Elizabeth Enright’s Newbery medal-winning Thimble Summer is very much a book of its time — but please don’t take this to mean that I think it any sort of literal or reliable picture of farm life in the thirties, or indeed of life anywhere, at any time. This book isn’t so much a reflection of its time as a reaction to it. It’s a simple, sunny book. A ten-year-old Wisconsin farm girl named Garnet Linden cavorts through a summer and some mild adventures on her family farm. Garnet finds a silver thimble while playing by the river. A short drought is broken by rainfall. Garnet visits her friend Citronella’s grandmother and hears her stories of olden times. A migrant orphan boy, Eric, appears on her farm and finds work and a home with the Lindens. Garnet and Citronella get locked in the town library overnight. The Lindens get a government loan or grant to build the new barn they need. Garnet runs away from the farm to go to a nearby town for the day. Garnet’s family attend the local fall fair, where Garnet exhibits her pet pig and eats a lot of ice cream. And Garnet sees the finding of the thimble as the catalyst of all this and claims that it’s magical.
I was going to complain about the utter lack of depth in this book, but then when I began to think about the era in which this book was published, read and lauded, the very simplicity and the facility of the plot, theme, and characterizations began to take on a new meaning. After all, Thimble Summer won the Newbery Medal in 1939, the same year as the premiere of The Wizard of Oz, a movie in which another ten-year-old farm girl (or as Hollywood would have it, a sixteen-year-old actress in a chest-flattening corset) has magical adventures. The thirties, as everyone knows, were a time of widespread unemployment, bankruptcies, drought, poverty, hunger, war, and escalating international tensions. The American film industry did very well in the thirties because everyone wanted to escape from their problems for a few hours. And then too, although grim social realism had become a considerable force in contemporary literature, it had not yet breached children’s books. Adults of the thirties may have been reading Of Mice and Men (published in 1937), or The Grapes of Wrath (published in 1940), but they were giving their children Thimble Summer, or at most Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series (published in the thirties and forties and five times named Newbery Honor books).
Thimble Summer, accordingly, might have seemed a very pleasant bit of escapism to a city child who never got enough to eat nor had any place to swim. To a child on an actual, drought-ridden farm the book might seem like something best dropped in the path of the nearest combine. All right, perhaps I am exaggerating. A farm child aware of the schism between this book and his or her own reality would not have dared risk damage to the family combine.
Elizabeth Enright’s “authenticity” was praised in reviews. The New York Times Book Review claimed the book had “the flavor of real life… expressed with charm and humor.” I will go so far as to say that the setting does have a certain naturalness and realism. The Linden family’s standard of living is somewhat true to what a successful farm family’s would have been in the thirties. Garnet more or less lives in a single pair of overalls chopped off above the knee, and her pleasures are very elemental ones. Enright includes descriptive details of weathered mailboxes that lean upon each other, and of 20–year-old Ford trucks that go 15 miles an hour, and sensual descriptions of rain and heat. The larger, grimmer reality is acknowledged only fleetingly. Eric, who has lived a knockabout life travelling in boxcars and supporting himself by whatever work he can find, tells the Lindens they don’t know what real drought is and that he wants to stay in fertile Wisconsin and someday buy his own farm there.
Everything works out for the best in Garnet’s little world. When the crops on her farm are badly in need of rain, they get it just in time to avoid failure. When her brother chastises her for causing an (easily correctable) mishap during threshing, she runs away for the afternoon to have fun by herself. When she accidentally spends her bus fare, she hitchhikes. When she hitchhikes she is picked up by kindly strangers. It’s not surprising that Enright should have had this idyllic, superficially realistic concept of farm life. She did spend her summers on a farm in Wisconsin, but the farm was owned by her uncle, Frank Lloyd Wright. Farming may have been a financially viable proposition for Lloyd Wright, but it certainly didn’t need to be.
Enright’s idealized notion of farm life is even evident in the illustrations, which Enright also drew. They are simple (and dismayingly amateurish for a professional illustrator who studied at New York’s Parsons School of Design) line drawings, and the coloured illustrations are in pastel and bright colours without shading or perspective. Garnet’s body is impossibly streamlined, and her little friend Citronella, who is described as fat, is only slightly more realistically curvy. In one picture which shows Garnet and her brother Jay running through a cabbage patch, their feet don’t appear to be touching the ground, and the cabbages look more like very large roses.
I’m certainly not saying that every novel should be grimly realistic, because that is one bleak prospect, especially for children’s books. Good books in the romantic tradition, and books that are just fun, are something to cherish. But this book is somehow not enjoyable enough to be really fun. It’s just… blandly pleasant and conventional in a way that is no longer admired in literature. There’s really nothing remarkable about it, and in trying to figure out how it could have been upgraded to stellar, I’ve settled on picking at its lack of depth and realism. L.M. Montgomery defended her romantic style of fiction by saying that rose gardens are just as real as pigsties, and she was perfectly right, but a novel that is too sweet and light is just as flawed as one that is too monotonously dreary. Enright could have learned a few things from Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter — and unacknowledged co-writer — Rose Wilder Lane. The Wilders fictionalized Laura’s childhood, and they had to take out some details that would have made the book too dark, but one of the best things about the Little House books is their sure balance between realistic portrayal of some extremely harsh situations and the positive aspects of Laura’s life. The books never gloss over the horrendous dangers and privations of frontier life, but the realism doesn’t weigh too heavily on the book. A child reading these books can enjoy Laura’s tilts with Nellie Oleson, and feel her pleasure in a new calico dress or ripe plums, and also her feel her fear of wolves or worry about Pa being missing during a blizzard. An adult reading the series can enjoy these things as well, but also has a deeper awareness of narrowness of the margin of survival for the Ingalls family. When you’re a child it sounds like fun to wake up with a foot of snow on your bed. When you’re over 30, not so much. An adult has a much better appreciation of what it would have meant for Charles Ingalls to leave his wife and children with little money and food and walk several hundred miles in worn-out boots to search for work, and of the courage Caroline Ingalls showed when she spent a three-day blizzard playing games with her little daughters knowing full well that her husband (and sole economic support) could be lying dead out in the storm.
I still enjoy the Little House books almost as much (if in a different way) as I did as a child. I probably would have enjoyed Thimble Summer if I’d read it when I was seven or eight and hadn’t grown up on a farm. But this kind of limited appeal is the hallmark of a limited book, not of a good one.