Monday, March 14, 2016

The un-written poignancy in “Blueberries For Sal”

A friend of mine, for reasons that remain charmingly obscure, was at a yard sale and decided to put aside a copy of “Blueberries for Sal” for me. This person could not have known that the author, Robert McCloskey, was something of a touchstone for me, even though this particular book never held all that much appeal. I had ever even read it. I am a “Burt Dow, Deep-water Man” man myself.

And yet there it was, in my hands. It certainly wasn’t a daunting task to read it. The adventure, blueberry picking in the countryside, is something I have done many times — I remember going to a place called Foss Mountain in New Hampshire when I was at camp as a kid, and we picked blueberries from the low bushes at the top of the hill. I once had a house in Maine that had 200 high bush plants. 

The cover of the book is impish Little Sal eating a blueberry sitting among the bushes, is an illustration that doesn't appear otherwise in the book, but it captures the endearing tomboyishness that McCloskey keeps throughout the rest of the story. This is a children's book character with real personality. 

McCloskey's illustratons, as usual, are peerless, this time done only in a deep blue ink. They are tighter, denser than in his other books; he employs a slightly different style here. There are pools of dark color, striking contrasts. Each drawing spreads across two wide pages, giving the illustrations a kind of panorama.

Then there is McCloskey's understated, entirely effective and evocative prose. McCloskey can pack more into a paragraph than most writers can on a page. The relationship between his words and image are perfectly balanced; his craft and artistic instincts are stunning.

The story is simple: Sal and her nameless mom go out picking blueberries for canning. Sal has little interest in keeping her berries, for every one that goes into her pail — kuplunk — she eats three. They are followed by a momma bear and her son and the families get mixed up. Sal follows the momma bear, and the little boy bear follows Sal's mom.

In the interim, they encounter a mother crow and her children, and a mother partridge with her children— all enjoying the blueberries of Blueberry Hill, and then they all go home. 

But — the first line of the story contains a clue, perhaps: “One day, Little Sal went with her mother to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries.” 

The first thought I had was why Little Sal? Is Sal her mom’s name? Might it be a reference to her father? It was then I realized that there is no mention of a father at all in the book. He’s missing. None of the other families in the book have a father with them, either — unlike McCloskey's most famous book, "Make Way For Ducklings," in which you have a full, typical nuclear family. 

What is the difference here? "Ducklings" was published before the World War II, and "Blueberries For Sal" was published three years after the war officially ended, in 1948.

Sal's mother gives the reason they are going to pick blueberries. "We will take our blueberries home and can them," said her mother. "Then we will have food for the winter."

This is another hint. This family is a self-sufficient unit. I scanned the warm and beautiful illustration that can be seen at the beginning and end of the book. There is not one single clue in the book that a man lives in that house. No clothes, no photo. There is only one chair at the kitchen table. There is a serenity to the image, but there is something missing here.

I realized how poignant this book might have been for many American families who had lost someone, almost certainly a father, in World War II. This is their story, and maybe that is why the mother has no name. She is all of these mothers, certainly these American mothers, who are coping with post-war life. 

So this is not just blueberry picking. Here was a mom, all alone, keeping her daughter, Little Sal, as busy and as happy as she can. These are the things in life that one must do to keep moving, keep steady, keep going, to stay happy.