This treasure of a novel is set on the island of Nantucket just before the War of 1812. Much more than a tale of whaling ships and gentle Quaker eccentricities, it is a tale of friendship-the kind most truly espoused by these 'plain' folk, with all the struggle and complexity one should expect. Dionis (Dencey) Coffyn is a mystery to her mother, Lydia, whose stern exterior hides a heart that breaks every time her husband Captain Tom goes to sea. Within a context of outward simplicity of living and inward intricacy of relationship, Dencey matures from the little girl who, in unquakerly violence of temper, throws a rock that wounds the town outcast. She becomes a young woman ready to bear her part in life with grace and courage. A probing portrayal of the power of love to overcome social barriers and religious strictures.
Because of his background, Jetsam is the constant object of scorn and teasing by the children of Nantucket. Even Dencey joins in throwing stones at him, but it’s her stone that hits him and cuts a big gash in his shoulder. When she goes to apologize, he says that he won’t forgive her unless she gives him her one book that she always carries with her, a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, and teaches him how to read it. However, Injun’ Jill doesn’t want him to learn how to read because that would make him better than she, so they have to carry out their plans in secret. One snowy winter night Dencey gets lost trying to find Jetsam and almost freezes to death, but Jetsam goes out to save her, although as a result he becomes quite ill and almost dies. Over time, Dencey and Jetsam become fond of each other. Will they be able to overcome the social strictures that keep them apart? What will Injun’ Jill do when she finds out about their plans? And how will Dencey react when it comes time for Jetsam to go to sea?
Downright Dencey was a Newbery honor book in 1928. One may not always agree with all the Quaker beliefs, but is good to read stories in which people are guided in their lives by a deep faith in God. There are a couple of things in the book that some people may not like. Jetsam uses a lot of “colorful,” euphemistic language—darn, tarnation, doggone, durned, Lordy, etc. He even uses the “d” word once but immediately apologizes. However, after he is converted, he decides that he mustn’t say those things any more. Also, Dencey does some lying and stealing, and a few have concluded that the book is saying that those things are all right if one’s purpose is good. However, Dencey realizes that her doing these things is wrong and eventually confesses them. The reader will learn a lot about early nineteenth-century New England Quaker life. The author wrote, “In naming the characters of this story I have chosen real Nantucket surnames with fictitious Christian names. All the characters are fictitious, though I have given to one of them a historical Nantucket experience.” And some good character traits are exhibited, such as learning how to let go of anger and hate, showing concern for the less fortunate, asking and granting forgiveness, and breaking down social barriers. Dencey’s story continues in The Beckoning Road.
Spurred on by her determination to atone for the injury she had done him, when, enraged by his name-calling, she had thrown the stone which cut his shoulder, Dencey agreed to surrender one of her most prized possessions - a copy of Pilgrim's Progress - to Jetsam, and to teach him how to read it. So began an unusual relationship - secret at first, and then well-known in their small whaling town - that would change both of their lives.
Beautifully-written, and instantly engaging, Caroline Dale Snedeker's story offers a moving examination of issues of faith and community, in a small, enclosed Quaker society. I was particularly interested in her exploration of Dencey's groping search after the Divine, her struggle to understand and connect to God, and her efforts to reconcile the promptings of her conscience with the teachings of her religion. That this is a central issue in the novel is made clear in the third chapter, when Snedeker writes:
Dionis's mind closed upon these religious phrases which were in everyone's mouth. "Lay thy sin before the Lord," "Enter into the Silence," "Follow the Light." What did it all mean? She could not even form questions about them, much less experience them. They were all one foggy puzzle, but she was expected to understand these experiences. Every New England child was expected to understand them."
The author's perceptive appreciation of the child's bewilderment, of the ways in which Dencey both embodies and rebels against Quaker doctrine, make for a believable and immensely sympathetic heroine. Indeed, it is this genius for creating characters who are "real" people - Lydia, so strong and good in some ways, and yet so blind to the meaning of her daughter's behavior; Jetsam, so ignorant and deliberately cruel, as if to strike first at the hard world which had so mistreated him, and yet so hungry for knowledge, and so ready (if all unconscious of it) to learn to love - that gives Snedeker's work its true power.
She understands the "cognizance of childhood," the ways in which, many times, children perceive and appreciate the reality of the world around them with greater clarity than the adults in their lives. Though raised to believe that "the Light" is in everyone, Lydia cannot, at first, see past Jetsam's dirty appearance and foul language, cannot see him as a human boy worthy of associating with her "kind." But Dencey, though she cannot articulate it, not only sees that kernel of humanity in Jetsam, but understands that it is her duty to hold fast to him, in the face of all opposition: Dencey knew with an intensity that equalled its vagueness that if she let go of Jetsam, he would tumble back into an abyss. Hatred, abuse, filthy talk, and fear - all these were in it; and she alone held him back from the lip of it."
So much for the good. Sadly, like Snedeker's characters, there is good and bad mingled in Downright Dencey, making it a difficult book to unreservedly recommend to today's young readers. The author's language is as beautiful as her portrait of the power of faith, but her depiction of the racism of a bygone era, often unconsciously voiced by the narrator, is as ugly as can be. There is, of course, the rather shocking epithets hurled by Jetsam at the beginning of the novel - the name-calling which precipitates Dencey's stone-throwing, and subsequent atonement - from "N*gger-face" to "Portugee." Thankfully, these words don't recur in the story, and a thoughtful adult might be able use their appearance to begin a discussion of how beliefs about race have changed, to explain how such insults would, unfortunately, not have been so uncommon during the time depicted.
Far more disturbing, I think, is the ever present idea of the "degenerate" nature of Native Americans, as embodied by the character of "Injun Jill," Jetsam's abusive and alcoholic (possible) mother. It's odd, because in many ways, I think Snedeker is fairly progressive for her time, depicting Jetsam's journey from outsider to insider, despite the disadvantage of his background. She even shows some sympathy for "Injun Jill" at one point, in a scene which hints at the tragedy that overtook the indigenous people of Nantucket: "The poor, miserable, lonely thing! There were almost no Indians left now in the Island. Why, Jill was as alone in the world as he. He saw her in an utterly new aspect."
But although Jetsam learns to see his erstwhile tormentor in a new light, this one moment of understanding has to be weighed against the entire book, in which Jill speaks in the kind of broken, ignorant dialect often assigned to Native Americans in such tales, and embodies every vice and weakness; and in which Jetsam is disgusted at the possibility of being half Indian, as that would make him inferior to the other people of Nantucket. It's sad that such an otherwise outstanding story would be marred by such outdated ideas of race, but there you have it. I think this is a title that, despite its undeniable virtues (and in many ways, I really loved it!), I would only recommend to older children, with a good grasp of history, and an ability to appreciate the changing mores of our society.