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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-03-25 06:20 pm

Newbery Honor: Downright Dencey (Caroline Dale Snedeker)

Oooh...kay. I tried to read this one before, but couldn't get past the first chapter for, if I recall correctly, personal reasons. Let's see if that's still the case.



* Okay, the story is about a Quaker girl named Dionis "Dencey" Coffyn. This first chapter is all about children yelling insults at each other as they walk down the street to their various schools; one boy, the family-less street-urchin "Jetsam", calls Dencey "Portugee girl". The author explains that this is because she has dark hair and swarthy skin; "What a fate for a girl!" At this point I take a tentative dislike to the entire book, since even though the author keeps tossing out these exclamatory asides ("Strange cruelty of children!" was another, so I'm pretty sure they're intended as straight-up commentary, not sarcasm...?), there's no hint of a suggestion that maybe being "uncompromisingly brunette" isn't this HORRIBLE HORRIBLE FATE. :P

* Anyway, Dencey gets mad and, against the rules of the pacifist Quaker community, chases after Jetsam and flings a stone at him. Other children are also throwing stones; one strikes him and cuts his shoulder, and Dencey, absolutely sure it's hers, is suddenly remorse-stricken. She runs the other children off and tries to help Jetsam, but he refuses her help angrily, and Dencey runs away, frightened of him.

* The writing is... an unusual style? It's very, very atmospheric - not all complete sentences, more like an adapted stream-of-consciousness. There are a lot of broken phrases meant to evoke emotion. It's a bit difficult to read.

* Dencey decides she can't go to school all disheveled as she is; for some unexplained reason she wanders down by the docks, in the Negro/Portuguese quarter of town, where she isn't allowed to go, and reflects "how one sin led to another!" Then she finds her way back along muddy alleys to her own house and goes into "her own dormered room".

* Dencey cries a lot over her misdeed, whole paragraphs of repentant stream-of-consciousness; when her mother finds her in her room around noon, she worries and asks Dencey what the matter is, and Dencey explains how she threw stones (multiple stones, apparently) at Jetsam in anger, but denies that Jetsam did anything to make her angry. Her mother, understandably puzzled, tries to quote helpful Bible verses to her, and offers to take her to apologize to Jetsam -- but then the housemaid bursts in, saying that a neighbor's husband's ship is arriving home with its flag at half-mast and the neighbor woman has fainted so badly they need Mrs Coffyn to help revive her. Dencey, who had just put her bonnet on to go out with her mother, takes it off again, and on seeing her dark hair in the mirror, blurts out the question that's really bothering her: "Mother, why is my face so dark? Am I adopted and not thy very own? Did thee get me off a Portugee ship, Mother?" Mrs Coffyn suddenly gets very angry at such a "frivolous" question and orders Dencey to bed without supper for being intractably "heartless and wicked".

Which is supposed to make sense in context, but my only opinion is: if you can't answer a child's most irrelevant questions calmly at the very most stressful of times, you should do ANYTHING ELSE but be a parent! Because - as in this case - it's always, always, always the questions that seem weird and off-topic to adults that are the most important ones to the kid who asks them.

So I wish to punch Mrs Coffyn in the face, because I am not a Quaker, and if you hurt a child I will hurt you if I can.

* Anyway, next chapter: the neighbor woman's husband is indeed dead, and then their baby dies, and the woman sinks into a deep depression and illness, in which only Mrs Coffyn can get her to eat or be taken care of. So Mrs Coffyn is vastly distracted, and Dencey is left alone (her father being off on a multi-year whaling trip) to brood over her little offense and imagine that Jetsam has died too, since he doesn't seem to be around.

* Eventually, Dencey decides to go alone to "Injun Jill's cottage", where Jetsam lives on the outskirts of town with a drunken old half-breed outcast woman, and apologize to Jetsam as she wanted to do. She's convinced herself that she has lamed his arm permanently, so she brings her most prized possession - a nautilus shell from her father, cut in half to show the chambers - to give him. Then there's an interminable page about how she can't pay any attention in school that day because she's so worried that... the teacher knows she's "planning something wicked"? *facepalm* I'm getting to where I can't even keep track of what Dencey thinks is right and wrong, or if there is anything she thinks is right. If hurting Jetsam was wrong, and apologizing is wrong, and waiting for her mum to remember she has a kid is also wrong -- I'm about ready to give up on this, already. It's such a morass of repentances.

* So Dencey goes to the cottage, then past it on hearing someone chopping wood - which it turns out is Jetsam, whose shoulder has healed perfectly fine. Dencey hides in a bush Because Of Reasons, then Jetsam's dog smells her and pounces on her, and a painfully embarrassing conversation between Dencey and Jetsam ensues in which Jetsam has (in Dencey's opinion) no manners and Dencey's judgmentalism and demands for forgiveness seem to be the sympathetic point of view. I can't tell if the author is trying to do limited-third-person POV with only Dencey's thoughts mattering, or if all these instances of the author speaking directly to the readers indicate something closer to omniscient POV, or what. O_O

* Anyway, Jetsam throws the nautilus at a tree and breaks it because he refuses to have his forgiveness "bought" with something he can't even eat (him being very hungry, as Injun Jill has been drunk all week and he refuses to beg for food himself, letting Jill do all the begging). Dencey takes her schoolbooks out of her basket in order to put the broken shell in it (why? I don't know), and Jetsam demands Dencey's Pilgrim's Progress, her only "very own" book, as apology instead of the nautilus shell. She gives it to him, but there's... I don't know, there's something wrong-smelling about the interaction. I think Dencey is intended to be sympathetic and Jetsam direly unsympathetic throughout? It's a little bit twisted, the motivations don't quite make actual sense - like something by Charles Boardman Hawes. ;P

This is becoming a more and more distasteful book to me.

* And then Jetsam catches Dencey up as she's going away, and admits that he can't read, and says that he hasn't forgiven her yet for hurting him but if she defies her mother's wishes in order to teach him to read, then he will. (It's noted that none of the "self-respecting" mothers in the town would let their daughters be seen with him, so they both know Mrs Coffyn's wishes without asking her.)

which *siiiiigh* means that we're going to have YET ANOTHER case of Dencey being all dilemma-ful and having to do something Wicked either way - either not-being-forgiven, or sneaking away behind her mother's back to hang out with Jetsam.

* You know what? I'm done with this book. I know what's going to happen, because the cover illustration is Dencey and Jetsam in a hayloft learning to read. And this whole twisted take on forgiveness was uncomfortable enough, but I know for a fact (from a book summary I remember reading) that when they get older Jetsam will be Dencey's love interest, and I ABSOLUTELY REFUSE to read about a relationship that starts with one partner manipulating the other in this blatant way. It isn't healthy.

I mean, seriously, let me quote the last sentence of this chapter (and of the first "book"), as Jetsam walks off clutching "Pilgrim's Progress": "Clutching her too, Dionis seemed to feel, as she watched him go. Making her do what he would." So she EXPLICITLY feels controlled and manipulated by him, and this is going to become a romantic relationship. Ugh.

***********

...one more quote. In the last couple pages, Jetsam - now nearly full-grown, as is Dencey - is getting ready to go to sea on a whaler. He meets Dencey alone in the garden to say goodbye, and tells her in an awkward, overblown, teenage way that he loves her and begs her to love him back. Then he kisses her. "Only a moment. Dionis broke away sobbing. She ran down the path toward home. She did not once look around. She had not said 'yes', she had not even said 'good-bye'. Yet, as she ran, there came upon her again that sense of belonging to Jetsam--that terrible, intimate sense of responsibility for him. She could not tell whether it was intense gladness or intense sorrow." End book.

WHAT DID I JUST READ.

If any of that is supposed to be healthy, I don't think I want to know about it. If it's just supposed to be realistically unhealthy... I don't know, it seems an awfully odd choice, to tell this one story of two terribly unhealthy people being bad for each other, and to end it just there.

*reads About The Author* ...oh. Oh dear. Blargh.

Yup, it's supposed to be healthy. Downright Dencey was written in memory of the author's husband, who had just died, and whom she credited for... I'm just going to quote this, I don't think I can explain it. "Raised in a family steeped in progressive ideas of education, the author says that as a child she only received encouragement and admiration; it was her husband who 'criticized me wisely and sharply, often making me work months on a single chapter. He also directed my historical studies so I became accurate and sure.'" I don't know, I find this all very disturbing, in connection with what I've seen of the Jetsam/Dencey relationship. :P

Anyway, I'm done. O_O

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