altOcean-Born Mary by Lois Lenski (J. B. Lippincott, 1939)

I grew up with Lois Lenski's Indian Captive, a fictionalized version of the story of Mary Jemison, captured by Indians during the French and Indian War. She remained with the Senecas all her life, and I have seen her grave in Letchworth State Park, one of our favorite spots in Western New York. It remains one of my favorite stories.

Many years later, after moving to Florida, I discovered the Newberry Award-winning Strawberry Girl, Lenski's novel about rural Florida in the early 20th century, and liked it also.

I wish Lenski's books weren't so hard to find. Recently I discovered a new one, in little Hillsboro, New Hampshire's tiny library: Ocean-Born Mary—and it's as good as the other two.

There's a reason this book is in a New Hampshire library: it is the fictionalized story of Mary Wilson Wallace, who was born on a ship that was part of the 18th century Scots-Irish immigration to New England. She grew up in New Hampshire, and her grave is in Henniker, the next town over from Hillsboro. Our New Hampshire grandchildren will want to be sure to read the Afterward, where they will find such familiar names as The Isles of Shoals and Star Island.

Warning: some spoilers below, but important for parents to read.

I loved Ocean-Born Mary. This is the world many of my ancestors lived in. Lenski has fictionalized the story and softened some of the harsh details for the juvenile audience, but there is great historical detail and it rings true. Written in 1939, it does not have 21st-century sensitivities, and modern parents may cringe at the casual references to "Negro slaves." But that was reality, and it's good for Northerners to realize what they would love to forget—that slavery was not exclusively a Southern sin. It was part of life at that time, as were smallpox and starvation, Indian attacks and British oppression.

Many modern parents may find even more objectionable the protagonist's friendship with an older man of very ill repute, and the fact that she sneaks away on several occasions to meet with him. Nothing untoward happens, and there is nothing at all romantic in the modern sense about the relationship. I've read many modern children's books that are infinitely worse in that dimension. Nonetheless, it may make modern parents queasy, which is why I'd suggest this book as a read-aloud, or that parents might at least read it themselves, first.

But I do recommend Ocean-Born Mary, highly. It's a gripping story, enjoyable to read, and I think it paints a good picture of colonial New England.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 22, 2019 at 8:53 pm | Edit
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