Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lois Lenski and the Marjorie Rawlings book

When the Whippoorwill
First edition, 1940
It’s not terribly surprising that Lois Lenski, who was known for writing children’s books with a regional flavor, would have a copy of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ When the Whippoorwill in her collection. A first edition with Lenski’s signature on the front flyleaf is in the Lighthouse Books, ABAA collection of interesting and unusual books.

Lois Lenski
Lois Lenski
Lenski, whose Strawberry Girl won the Newbery Medal in 1946, would surely have been interested in Rawlings’ tales of Florida’s Scrub Country. After all, Rawlings’ book includes such prize-winning works as her novelette, Jacob’s Ladder, and her short story Gal Young Un, both of which contain the sort of regional speech patterns that interested Lenski.

When Rawlings’ book came out in 1940, Lenski and her husband, Arthur Covey, were still living on a farm in Connecticut. They had been there for about 11 years and had been raising Covey’s two children from a previous marriage, Margaret and Laird along with their own son, Stephen.

At that point, Lenski had been illustrating books for others and writing and illustrating her own for nearly two decades. By then, she had published 22 books, including some children’s historical novels. But the books for which she would be widely known were yet to come.

Lenski’s ill health in the early 1940s prompted she and her husband to spend winters in the south, first in Louisiana and then in Florida. Their travels exposed Lenski to lifestyles quite unlike her own. She was particularly interested in how the children in different regions lived. Her investigations led to Bayou Suzette, published in 1943, the story of a young white girl living in the Louisiana bayou country and her friendship with an orphaned Indian girl.

That was followed in 1945 by Strawberry Girl, the story of a young Florida Cracker girl whose family battles nature and neighbors to build a strawberry farm in the wilderness. There followed 15 more books in the American Regional Series.

Lenski wrote her name on her book. Click to enlarge.
Lenski would have been fascinated by Rawlings’ tales, especially as they depicted life in inland Florida in the 1920s and 1930s. Jacob’s Ladder, the novelette that won her a cash award from Scribner’s, was first published in Scribner’s magazine in 1931. It tells the story of a young backwoods couple and their struggle against a hurricane. Gal Young Un is the story of a spinster running a farm who is exploited by a fast-talking man from the city who marries her for her property and her inheritance.

None of these or the other stories in When the Whippoorwill focus on children, though, but it’s likely Lenski found the tales of life in the piney woods worth her time nevertheless. And evidently she didn't want to lose it. She wrote her name on the front flyleaf the way people do when they lend a book to a friend but don't want them to forget where it came from. Interestingly, no bookplate for Lois Lenski. Just a simple signature in pencil.

Lenski and her husband spent many winters in Florida. They finally built a house in Tarpon Springs in 1951, only a couple of years before Rawlings died. It’s not clear whether Lenski and Rawlings ever met, though it’s unlikely.

Lenski and her husband lived in the house on Roosevelt Boulevard on The Canal off of Tarpon Bayou, where she wrote and he painted and sketched. Arthur Covey died 1958. Lois Lenski died at her home in 1974 at the age of 80.

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