One simple object can turn a house into a home. For the Ingalls family, it was the china shepardess on the manetl. For Janey Larkin, it was one blue willow plate.
I don’t remember where I got the recommendation to read Blue Willow by Doris Gates, but as soon as I heard about it, I knew it was a must read. Published in 1940, it’s the story of a migrant family, looking for work after losing their Texas farm to the Dust Bowl. Janey barely remembers that life–there are just faint memories of her mother and home. But she has the blue willow plate–the only thing left that was her mother’s. When her family arrives in the San Joaquin Valley, Janey is hesitant to make friends with Lupe, who lives across the road. After all, would it be worth it? How long would they be able to stay?
When this novel was published, the Dust Bowl wasn’t yet a distant memory. Doris Gates had worked in libraries that served the migrant camps; she knew little girls like Janey. Janey is a wonderful character–far from perfect (at times, she’s a little slow, especially on cues of friendship), but with a sense of humor and optimism. She is grounded in her reality–there are no illusions that suddenly her life will change, but the hope remains. She falls in love with her teacher and the whole idea of school. She makes friends. It’s a wonderful story.
For me, a couple of things stand out. First is the portrayal of the Romero family. There aren’t many people of color in books like this period, and even fewer Mexican Americans. The Romeros are portrayed as slightly more prosperous and settled than the Larkin family–they’re not migrants. And they give Janey some tastes of what living in a real community might be like. For a novel of this time, it all seems very remarkable.
Secondly, this is about a family that is poor. Like really poor. In the first chapter, Gates writes
Mrs. Larkin was taking advantage of the present halt to do the washing. It wasn’t a very big job, since the Larkins didn’t posses a great quantity of clothes.
Later, in Chapter 2:
Janey took the bundles into the house and presently her father appeared with the cushion to the back seat gripped awkwardly in his arms.
“Where do you want this?” he asked.
“Doesn’t matter now,” his wife answered. “When Janey goes to bed we’ll put it across one of the doors. It’ll be cooler.”
For this was to be Janey’s bed tonight as it had been for many, many nights before this one. In fact, Janey wouldn’t have known how to sleep on anything else. It was all the bed she knew, and she found it extremely satisfactory in every way. Of course, now that she was ten, her feet stuck out over the end of it a little, but the suitcase, shoved across the end solves this difficulty.
This is not the genteel poverty in Little Women. And somehow, it strikes me that even the Ingalls family was somewhat better off, for they lived in an age where cash just wasn’t as important. This is grinding, unrelenting poverty. Winning a cotton picking contest means a new coat for Janey. A nickel to spend at the county fair is treasured. Mention is made over and over again about how skinny and small Janey is, with a strong implication that this isn’t due to genetics, but lack of good food. There is nothing glossed over about their poverty.
Finally, I love the relationship between Janey and Mrs. Larkin. It becomes clear fairly early on that the woman she calls mom is actually her stepmother. But Mrs. Larkin is far from an evil stepmother. Towards the end of the novel, Mrs. Larkin falls ill and Janey decides to sacrifice the plate so that they can stay in their little shack just a while longer. And there is this wonderful passage:
“That was a brave thing you did,” said Mom. “You shouldn’t have had to do it.”
“It was just an old plate,” Janey said consolingtly, but feeling as if she had slandered an old friend.
However, Mom wasn’t fooled.
“I know what it meant to you.” Her hand closed comfortingly over Janey’s. “I’ve known all the time. It was your mother’s. You shouldn’t have had to give it up.”
Janey turned to her in astonishment. So that was why Mom had always protected the plate! That was why she had never let it be used! Mom knew what it had stood for. Perhaps she had loved it as Janey did! Maybe even more, since she was a grownup and must therefore have a greater capacity for loving. Janey clung quietly to Mom’s hand while something like peace crept closely about her heart. Somehow, in spite of the aching misery of its loss, it was almost worth the sacrifice to have discovered how Mom felt about the willow plate.
No angst, just understanding and love.
This novel was a Newbery Honor book in 1941. And Doris Gates was lauded for her realistic portrayal of a working class family. And it’s a book that continues to be read today. In doing a bit of research, I was pleased to discover this lesson plan, published by a museum in Nebraska. Seems that I’m not the only museum nerd that tries to bring books and history together.