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Because of Winn Dixie, with a Rabbit Trail into the Civil War and the Underground Railroad

September 5, 2008

James and I read Because of Winn Dixie by Kate Di Camillo. I really love this book. The author manages — with a very light hand — to offer a story that is realistic and profound, with a lot to say about human experience, yet gentle, fun, and — at times — fanciful.

I don’t think James, who is 9 and more into straightforward action and magic in books, got all the subtleties in the novel. But he still seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. I’ve always thought that was one of the hallmarks of a really terrific book. It meets the reader right where he is and is enjoyed on many different levels.

In part of the story, Franny Block, the librarian, tells about her great-grandfather, Littmus W. Block, who fought for the Confederacy when he was only 14. It led us on a rabbit trail.

We read Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco.

I am a huge fan of Polacco’s picture books. I think she is a brilliant writer and artist. She is another author who can be profound with a very light touch. Most of her books are simple enough to be enjoyed by my 4-year-old, yet I still love them. Pink and Say is probably her most mature and disturbing book. It is based on a true story, handed down from the author’s great-grandfather who fought for the Union. Polacco asks us to remember the character of “Pink” who has no descendants to remember him because he was killed before he could father children.

This book was a nice follow up to When Lightning Comes in a Jar, which I read to James and Trishy last week. It explores the importance of keeping memories of ancestors alive through traditions and family stories. (Both of these books almost made me cry.)

James is an absolute novice when it comes to U.S. History. I am not a believer in early academics, so — at 9 — he is pretty much an academic virgin is several areas. 🙂

We talked a bit about the Civil War, without going in too much depth.

For a long time, I have believed it is important, right from the beginning, to touch on the complexities of history. I grew up with the impression that the Civil War was fought “to free the slaves” and Abraham Lincoln was a one-dimensional abolitionist hero. I have lived in the South all my life, surrounded by Confederate flags and complex feelings and ideas about our Confederate history, but I never really paid attention — and these views were certainly not included in textbooks.

There is something tempting about that perspective. Since no one can debate how evil slavery is, it gives a sense of moral “rightness” that glosses over the horrors of war. It also ignores most of the true motives for war. I believe that feeding kids an over-simplified view of history is a habit that becomes hard to break. Not only does it allow people to grow up with a one-dimensional understanding of history, but it creates citizens who are easy prey for the lulling, over-simplified rhetoric strewn by politicians and talking heads in the media.

Jove has discussed this in more detail here and in other posts.

I think that we can keep our explanations of history simple, if we’re not ready to go into more depth yet (as with my novice son) without handing down distorted facts or leaving out the complexity of these issues altogether. I felt that Pink and Say was in that spirit, offering a simple story without ignoring the brutal realities of war. For that reason, I think it’s a terrific book. And for the same reason, I think it’s one parents should preview before sharing with young kids.

In the same spirit, I just told James something like this — The Civil War was fought for a complicated mix of reasons including states’ rights, slavery, and other things. He doesn’t understand what all that means yet, but he knows it was complicated. 🙂 I told him there were a number of people in the North – many of them Quakers like Grandma K, who sincerely opposed slavery and wanted the slaves to be free. (There was also a viable abolitionist movement in the South.) They were an important force for the good, and also influenced the decision to go to war. For the most part, though, the North didn’t support slavery because they didn’t need slaves as much. While the South had more farms, they had more factories. And most of the Southerners (and nearly all those who were put on the front lines) didn’t own slaves and never would; they weren’t rich enough. They may not have cared about the issue of slavery. From their perspective, they were protecting their homeland from invading forces.

On the other hand, the war did lead to emancipation. We will never know whether — had things been different and the U.S. not fought this horrible war — that could have been achieved peacefully, as it was in England.

In Because of Winn Dixie and Pink and Say, we were presented with the brutal fact that children were sent to fight. Sometimes, they were put in battle without being given weapons with which to defend themselves. Relatively simple, but certainly not sugar coated.

To learn more about slavery and the Underground Railroad, Martin and I read two picture books, also based on true stories: Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Night Running by Elisa Carbone.

These were good books, and they were beautifully illustrated. They touched on a few of the raw realities of slavery, such as children being sold away from their families, without getting very complex or graphic.

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