JOAN BLOS' NOVEL, written as a leisurely journal of a young girl's life on a New Hampshire farm in the early 1800s, received this year's Newbery Medal, awarded annually to a book chosen by a committee of librarians as the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published during the preceding year. It is easy to understand its appeal to librarians, as Blos offers a valuable supplement to students of early American history. With telling details, she presents a clear picture of the life and times of 13-year-old Catherine Cabot Hall (as told by Catherine herself) and what it was like to be a young girl growing up in this period. A Gathering of Days reveals the skills Catherine must learn in domestic crafts, the sustaining compassion she must feel to be a good neighbor, the deep belief in justice for all she must have, and the courage she must develop to face the specter of death.
This is not a novel that tempts the reader to consume it at one sitting; rather, it is a book that establishes in unhurried fashion the mood of rural life in the early days of New England. It is an embroidered sampler of the times, fashioned in words rather than stitches.
Occasionally, Blos succumbs to the temptation that besets so many writers of historical fiction: the compulsion to include all the facts she has acquired during her research. And once in a while she occasionally interrupts the flow of her narrative so that Catherine may retell a story her father has told her to illustrate a moral issue.
But the better part of Catherine's journal serves well to deepen the colors of the New England life the heroine lives -- a New England in which nature is both an enemy and a friend. The young diarist meets both the cruel, long and dark winter days and the all-too-short sunny summer days with sturdy endurance and quiet joy. And as she learns to live with the vagaries of Nature, she also learns to live with and to cherish the austere Christian precepts of her friends, her loving family, and of her times.
The virtue most admired by young readers is, and always has been, courage -- a truth easily borne out by the popularity in libraries, year after year, of Little Women and The Diary of Anne Frank. Brigid Ni Clery, the heroine of Betty Sue Cummings' Now, Ameriky, is not likely to join those two girls long entrenched in affection, Alcott's Jo and the doomed Anne Frank, but not one who reads Brigid's turbulent story can deny that she, too, is a young woman of courage.
Brigid leaves Ireland for America to earn, not a fortune, but enough money to help her family join her, escaping from a country ravaged and starved by the potato famine of the 1840s. Brigid also hopes to save enough money to buy a piece of land of her betrothed and the family they will have.
Brigid needs all the courage she can drum up as she faces all the crises possible to a young emigrant -- starvation and disease on the long, grim voyage to America and, once landed in Manhattan, the struggle to escape the pimps who comb the docks. She must then endure the exploitation she finds when she works for a grand lady in one of the mansions uptown -- a mistress who expects her to slave as a maid from dawn to dusk with little or no pay. Brigid faces all of these problems as well as the galloping prejudice against the Catholics and the Irish: although Manhattan was one-fourth Irish, many want ads ended with the line "Irish need not apply."
Brigid confronts and conquers all disasters with Irish courage -- and Irish temper. In fact, the author gives Brigid so many disasters to overcome that the reader, if not Brigid, is almost over-come, as well. But for the romantically inclined, Now, Ameriky offers a heroine to admire.