The 1940 Newbery Medal Winning book was Daniel Boone by James Daughtery.
What I liked. Once in passing, my maternal grandmother mentioned that our family is directly descended from Daniel Boone. I haven’t done any research into whether this is true, but it’s always stuck with me. It seems me that most people, myself included, know Daniel Boone is famous…but we are not sure what exactly he was famous for…exploring maybe? So I went into the 1940 Newbery pretty excited to learn about my maybe great-great-great-something Grandfather.
What was interesting. So here is the skinny on Daniel Boone. He was born in 1735, and he and his wife Rebecca had 10 children. He lived in Virginia and went on a lot of hunting/exploring/trapping trips throughout the colonies. He fought in the American Revolution. He and other settlers traveled across the Appalachians to what is now Kentucky and were instrumental in creating the state. In 1784 an account of his life was published, and he became a legendary (if still rather poor) frontiersman for the last 35 years of his life. Since then he has been in countless fiction accounts from Last of the Mohicans to the 1940 Newbery Medal winner by illustrator by James Daugherty.
However that little straightforward account of Grandpa Boone is mostly from my reading the Wikipedia article on him. If I was going to tell you about Boone from Daughtery’s book I would probably talk a lot about fighting Native Americans and traveling in the forest.
What were some limitations. One of the overwhelming features of the book is the very uneven, and mostly negative, treatment of Native Americans. Part of me wants to extend historical grace to Daughtery—that perhaps in the 1940s that was just the way most people thought. But I know that we’ve already had two Newbery Winners Caddie Woodlawn and Waterless Mountain which had very human portrayals of Native Americans, so I think that Daughtery could have dropped a lot of his “red savage” language.
It does seem like, to be fair to Daughtery, that Boone himself had a lot of different feelings about Native Americans. Boone had friends in some tribes, he was adopted as an honorary tribe member at one point, and he also was held captive, and attacked by other tribes, and one of his sons was killed in an Indian attack. But that complex relationship between the frontiers people wasn’t really Daughtery’s aim.
Also I thought Daughtery’s depiction of Rebecca Boone was a little harsh. I don’t think very many mothers of 10 children would have been all that thrilled with their husband’s leaving for a two-year fur hunting expedition. There were enough interesting interactions between Rebecca and Daniel that I think someone should write a story about them as a couple and their children.
Why I think it’s a Newbery. I wonder if the publishing timing of the book, when the US was on the verge of World War II meant that a book about heroic American pioneer-warrior had particular appeal. That is one of the only explanations I have for why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake only won an honor that year. (I’m going to go ahead and say that I’m pretty much completely biased in that I think that all the books that won the medal the four years Wilder’s book only won the honor were not as deserving as the great St. Half-Pint. She definitely should have won at least ONE Newbery Medal!)
Similarity to other Newbery winners. Daniel Boone was housed in the biography section, but to me this Newbery had a lot more in common with the mythological account of Attila the Hun in The White Stag than the biography of Louisa May Alcott in Invincible Louisa. This is also the third illustrator-author combination in a row (Thimble Summer and White Stag) the illustrations definitely add to the sweep and grandeur of Daniel Boone.
What it teaches me as a writer. I think one of the things that made frustrated with Daughtery’s book is that he didn’t feel like he had to tell the story in straightforward way, because Boone was such a well-known character. But now that we are not familiar with the details and chronology of Boone, it makes the book hard to follow. So I think it’s a good reminder to be sure to tell your story with some simple, straightforward “dates and places” type facts to help your readers who aren’t familiar with the genre still be able to enjoy the tale.
Have you read Daniel Boone or another account of Grandpa Boone? What are your favorite frontier legends?
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