Friday, May 20, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Secret of the Andes, by Ann Nolan Clark (1953)

Secret of the Andes is one of those Tales from Faraway Lands books, the kind brimming with descriptions of the Majestic Vistas and Proud, Noble People that fill Places You're Unlikely To Visit On Vacation. In the early days of the Newbery, this was a trope that drove winner after winner (see: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze [1933]; Dobry [1934]; Call It Courage [1941]; etc., etc.). However, as time went on, this kind of writing fell out of favor. Indeed, Secret of the Andes was one of the last of its genre to win the Newbery -- books such as The Bronze Bow (1962) and Shadow of a Bull (1965) certainly contain similar elements, but also are starting to move, however haltingly, toward the more modern, less exoticizing style of later winners set in foreign countries, such as Number the Stars (1990) and A Single Shard (2002).

At any rate, the Faraway Land in question in Secret of the Andes is Peru. The protagonist, Cusi, is a contemporary Incan boy who lives in an isolated mountain valley with his elderly guardian, Chuto. There is a mystery surrounding Cusi's birth and destiny, and Cusi will need to visit the outside world in order to discover who he is and what he really wants.

I'll confess that I didn't find Secret of the Andes a compelling read. The mystery around Cusi's identity felt more like a shaggy dog story to me than an intriguing puzzle. I also found the plot underwhelming -- events come out of nowhere and proceed to the same location, and far too much of the second half of the book depends on impossible coincidences. (Seemingly every secondary character seems to have a copy of Cusi's detailed itinerary.) And Ann Nolan Clark's unorthodox prose style is clearly aiming for the poetic, but often felt maddeningly circular instead. Here's a sample, from chapter 13:

"Cusi and his llamas were climbing again. Mountain peaks piled upon mountain peaks. They rolled and swelled and piled higher and yet higher. They encircled the world. They towered above the world. They enclosed the world within itself. Only a brown ribbon of trail wound in and out and around them. Only a boy and his llamas moved along the winding trail."

It's possible that other readers may like that more than I did; it's certainly unlikely that they'll like it less. Especially since it's not, as far as I can tell, aiming to imitate the language or literature of Peru, it seemed mannered and artificial, and it repeatedly pulled me out of the story.

The 1953 Newbery is widely considered the biggest mistake in the history of the award; indeed, if most readers have even heard of Secret of the Andes, it's because it's the book that kept Charlotte's Web from winning. It's difficult from this distance for me to figure out what that year's Newbery committee was thinking; indeed, one of the more plausible possible explanations I've heard is that the result had to do with the fact that Ann Carroll Moore, the former head children's librarian for New York Public Library, and one of the most toweringly influential figures in children's librarianship at the time, was involved in a bitter feud with E.B. White's editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Whatever the reason, Secret of the Andes is no Charlotte's Web, and no matter how creative I get, I can't find a good way to defend this particular win.

It's okay. Mistakes happen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (1956)

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch is one of those books that occupy the nebulous space between fiction and nonfiction -- the "lightly fictionalized biography" or "documentary novel." It's a genre that I don't think about all that often, but it has a long and bright history, from books such as Amos Fortune, Free Man (the 1951 Newbery winner), on to more recent titles, like No Crystal Stair (2012) and Africa Is My Home (2013).

Our hero in Jean Lee Latham's 1956 Newbery winner is Nathaniel Bowditch, a Massachusetts polymath whose book The New American Practical Navigator (1802) revolutionized the science of navigation. We meet Bowditch when he is only six years old, and follow his life through to his return from his last sailing voyage in 1803. This choice of time frame allows Latham to focus on Bowditch's navigation and nautical exploits; the second act of his life, in which Bowditch published a number of scientific articles, and worked as a noted actuary and investment manager, goes unremarked upon. I've complained before about biographical works that only cover part of their subjects' life (looking at you here, You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!), but I think Latham made the right choice; the narrative arc comes to a logical conclusion at the point where Latham elects to end the story.

I didn't really know what to expect from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch -- it's one of those more obscure Newbery titles, and I knew almost nothing about it except for the title. It started a bit slowly, but I ended up very much enjoying this one. Bowditch is a strong, interesting protagonist, and although most of the secondary characters don't get much screen time, they come across effectively enough. The setting also works well; I felt the excitement of Salem and Boston in the early days of the United States as I read. I was sorry to see Carry On, Mr. Bowditch end.

I will confess that I cringed during the descriptions of Bowditch's interactions with the Malay people in Sumatra; I have no doubt that it's an accurate depiction of how the American sailors thought about their trading partners, but given that nowadays, we'd call that "racist," it's a bit awkward to read. I've read much worse from the time period, however; even if those passages in the book would be frowned upon now, I certainly wouldn't call Latham a bigot in the context of her era.

Three Honor books were named in 1956, the best known of which is probably The Secret River, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The most famous eligible book that was shut out of that year's awards is almost certainly Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. Harold is a classic, but I don't think it works at all without the illustrations, and I wouldn't have supported it for the Newbery over Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.