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the wonderful year

22 april 2013

In the genre of the fond-memories-of-exciting-girlhood novel, Nancy Barnes's 1947 Newbery Honor book The Wonderful Year falls somewhere between Little House on the Prairie and Thimble Summer. Its setting is not quite as wild-frontier as the former, and not quite as city-kids-on-holiday as the latter. But it shares with all its genre a sense that dramatic contrasts in lifestyle are part of the nostalgia of childhood, a nostalgia that adults, always, cling to in the midst of belated middle-class comfort.

The third chapter of The Wonderful Year, for instance, is titled "Living in a Tent Is Fun." (Which title provokes me to write a rebuttal called "Living in a Tent Sure Is Not Fun," but I will demur for now.) Protagonist Ellen's family must live in a tent because they've moved to Colorado to break ground as fruitgrowers, and their new house isn't ready yet. An archetypal rite of American passage, as Ellen reflects:

Her mind went on making pictures for her, of her people who had been in America since before the Revolution, who had gone from Virginia, to Kentucky, to Ohio, to Kansas and now to Colorado. (129)
Anglo-American elites, it seems, aren't exactly autochthonous; Indians were always here first. Instead, their superiority is a product of continually taking new places away from Indians. The implication is that showing up in the wake of pioneers, or staying behind them and cultivating their clearings, is a second-rate way of being American.

Pioneer though she is, Ellen is also a girl, and in the rhetoric of 1946, she'll be best off as the good woman behind a good pioneer man. Initially, Ellen dreams of a world without boys: "they smelled like dusty raw potatoes," she complains (9). In a weird scene early on, a rooster "flops" Ellen (21; illustration on 14), as if to show how male insistences trouble even the youngest females on the frontier. But as the novel goes on and Ellen finds that a young Englishman named Ronnie is not only a pal but predicts that some day she'll be beautiful, she finds that her destiny might not be so bad after all, and suffers herself to be desired.

To Ellen, Some Day seemed to be coming faster and faster. "Some day I expect you'll be a beauty," she could hear a boy's surprised voice saying. (185)
Much of the plot of The Wonderful Year consists of minor troubles; getting lost and finding one's way back home; clearing a bit of the wilderness, planting things, and then consolidating one's gains. Ellen's father is not really a sodbuster at heart; he's a burnt-out attorney who needs to spend a year putting things in the ground before he can resume legal work. Simply practicing a profession seems to put him in a funk, anxious about his own effeteness. But once he lives in a tent for a while and plows some fields, he's reasserted his pioneer being, and he can move back to town and resume upper-middle-class privilege.

The Wonderful Year stayed in print for at least 20 years (the copy I read was of that vintage), but it's in print no longer, and will probably never regain a readership. Newbery runners-up have a mortal shelflife; only the Medal Books are immune to the passage of time. I'm not saying anybody should run out to read it, either; but as a look at how Americans thought, and some still think, about our past, it's indicative.

Barnes, Nancy. The Wonderful Year. Illustrated by Kate Seredy. 1946. New York: Julian Messner [Simon & Schuster], 1967.