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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2017-09-23 05:42 pm

Newbery Honor: Swift Rivers (Cornelia Meigs), Part 1

Well! Roller Skates really knocked me off kilter. It's only been a week, but it feels like more.

This is the last Cornelia Meigs I'll be tackling for a while, as for some inexplicable reason the library hasn't got her Newbery-winning Invincible Louisa, nor The Covered Bridge (which I recall as being excellent), and my interlibrary loans are still stuck in 1930-1931. :S I know I like her "girls'" books better than her "boys'" books, and this is one of the latter, so I've no very high hopes for it, but let's dive in.

* Our hero, Chris Dahlberg, is seventeen years old. He's mowing a meadow by himself, since his grandfather -- who usually helps with this meadow -- has "for some reason" not come down to help harvest the hay. Is Grandfather dead? That sounds an awful lot like Grandfather is dead in his (presumed) little mountain cabin.

* The field overlooks the "Goose Wing River", which does not appear to exist. However, we are informed that Grandfather comes from Sweden and that we are in the "American North Country", so capitalized. Googling for the river lets me know our setting is Minnesota, to be more precise.

* "The dry hardness of Uncle Nels' voice seemed to take some of the sparkle out of the bright air of the summer morning". Uncle Nels speculates that Grandfather -- Alexis Dahlberg -- is "feeble", and tells Chris to take his gun and try to bring back some partridges for supper as well as Grandfather's hay, "and I will try to think that you are beginning to be of a little use on the place at last".

* So we're supposed to dislike Uncle Nels, I think? He hasn't really said anything objectionable, barring his super-awkward insinuation that Chris is useless, but we get another reference to his "unloving eye" as Chris heads off in brief flashback.

* Uncle Nels is also surnamed Anderson, not Dahlberg, so either he's on Chris's mother's side or not a Real Blood Relative(tm). ;P

* A runaway horse jumps over the wall into Chris's meadow. It's a fancy riding/jumping horse, not a plow horse like the ones Chris has seen down on the farm.

* Whoa. Someone fires a fucking rifle out of the woods in the horse's general direction? It knocks the scythe out of Chris's hand. It also spooks the horse, but Chris is able to stop and calm the horse before it jumps the other wall over to a steep slope it won't be able to navigate safely.

* The horse's saddlebags have split open and a bunch of rocks fall out, including "two dark stones all shot through with shining yellow". I assume we're supposed to read these rocks as being gold; my own first instinct was marcasite (a type of "fool's gold") crystals in galena (a dark lead ore), since native gold is more frequently found in association with white quartz, but Ms Meigs isn't writing for an audience of rather cynical geologists. XD

* As soon as Chris picks the rocks up, another rifle shot pings off the wall next to him. The horse doesn't spook this time, so Chris is able to pick up his rifle and aim in the general direction of the shooter, waiting for another muzzle flash to tell him where to shoot back. Instead, a slightly older boy steps out into the sunlight; the horse goes to him immediately, and he starts checking its legs for injury. Chris "felt a sudden rush of knowledge that here was no lurking adversary who would shoot from hiding" -- wait, what? *confused* Is that supposed to mean a third party was shooting and we should still be watching out, or is it very clumsily trying to indicate that the danger was over because this boy ~would not do~ what he actually just did? *pulls hair*

* The new boy has "rumpled dark hair and thin, clean-cut features", unlike big blond Chris and the rest of the Swedish settlers here. He's wearing very worn and patched Eastern-style riding clothes, not buckskin, not a military uniform. We're suddenly informed that it's "nearly a hundred years ago", i.e. the 1830s, thus the new boy's hair is worn long.

* Yeah, a third party was shooting. They got New Boy (not yet named) in the sleeve, though he is not wounded. It seems they were after the horse, Pharaoh. Chris is puzzled, as horse-thieving is unknown here.

* ...I'mma quote these two sentences in full. "The Indians, the peaceable Chippewa, had moved away to dwell beyond the hills in better hunting grounds than these. They had always been friendly to the whites; so that never, through them, had there been serious threat against the farmers' meagre property." Moved away, suuuuure. :S *pokes Wiki*

* Okay, it looks like those of the Chippewa or Ojibwe people who lost their ancestral lands to the Indian Removal Act were removed to Minnesota, not from it. The Ojibwe would formally cede east-central Minnesota to the US in 1837, but at the time of our story, the white and Native occupants of this area should still be officially coexisting. (I'm assuming the fictional "Goose Wing River" is somewhere near the real Crow Wing River, as the other obvious Minnesota reference, the city of Red Wing, is too far south, in Sioux rather than Chippewa/Ojibwe territory.)

* Aaanyway. New Boy's name is Stuart Hale. He met Grandfather, who is feeling just fine but chose to let Chris mow the meadow alone this year for Reasons. When the harvest is over, Chris is to ask Uncle Nels for some time off and come spend a long weekend with Grandfather.

* More informed narration about the crappiness of Uncle Nels. Stuart doesn't say so, but Chris somehow picks up on the "surly unfriendliness" Uncle Nels treated Stuart with, due to Stuart's asking after Chris, whom Nels considers a good-for-nothing lazypants against all evidence.

* We learn that Uncle Nels is in fact Chris's mother's brother, that both Chris's parents died in some kind of pestilence when Chris was small, and that Chris's father just before dying arranged for Chris to be... basically indentured to Uncle Nels till age twenty-one. None of which explains why Nels hates him so.

* Stuart got bored of attending Princeton and has been bouncing around doing various things. Stuart is twenty. Most lately, he's been prospecting.

* Ahaha, okay, I will give her some credit -- it genuinely is fool's gold! :D I like that.

* Stuart mentions that if one could chop down the big old-growth trees (as the farmers are doing) and instead of burning them for firewood, float them downstream during the spring floods and sell them at a sawmill,one would make good money from the sale. Stuart himself isn't interested in such an unexciting prospect, but the book cover seems to indicate that Chris will eventually do this very thing.

* Stuart also asks Chris to throw over Uncle Nels and come adventuring with him, but Chris refuses, saying he must honor his father's promise and work for Uncle Nels until he is twenty-one. Chris wishes Stuart a good journey home, but Stuart points out rather bitterly that he has no home; he left his home behind and now is just a wanderer, trying a hundred ways to make his fortune. Then he leaves.

* Chris finishes mowing the meadow. At the end of the day, Uncle Nels shows up, "in one of his black moods" because the valley harvest hasn't been superb. There's some conversation that's supposed to set us further against him. I think my problem with Cornelia Meigs' writing "for boys" is that she just cannot write a convincing villain; her girls' stories make less aggressive efforts to have villains, iirc, but in a Boys' Adventure novel everything has to be the fault of a wicked dude whose evil wickedness creates our Conflict. :S

* The autumn passes, but Uncle Nels keeps making up more fake chores(?) to prevent Chris from visiting Grandfather. Eventually there is a quarrel, and Chris walks out, saying he'll be back in three days. Uncle Nels' daughter Freda secretly gives him a pair of mittens she has knitted for Grandfather, and Chris suddenly notices her "bright, firm beauty" -- I'm calling love interest, Freda being two years younger than Chris.

* Of course Chris's timing is perfect: Grandfather turns out to have taken a bout of rheumatism in his knees a couple days ago, and was running out of food and firewood. Chris helps him stock back up.

* Oh, fuck my life. "Chris was not of just the same blood as the slower minded farmer folk of the region. That, perhaps, explained Uncle Nels' dislike of him." Our hero is speshul because he's Smart and wants Book Learning! o_O Which by itself is a thing that could happen, but do we have to bring his blood into it? *deep sigh* The single most common fallacy in the history of Euramerican culture is this equation of bookish intellect with genetics (or race) and thence with virtue. You can always tell a villain if he disdains book learning and/or our Good Hero Person's attempts to acquire it. Furthermore, a Good Person will succeed in getting as much book-learning as their intellect will permit and then some, no matter the obstacles.

(As an unemployable genius who took six years to get through an associate's degree, I may possibly have Feelings about this. ;P The cult of book-learning in our culture is all tied up with classism and ableism, and most of all with racism -- Chris, with his white skin and unexplained preference for English-speaking, needs only money to get all the learning he wants, and as a free, well-abled young cis man with access to the aforementioned old-growth forests, he already has the ability to earn that money. A boy just like Chris except for a lack of English skills might find it harder to get an education. A free black boy would find it much harder, and a black boy born into slavery almost impossible, no matter how much they might want it. Yet stories never point this out; if a character wants learning, he will get learning, and I use that "he" very deliberately. I can't remember anyone other than white male characters being portrayed with this ineluctable draw toward learning for its own sake -- women and other marginalized characters, of course, want to learn in order to raise their social stature, which is realistic, and is not usually outright criticized because learning is still seen as an objective good in itself, but it is less Virtuous. And of course, those who don't give up the rest of their lives for the sake of the Kingdom of Learning are purely worthless wastrels. o_O)

*coughs* I suppose I ought to get back to the book itself, but I've been having a lot of feelings lately about what an incredibly erudite lump of mixed mental illnesses I am, and how utterly useless my learnings are without either money or a diploma backing them up. We simply don't live in a world where anything except luck determines the course of your life. :S