But like so many of the other early Newbery winners, it's hard to definitively say that Shen wasn't the most deserving book of its year. The best-remembered titles from the 1925 publishing year weren't eligible: Emily Climbs, by L.M. Montgomery (Canadian); Gallery of Children, by A.A. Milne (British); The School at the Chalet, by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (also British). The only Honor book was Pádraic Colum's The Voyagers: Being Legends and Romances of Atlantic Discovery, which isn't one that inspires a lot of fervor. The few other eligible books that are more or less still in print aren't necessarily ones most people would argue for either: The Adventures of Little Joe Otter, by Thornton W. Burgess; Raggedy Ann's Wishing Pebble, by Johnny Gruelle; The Lost King of Oz, one of the many inferior sequels by Ruth Plumly Thompson.

Maybe it's another reason to be grateful that the Newbery was instituted. If these early winners tend to be of...uneven quality, I don't think it can be argued that the state of American children's literature is orders of magnitude better than it was back when the award was instituted -- and of course, that's one of the main things the Newbery was supposed to encourage.

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