|Robb's Rambling Reviews||
Robert Lawson’s semi-autobiographical book recounts three generations of his family and their role in shaping American history. “This is not alone the story of my parents and grandparents,” he states, “It is the story of the parents and grandparents of most of us who call ourselves Americans.” And with saying such, Lawson begins a touching and moving story of his family, who they were, where they came from, and what they stood for. Lawson’s use of precise, clear vocabulary, ensures the reader can follow his family’s genealogy from pre-Civil War days to the present (as present as 1940, when the book was originally published). Although some of the vocabulary is now considered questionable, considering the book takes the reader back over one hundred years, it is a history lesson in itself.
Lawson’s pen and ink drawings bring is family back to life by helping define and develop the characters he lovingly remembers. Staring out from the pages are stern preachers, brave sea captains, and beautiful, sympathetic female ancestors. If portraits in children’s books can be seen to set the mood for readers, then Lawson is a master at his craft. The women are portrayed as doe-eyed and stylish, whereas most of the men remind me of judges from the Salem Witch Trials. The portraits fit the writing quite well.. His simple text in some ways accompanies the illustrations instead of the other way around. His grandfather, whose portrait is the most stern and severe of the bunch, is described as a preacher who “fought the Powers of Evil.” If Lawson’s sketches are accurate, as I’m sure they are, the Powers of Evil didn’t stand much of a chance.
The most interesting of Lawson’s illustrations however can be seen in the somewhat comical asides he creates for the reader. Although married to a sea captain, his mother’s mother, we are told, did not like traveling the ocean with her husband. On the accompanying page we see his mother’s mother throwing up off the side of the boat. Young readers will find this as amusing as I did, I’m sure. A rowdy bunch of lumberjacks who “came into the town on Saturday nights…frightened my mother” Lawson relates. Across from this text we find his mother holding tight to her father’s hand with eyes as big as saucers.
Lawson’s work is a charming time capsule of a book, and must be taken as such. With my first read through, I thought the book was a bit racist, and not at all politically correct. But as I read it again, I realized I was witnessing American history in action. What was the norm in 1940, is not our norm today, however the sketches of Mammy in her kerchief, and Indians demanding food from his family, along with terms such a “Negro boy” and “Negro slave,” give us a look back in time were these were considered appropriate. Regardless of the tricky situations in the text, I was personally drawn into the book due to Lawson’s obvious appreciation and pride of his ancestors. I am deeply proud of my maternal ancestors who immigrated to the United States in the early part of the last century, but I am also very proud of my paternal ancestors who helped colonize our country and fought during the War for Independence. My sister and I can claim to be Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution, thanks to these brave men and women. I enjoyed the text so much, and it spoke to me dearly of my Dutch ancestors, that I have decided to gives a copy to each of my nieces and nephews.
Lawson’s history lesson in a thirty-two paged book brought back great memories. His use of vocabulary drives a wonderful tale of hardworking, and occasionally off-beat, family members who are brought to life by his lifelike sketches and delightful asides. The text spoke to me on a familial level, which few picture books do. I would recommend this to those interested in genealogy, those interested in history, or those looking for a snapshot of our country from long ago. I might skip some of the portraits if I’m reading this to my little ones on a dark and stormy night though! ;)
Citation: Lawson, R. (1940). They were strong and good. New York, NY: Viking Press.