4 Stars Out Of 5
some good character traits exhibited
September 1, 2012
Wayne S. Walker
It is sometime shortly after the War of 1812, and twelve-year-old Dionis (Dencey) Coffyn lives with her parents, father Tom, who is a whaling ship captain and away for years at a time, mother Lydia, and baby brother Ariel, along with several cousins whose mother had died and whose father is also a sailor, her grandfather Coffyn, and the housekeeper Peggy Runnell, on Nantucket Island, MA, during the days when whaling was the chief occupation. They are all Quakers, except Grandfather Coffyn who is a Congregationalist (Tom became a Quaker to marry Lydia). Among the other residents of the island there is a boy, called Samuel Jetsam, who lives with the drunk half-breed Injun' Jill. She claims him as her son, although most believe that Jetsam was brought to the island by a sailor and then abandoned.
Because of his background, Jetsam is the constant object of scorn and teasing by the children of Nantucket. Even Dencey joins in throwing stones at him, but it's her stone that hits him and cuts a big gash in his shoulder. When she goes to apologize, he says that he won't forgive her unless she gives him her one book that she always carries with her, a copy of Pilgrim's Progress, and teaches him how to read it. However, Injun' Jill doesn't want him to learn how to read because that would make him better than she, so they have to carry out their plans in secret. One snowy winter night Dencey gets lost trying to find Jetsam and almost freezes to death, but Jetsam goes out to save her, although as a result he becomes quite ill and almost dies. Over time, Dencey and Jetsam become fond of each other. Will they be able to overcome the social strictures that keep them apart? What will Injun' Jill do when she finds out about their plans? And how will Dencey react when it comes time for Jetsam to go to sea?
Downright Dencey was a Newbery honor book in 1928. One may not always agree with all the Quaker beliefs, but is good to read stories in which people are guided in their lives by a deep faith in God. There are a couple of things in the book that some people may not like. Jetsam uses a lot of "colorful," euphemistic languageâ€”darn, tarnation, doggone, durned, Lordy, etc. He even uses the "d" word once but immediately apologizes. However, after he is converted, he decides that he mustn't say those things any more. Also, Dencey does some lying and stealing, and a few have concluded that the book is saying that those things are all right if one's purpose is good. However, Dencey realizes that her doing these things is wrong and eventually confesses them. The reader will learn a lot about early nineteenth-century New England Quaker life. The author wrote, "In naming the characters of this story I have chosen real Nantucket surnames with fictitious Christian names. All the characters are fictitious, though I have given to one of them a historical Nantucket experience." And some good character traits are exhibited, such as learning how to let go of anger and hate, showing concern for the less fortunate, asking and granting forgiveness, and breaking down social barriers. Dencey's story continues in The Beckoning Road.