Downright Dencey by Caroline Snedeker 

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With a strong Nantucket setting, Downright Dencey by Caroline Snedeker (published 1927) is the story of a developing friendship between a Quaker girl and the young, poor orphan boy who lives on the outskirts of town. More deeply, however, it is a sweet old-fashioned story of Christian conversion and what it means to find forgiveness and develop a relationship with God.

That sounds so nice, but oh how disappointed I was in this book that Beverly Cleary named as one of her childhood favorites! (In Cleary’s defense, she did add that it wasn’t quite appropriate today.) While it is not as horrible as some of the other early Newbery winners and honors, it still had quite a bit of content that felt inappropriate to me today. These books are always a reflection of their time. As a reflection of 1927, it showed Christian character development with forgiveness as a central theme. But I have such conflicted feelings about this book, as my comments below will surely prove.

*This post probably contains spoilers. (I don’t believe in spoilers, so I don’t know what you’d consider “spoiled.”)*

What’s Wrong with Downright Dencey

First, I’ll just get the first glaring issues of the book out of the way. Within the first few pages, our heroine meets the book’s antagonist, Jetsam, who calls her a racial slur because of Dencey’s darker skin. If I read this aloud to my child, I’d probably reword the insult. But how? Although Mark Twain uses the language in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and I’d maybe not censor it, it feels different here. In this book, it is used primarily and only as a slur. I’m just not comfortable introducing such language in a read aloud for my young child. At any rate, there is just this one occurrence, but it was not a good start.

Even more concerning, however, is the persistent and underlying stereotype and prejudice. The dislike against “Injun Jill” emphasizes that she is not civilized and therefore must be castout of society, mostly because she is an Indian. An obsession with his possible “half-breed” nature is a main theme for Jetsam as he struggles with society: by definition he is nothing compared to the others because of his origin. I feel some degree of racism is to be expected in old works, but when it’s subtly baked into the undertones of an entire story, that is when it becomes a dangerous spot for children to encounter today.

Do children read the “dark” references and realize that it’s subtle racism against all such people? Do they read comments about Jetsam’s “half-breed” concerns and relate to them or feel offended by them? Do they subconsciously internalize the racist attitudes? Some would say I’d reading to much into this. But, I ask myself: “What would a Native American child feel as they read this? What would a child of indeterminate origin feel as they read this ?” If either of them would feel uncomfortable, that’s when I worry about the result on readers today.

Dencey and Jetsam

The book is based on the relationship between two children on Nantucket Island: Dencey, a young well-to-do and educated Quaker girl, and Jetsam, a poor orphan whose origin is questioned throughout the book. Dencey is a strong character, determined to right the wrongs she’s done and solid in her desire to act as a proper Quaker girl should act. Jetsam, called Sam or Sammie, is called Jetsam because supposedly he appeared on Nantucket Island just as the jetsam (things thrown overboard) surrounds the community in the water. “Jetsam” is also defined nowadays as “odds and ends.” I wonder if such usage was common in 1927 as well. He is a character on the outskirts of acceptable society, and any type of association with him or his caregiver Injun Jill has a strong stigma.

To begin with, Dencey and Jetsam are not friends. In fact, just to thrash out, Jetsam has called Dencey a name and she has retaliated by throwing a stone at Jetsam and badly hurting him. When her guilt bothers her, she tries to make amends and ends up promising to teach him to read (at least until he can forgive her). When her mother finds out that she has been secretly meeting Jetsam, Dencey is forbidden to see him anymore (because of his apparent bad influence on a good Quaker girl). Dencey frankly refuses to promise her mother she won’t see him. Dencey feels sorry for Jetsam, but even more she now sees him as a person. She doesn’t want him to be alone, cold, or hungry. Now she knows that Jetsam is better than people treat him.

It is this recognition of other people that the book seems to focus on. The Quaker community’s self-righteousness leads to condemnation to others, especially anyone related to the lowly sailors on the docks. Dencey rise above her society’s definitions of “good” when she deals with the people around her. She is curious and accepting of everyone as much as she can be. I think that is why the author called her “downright” Dencey. Dencey is “straightforward” and “blunt” to others in defending Jetsam even when the rest of society doesn’t understand why.

Forgiveness and Coming to God

Thus Dencey’s first transformation is to come to a new more godly realization of what it means to be a good person. But, during this time, Jetsam is still unsure what he feels about Dencey. He doesn’t truly trust her because her friendship is off-and-on. He doesn’t understand that this is not her fault; it was her mother’s insistence that Dencey avoid him, and Dencey reaches out as best she can despite her mother’s wishes. But a significant event precipitates Jetsam’s own transformation. When he hears she is lost in the snow, he knows where she is and how to rescue her. For the first time, he has found someone he cares about more than he cares about himself. He risks his own life to save hers.

With that one action, Dencey’s family is now friendly and loving toward Jetsam. This gives Jetsam a way to learn about God. Although he’d been introduced to God through Dencey’s reading of Pilgrim’s Progress with him, it is only through the embrace of Dencey’s family that he can begin an earnest understanding of the role of Christ and forgiveness in his life. Unfortunately, now that he lives so near to her, he finds that Dencey feels distant to him. And to Jetsam it is clear why: she is too good for him. His own sin bears him down.

His final transformation is what gives the book a (somewhat) satisfying conclusion. He and Dencey can only be together after he fully comes to God. To do so, he must forgive Injun Jill, the woman who has raised him as her own. One major question through his life regards his identity, and it is possible that Jill is his birth mother. But, Jill has been abusive, drunk, and neglectful much of Jetsam’s life. Further, it is his bitterness about his “mixed breed” identity that causes Jetsam much distress. Must he really be related to this “savage”? As he cares for Jill and helps her recover from illness, he finds the strength to forgive her. He can, if necessary, accept that she is his mother. He can finally come to peace with himself and with God. It is only then that Dencey finally accepts him.

Ultimate Issues with Downright Dencey

Downright Dencey is a sweet old-fashioned story in many respects, and it certainly has an underlying Christian message. That message blends the concepts of accepting others, coming to God, seeking forgiveness, and forgiving others. Dencey is first to forgive Jetsam, but he holds out. Then, she seeks forgiveness from God for disobeying her mother. Her family must forgive Jetsam for his wrong doings, and ultimately Jetsam needs to forgive Jill and also seek forgiveness from God.

It sounds like such a good, Christian story. But I still have issues with it as a whole. First, Dencey’s entire family refused to acknowledge Jetsam until after his rescue of Dencey. It suggests that it is only through doing this selfless act that one is an acceptable part of society. It is only after he does this that they let him join their exclusive Quaker society. It is only after that he can finally have the chance he never before had to learn about God. Is this true Christianity? Only Dencey understood how to love him when he was still an outcast. It’s nice that the family finally came around, but it paints a horrible picture of their interpretation of Christianity.

Another thing I did not like about this conclusion was the encouragement for Jetsam to re-insert himself into the life of his main abuser. The way it is portrayed in the book is that once Jetsam is there to care for Injun Jill, she no longer is abusive and drunk; she has submitted to his care. But in reality, abusers will not stop abusing. Most people who have been abused need to avoid the abuser forever. It is still possible to forgive and find peace in that situation. But I worry that some people who have been abused may believe that true forgiveness means re-entering the life of an abuser, which is not the case.

Further, although Dencey has always cared about Jetsam, she too doesn’t truly accept him and allow herself to love him until his final religious transformation. As I mentioned above, this too seems anti-Christian. I understand, maybe she didn’t quite love him yet, but certainly she didn’t need to ignore him as she did. She seemed to shun him rather than conversing with him about her issues. It, too, bothered me.

In short, the book is very nice but highly flawed. A few more drafts may have provided a bit more clarification. Or maybe it just needed 90 more years of societal learning and sensitivity to have a more satisfying plot, characters, and resolution. Then it could rightly address these concerns and fit what I demand of a children’s book worthy of my children’s bookshelf. It’s just not quite there for me yet.

What did you think of Downright Dencey? Do any of these concerns resonate with you? I imagine many are not too bothered, but then how do you justify it on a child’s shelf with the many negative messages? Is discussion required for them to enjoy it? I have no problem suggesting others read it: I do have an issue with a child picking it up on her own and internalizing the messages without context and understanding.

If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to read it so we can have an informed discussion.

I rate Downright Dencey Newbery Honor as “really good” and say “maybe if you have time” for children and “keep it and read it” (so we can discuss) if you are an adult.



P.S. How is Dionis (Dencey’s real name) an acceptable Quaker name? It means alcohol/wine/drinking after the Greek God Dionysus, and Quakers are (or were) non-drinkers for the most part.

Reviewed on April 30, 2024

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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