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8 december 2014
Ester Wier's novel The Loner, a Newbery Honor book for 1964, is a spare, suspensefully told story of an outcast boy finding his place in the world.
The theme sounds timeless, and indeed the psychological dynamics and plot structure of The Loner are fairly evergreen. In fact, if anything is dated about The Loner, it may be exactly that evergreen quality. Wier's novel shows us a generic white orphan – so generic that he starts the book without a name – and follows him as he develops his individuality and secures his place in a family.
The Loner begins in a caravan of migrant workers. A more recent text would stay there, expose Generic White Boy to a diverse group of characters, and teach its readers to promote social justice in the agricultural industry. Instead, Wier spins her hero out of context and sets him loose in the wilderness. It's not really a survival story, though, because he's found soon enough, by a rugged shepherd and her dogs. "Boss," as everyone calls her, has lost a son. Boy has no mother. Each acquires someone to fill that role, but the course of true adoptive parenting does not run smooth.
Meanwhile, we get lots of local color and specialized descriptions of sheep herding. Marilyn Karrenbrock, one of the few literary critics to write about Wier's work, says that her novels
exhibit a surprising variation in quality directly linked to her choice of settings. Wier's best works have exceptionally strong regional backgrounds, while her poorer ones are usually placed in unspecified and undifferentiated locations. (DLB, Volume 52: American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction. Gale , 1986.)The setting of The Loner is a convincingly portrayed Montana, though whether it matches any known reality is beyond me and was perhaps beyond Wier (as Karrenbrock notes, she wrote the book at Purdue University in northern Indiana).
Both Boss and the boy (soon renamed David) are tentative communicators. It takes them almost 150 pages to work through their need for each other. Meanwhile, dangers beset the flock, and Boss herself is distracted by an Ahab-like obsession with the grizzly bear that killed her son. Ultimately David wins her trust by shooting the bear dead. That's something that probably wouldn't happen in a children's book 50 years later, either. The Loner shows respect for wildlife, but also frames some animals as irredeemable killers.
As Karrenbrock notes, The Loner was both the start and the height of Wier's literary career, which spanned about a dozen years after her husband's retirement from a military career. Perhaps she never realized her talent, but in this one book, she shows a strong gift for character development and storytelling.
Wier, Ester. The Loner. 1963. New York: Scholastic, c1991.