Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
I haven’t done a Retro Friday post before, but I read plenty of older books and enjoy talking about them anyway, so I may try to work this into a regular thing. Anyway, I had recently re-read Elin’s Amerika by Marguerite De Angeli, so I thought I’d talk about that today.
Marguerite De Angeli is probably best known for her Newbery winning book, A Door in the Wall, but she was a fairly prolific writer/illustrator, and also wrote a loose series of books about young people in America’s history. This isn’t as daunting as it sounds; one of De Angeli’s strengths is her ability to, without making her characters contemporary, create relateable and likeable characters. For the most part, her children work as of their time, while at the same time being sympathetic to De Angeli’s audience, and even to us today.
Elin is a young Swedish girl, living somewhere in what will eventually become Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She has three brothers, Peter, Knute, and Axel. Axel is working on one of the ships that brings new settlers and supplies to the area. And, in the midst of all this strangeness and maleness (her neighbors all have boys too) she longs for her friend back in Sweden and wishes for another girl to play with.
I was a little worried about Elin’s Amerika, simply because of the fact that I knew these were earlier settlers interacting with the Native Americans and…you know, it’s always both annoying and sad when a favorite childhood book turns out to be a problematic. By and large, I think Elin comes out okay in this regard. There is a tribe that attacks the settlers, but there are several others who help them, and De Angeli seems to be trying to depict a sort of cooperative harmony between the Swedish settlers and the neighboring Native Americans (at one point, Fader says, of the others “They just don’t know us,” which is very simplistic, but better than They are evil). How close that is to the historical reality is probably highly debatable; I simply don’t know, so I’m not going to try to get into it, but overall I’d say that this is one I’d feel comfortable reading to children, especially if we were able to discuss a few points afterwards.
One of the strong points of De Angeli’s books are her beautiful illustrations. Elin’s Amerika is no different–the traditional Swedish embroidery is beautifully rendered, and there’s a picture at the very end, which I can’t find online, of Elin and her family walking through the woods on their way to the Christmas service that’s just gorgeous. The one I was able to find is the family gathered around their fire in the evening.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I continue to like poor lonely Elin and the ups and downs of her first year in America. For those who like such things (I do) there are nice descriptions of housekeeping and everyday life, as well as a healthy dose of excitement and potential danger.
Book source: public library
Book information: originally published 1941 by Doubleday; reissued by American Swedish History Museum in 2007; children’s, illustrated