Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Book Review: Winona on Her Own

Title: Winona on Her Own
Author: Margaret Widdemer
Date: 1922
Publisher: A.L. Burt
ISBN: none (click here to see it on Amazon)
Length: 307 pages
Quote: “Tom’s giving up the idea of going to college. I think he’s going to work instead.”
And unselfish Winona decides to go to work, too, instead of finishing grade twelve. Some of the details of this period piece are hard to accept as true reflections of the real world even in 1922, but this one I can believe. There was a time when nice, well-brought-up children generously gave up their educations to help their families.
Their problem was that, like Winona, they had no particular qualifications for jobs. As a Camp Fire Girl, Winona has enough experience with summer camp to be offered a temporary job as a camp counsellor. This job becomes her sole qualification for a job in social work that pays enough that, by sharing a fixer-upper house with five hardworking friends, she can at least afford to live in the city without taking money from her parents...some things haven’t changed since 1922.
One of Winona’s friends worries about Winona’s health when she’s constantly exposed to, oh dear, the working class. This is another period detail I believe. Such snobbery wasn’t socially unacceptable in 1922, because it had reasons. Mentioning what those reasons were was taboo. Etiquette allowed only vague references to “illness,” making tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid fever almost as unmentionable in polite company as syphilis—and all of those could be found in American slums in 1922. All that was known about preventing or curing bacterial infections was that contact with infected people increased the risk.
So Winona’s friend’s mother is concerned enough to offer Winona a temporary job at her English manor. Whether Winona will take this (still low-paid, but probably safer) dream job, or stay in social work, is the main source of suspense in the book.
The book opened with the teenagers discussing the evidence that at least two of the boys in their crowd, Roger and Billy, may be “in love” with Winona. Throughout the story, Roger and Billy say things that support this theory, but Winona dutifully ignores them. She’s “tired of being grown up” while only “on the brink of eighteen,” “and having to remember that boys may think you’re flirting with them when you’d forgotten all about their being boys.” Readers who want every story to turn into a romance will be disappointed. Those who find it refreshing to read a story about a teenaged girl that’s not a romance, just for a change, will be delighted. Winona means what she says—an excellent, and rare, quality in fictional heroines.
What may surprise readers as they discover the children’s fiction of the 1920s is how much political propaganda, of all kinds, publishers allowed writers to work into a novel. Winona on Her Own is by no means that most overtly political children’s story of its vintage that I’ve read. I remember  one boys’ story that carried its hero forward into the exciting life of a grown-up Communist Party agitator. Winona doesn’t agitate. Her having her hair bobbed is presented as an accident, unrelated to her needing a job, and completely unconnected to one of her dear old friends being a Socialist...from Russia, yet. Many U.S. readers are surprised by the amount of sympathy for the U.S.S.R. that existed here in the 1920s, and the indirect censorship that was involved in making even moderately Soviet-friendly children’s stories, like Winona on Her Own, disappear from library collections.
How much pleasure can one hope to get from reading a book that was written for children...and those “children” may have been the grandparents or great-grandparents of most people now in cyberspace. Books from 1922 were still easy to find when I was in elementary school, if they weren’t about politics, so I formed a taste for stories that are not recent historical fiction, but actual pieces of history, complete with the details contemporary writers might prefer to airbrush away. On the other hand, when I was the right age to appreciate Winona’s and her friends’ sense of humor (grades two to six), it was always easy to find people who could tell me which aspects of the stories had been true to life. Standards of realism were not high at this period. Winona seems more like a real teenager than another A.L. Burt series heroine, Shirley Willing, but I have a few reservations...and real people of that generation aren’t here to share their memories any more.
And, because Winona’s adventures are relatively plausible, Winona on Her Own can’t be considered a real classic of kitsch, either. It has its moments, but it’s not as rich in kitsch as Captain Blood or Pollyanna. Winona rows around in a boat, admiring views and chatting with friends, like a normal camper, rather than hijacking a boat at gunpoint and then fainting just to prove she’s still a girl.
So, maybe it takes quirky taste in light reading to enjoy Winona on Her Own, but I have quirky taste and I enjoyed it. Perhaps you will, too.

Obviously the author(s) of a book published in 1922 no longer need ten percent of the full price of a Fair Trade Book. Since these book reviews have functioned and are functioning mainly to help me sell books in the real world, I'd like to clarify a point here for local lurkers' benefit. I live in Scott County, Virginia; therefore my books have been exposed to Stachybotrys atra and may have developed that old familiar smell of all the basements and some of the buildings in Scott County. So have all the other secondhand books on sale in Scott County. Local shoppers have already worked out their strategies for dealing with this stuff, and can see that the books I physically own have been disinfected. Books that have been disinfected still don't look as good as "new" books that haven't been infected. The fair market value of some, not all, books I sell in real life is therefore lower than the fair market value of a certified mold-free copy I'd order or sell online. That's why, although I knew at the time that the copy of Winona on Her Own that I bought in the Friday Market and sold for fifty cents was a collector's item, I don't feel terribly cheated upon learning that the going rate for this book on Amazon is over twenty dollars...even the reprint edition, and mine was the 1922 hardcover. 

If you want it (the Amazon reviewer called it "culturally important" as a bit of U.S. history), a clean copy of Winona on Her Own will cost $25, here, for the paperback reprint--unless you specify the original hardcover edition. It's fat for a children's book, but would fit into the same package with one or two other books, so if one of them is a Fair Trade Book whose author will receive ten percent of the price plus the $5-per-package shipping fee, you could say the shipping on Winona on Her Own is free. And, yes, you can order the other volumes in the series here--although some of them will cost even more than this one.

For those who don't know...these days, instead of trying to get publishers to take a flyer on reprinting an old, obscure novel whose author won't even benefit from its resale, many book lovers are making old, obscure books that don't quite qualify as "classics" available at the Gutenberg Project web site. Anyone can download them free of charge and print'em out in whatever format the reader likes...in theory, anyway. Only one volume in the Winona series is available at the Gutenberg Project site (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37207/37207-0.txt), and Winona on Her Own isn't it, but the site encourages anyone who has another volume to join the project and make that volume available too.