Of all the Newbery-winning writers, I am definitely most knowledgeable about the author of 1943’s Adam of the Road, Elizabeth Janet Gray, or Elizabeth Gray Vining as she would later be known. I can’t claim to have read everything she wrote, as with some other authors, and despite my having taken it upon myself to enlarge the partial bibliography for Vining’s Wikipedia page substantially, I am not even sure I know about all her books.
I own just a dozen of Vining's books, all bought in thrift shops or from eBay (and still remember the shock of utter joy that hit me when I came across a copy of her 1972 novel The Taken Girl in the former Goodwill at Toronto’s Adelaide and Jarvis when I didn’t even know the book existed, or that Vining ever had changed her professional name). Besides the books that I own, I have borrowed a number of others from the library, among them The Quiet Pilgrimage, Vining’s characteristically unassuming autobiography. She fascinates me on a number of levels, not only for what she accomplished, but also for the remarkable person she was. And let me just say that there may be more talented writers on the Newbery list, but I’ll hazard a guess that there aren’t any other former tutors to the Crown Prince, now Emperor Akihito, of Japan.
Vining is an almost forgotten author these days, which seems a shame. Of all her (known to me) 24 books of fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children, only Adam of the Road is listed on Chapters.Indigo.ca, and even it is described as “temporarily unavailable”.
I’m not going to campaign to have all Vining's books reprinted, because as much as I’ve loved her work over the past 20 years since I first discovered it, some of them truly are dated and a few are not very good. But surely at least some of her children’s novels could find readers and buyers today. Besides Adam of the Road, I’d suggest as the best candidates for reprinting Meggy MacIntosh, set in the 1770s, in which a plain, witty orphaned Scottish girl runs away from her Edinburgh home and indifferent aunt and uncle and beautiful cousin to go to America in an effort to meet her heroine Flora MacDonald only to find the country on the eve of revolution; and also The Taken Girl, set in the 1830s, in which another orphaned girl finds a home with a Quaker family in Philadelphia, falls in love with the young and dashing John Greenleaf Whittier (though being a Quaker he is dashing in the quiestest and most restrained of ways), and begins to do her bit in the movement to end slavery.
Vining’s books would be named as Newbery Honor Books three times before she won the medal for Adam of the Road in 1943 — for the novels Meggy MacIntosh, in 1931 and Young Walter Scott, in 1936, and for the biography of William Penn Penn in 1939. With the possible exception of Meggy MacIntosh, the Newbery committee chose well in determining the medallist among those four books.
Adam of the Road is a historical novel, set in thirteenth-century England, and concerns 11-year-old Adam Quartermayne, son of Roger the Minstrel. It’s very much an adventure novel in which Adam, in his travels along the roads of England from Oxford to London and Winchester and then back again, becomes separated from his beloved spaniel Nick and his adored father Roger, and must make his way alone until he can find his father and his dog again.
One of the best currents in Adam of the Road is Adam’s strong sense of vocation. In those days people generally had to do whatever line of work their parents did. Adam naturally is being taught the craft of minstrelsy by his father, and is expected to perform along side Roger and help earn their food, clothing and shelter, but he also has both the talent and the ambition to become a good minstrel himself. Even in his hardest moments, even when he is alone, penniless, hungry, and walking along wintry English roads barefoot, the knowledge that he is a minstrel, that he has skills to develop and work to do, is the one thing that never deserts him. He composes songs to sustain himself when most discouraged, and so long as there are people around him, he will set about entertaining them.
Vining wrote a number of historical novels—of her fifteen novels (twelve for children, three for adults), at least nine are set in the long past—and so obviously did her homework in terms of meticulous research into whatever period she used. The settings in her historical novels are always wonderfully well done. Adam of the Road is fabulously evocative and packed with details. The characters in it quote the proverbs of Alfred, tie a bit of red worsted around their cows’ tails to keep the witches away, and enjoy their meals of fat partridge or pottage according to their means. The reader can smell and hear and taste thirteenth-century England. The dialogue is probably not so authentic, but I can definitely cut Vining some slack for that, as truly historical accurate dialogue would probably be almost incomprehensible to contemporary readers. She does infuse the dialogue with as much thirteenth-century idiom and as many figures of speech as she can. I’m no historian, but it seems to me her characterizations are very definitely twentieth century. Adam thinks and acts much like an 11-year-old boy of these days would if plopped down on a thirteenth century English road (barring the panic and culture shock engendered by the sudden time travel, of course). And this is true of all Vining’s historical children’s novels. Eighteenth century Meggy MacIntosh’s psychological makeup is very much akin to The Fair Adventure’s Page MacNeil or Sandy’s Sandy Callam, who were girls of the 1940’s.
I’m not sure this “modern-style” characterization is a flaw. I don’t think we can ever really enter into the psychology of another time, and even if Vining had been able to do so through exhaustive research and strenuous imaginative effort it doesn’t seem likely that she would be able to make a thirteenth-century facsimile mindset comprehensible to her readers. It’s also possible that Vining, in her children’s books, deliberately decided to forego creating historically accurate characterizations. Her John Donne, the main protaganist in Take Heed of Loving Me (which is, due to availability, the only one of her adult novels that I have read), seems much less contemporary. Either way, Vining, intentionally or not, settled for concentrating on making her juvenile characters true to human nature as she understood it, and as her insight into human nature was excellent, this was a happy compromise because it makes her books so readable for twentieth and twenty-first century children.
I said above that some of Vining’s work is too dated to reprint, but I do not mean by this that her thinking or values are dated. On the contrary, Vining had the true historian’s long view of human behaviour and events. Born in 1902, she wrote in her 1970 autobiography that she had no objection to the long hair of the young, because there was nothing sacred about short hair. Men, she commented, had only been wearing their hair short for a few hundred years. The Puritans had cut theirs short as an act of defiance and been sneered at by the establishment. By way of comparison with a more typical contemporary of Vining’s, my grandmother was born in 1905 and, though she had many excellent qualities, this kind of tolerance (and especially tolerance born of erudition) was not among them. I distinctly recall Grandma, circa 1988, tartly asking one of my brothers if we had lost the scissors at our house.
If I have a favourite among Vining’s books, it is The Fair Adventure, the story of an almost seventeen-year-old girl’s summer following her high school graduation. It may not be the best of Vining's books, but it’s the funniest and Page’s efforts to find her own equilibrium in the midst of a large, talkative, active family all too absorbed in their own concerns to pay much attention to their youngest member makes for a good light read. But, stripped of its 1940 cover (which features Page in a polka-dotted swiss dress with puffed sleeves and a large hairbow) and put into a cover with a more contemporary design, I think it would merely bemuse today’s readers as it’s neither fish nor fowl, neither historical novel nor a passably contemporary one. They’d wonder why Page has to ask her father for permission to get her hair permed and why, when she does not get the scholarship to the college she dreams of attending and her parents tell her they cannot afford to send her, Page does not get a summer job and apply for student loans.
It is only Vining’s contemporary novels that have dated in this way, while her historical novels are almost without exception ripe for reprint. And while her characterizations and dialogue might make a historical purist wince, anyone else who read her books would be too busy enjoying them to care.