The Jumping-Off Place
Marian Hurd McNeely
I recently happened upon two Newbery Honor Books that caught my attention; The Jumping-Off Place, which won the Honor in 1930, and Doris Gates’ Blue Willow, a 1941 winner. I picked up The Jumping-Off Place because I assumed, from the title, that it must have something to do with pioneering, and might be a good addition to our boy book list.
The story opens sometime around 1910 with four orphans, the Linvilles, preparing to leave their home in the southwestern tip of Wisconsin to head to a homestead in South Dakota. Becky is about 17 years old, Dick about 15, Phil 10, and Joan 8. We learn that when their parents died several years ago, their mother’s brother, Uncle Jim, gave up his life as a sailor and dedicated himself to raising his nieces and nephews. Shortly after going to South Dakota to arrange for a homestead there, he suffered a stroke. When he recovered some of his faculties, he continued to plan the move and instruct the children in the details. We join the story shortly after Uncle Jim’s funeral. The children intend to carry out his plans and prove up on the homestead according to his wishes. They will need to survive for fourteen months and come out of it with enough money for the first payment on the land.
This is a story about family, courage, maturity, facing life and death, and learning to live in community while, at the same time, learning self-reliance. On hearing of the children’s intentions, one of the first comments of their not-so-supportive aunt is to ask how they plan to run a household and farm and survive the winter when they can’t even keep from fighting among themselves. Uncle Jim had also advised them that they would have to learn to curb this tendency, and the children believe they are up to the challenge. Their respect for his self-sacrifice and training helps them learn to treat each other with kindness. The children have spent the past several years learning their work ethic from Uncle Jim who had once said, “If the Lord will supply the grindstone, I’ll furnish the nose.”
Upon their arrival in South Dakota, the children immediately make the acquaintance of some of the townsfolk who later turn out to be extremely kind and helpful friends. But their homestead also comes with built-in enemies; a family of squatters who believe they have more right to the land than do the Linvilles. The children have to learn to navigate that threat by knowing when to stand their ground and when to give some.
The four siblings do survive the winter, and a summer drought that kills most of the garden they need for food for the coming year. Becky is responsible for saving several school children who are caught in a snowstorm and have to spend the night trying to stay warm in the schoolhouse. She also plans a school library with everyone in the community sharing the few books they have in their homes.
Of course, the fourteen months of proving up are full of lessons for all four children, but McNeely avoids lecturing and mere didacticism. As Becky observes the changes in Dick’s attitude and appearance, she notes that, “Tripp County had made Dick a man.” It is during the two older siblings’ discussion of how to manage Christmas gifts that Becky concludes, “Funny how little you care for the unnecessaries out here. In fact, I never knew what the necessaries were until I tried homesteading.” Dick agrees. “Food, clothing, and shelter, and easy on the clothing, too. All you need is enough to keep heat off in summer and cold off in winter.”
The children learn, but are also able to help others. They end up spending Christmas with their friends the Cleavers, a childless couple who intend to help the Linvilles more from now on. Mr. Cleaver tells them, “People without kids, and kids without people ought to get together.” In the end, we know that the children are well on their way to fulfilling their dream, and that they will never again be so completely on their own.
I suppose that one reason books of this kind slip out of favor is that we have been trained to be so sensitive to any hint of racism that we are afraid to look it in the eye and teach our children about attitudes of the past.
- Dick tells his aunt, “Uncle Jim hated mourning clothes. He used to say it was easier to put on black after folks were gone than to treat them white while they were here.”
- A friend advising Dick to ask Mr. Cleaver for help says, “He’s a white man, too; he’ll advise you right.”
- At another time, a neighbor tells Becky, “I know just how it’s going to end: we’re going to put in five years of n*****’s work, and starvin’, and lonesomeness . . .” I regret that these were ever common expressions, but I believe there is an appropriate time for teaching our children that it was so. I warn you so that you may choose that time rather than having it chosen for you.
- There is a heartrending passage in which Becky joins several neighbors in helping a family whose baby has died from a rattlesnake bite.