1935: Dobry (A Bulgarian Peasant Artist)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5

Dobry, the 1935 Newbery Medal Winner, is the story of a young boy growing up in a Bulgarian village. The title character has a joyous spirit and loves to create art based on his daily life. The book traces his life from a young boy into an adolescent preparing to embark for art school in the big city.

Dobry lives with his mother and his grandfather. Dobry is a very observant child and delights in the changing of the seasons, particularly events like the return of the storks and the annual snow festival where the man who melts snow the fastest is greatly acclaimed. He is good friends with the cobbler’s daughter, Neda, and many of his early artistic endeavors are for her. He constructs a lovely stork kite for her; his grandfather even makes it so that the kite produces the same noise as a stork. Dobry also carves a wooden goat for Neda, one that replicates the leaping of her favorite pet goat. A passing artist notes the beautiful workmanship and teaches Dobry about clay, taking him to a nearby clay bed.

Some tension emerges around Dobry’s path. While his mother wishes him to use his bodily strength to keep their fields the most productive in the village, his grandfather notes Dobry’s artistic gifts and does his best to nurture them. Eventually, the family, with the help of the village, raise enough money to send Dobry to Sofia for art lessons; the book ends there, with Dobry promising to return to betroth himself to Neda.

As with Waterless Mountain and Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, the setting is a strong contributor to the success of the book. The author, Monica Shannon, integrates traditional Bulgarian folktales and traditions into the book, generally through the famous stories told by Dobry’s grandfather. As Dobry grows up, he too begins to invent stories, including one of an animal forgotten by Noah, the wickerwockoff. Shannon also creates a believable vision of daily life in a small village by including details about food preparation, animal husbandry, and agriculture. One of my favorite traditions included the appearance of a Gypsy bear that massaged men’s backs by walking across them and determined whether the river was safe for bathing. Because winter is often harsh in Bulgaria, much attention was paid to winter festivities. Dobry’s grandfather wins a contest to see who can melt the snow most quickly simply by lying in it and Dobry dives into a half frozen river to retrieve the symbol of luck, a golden cross.

I rather enjoyed this book. The author’s writing is vivid and humorous and the characters richly drawn. Dobry grows up over the course of the story but without any of the drastic mistakes of Young Fu. He also reflects more on nature, leading to beautiful quotes both by him and by his grandfather. As always, I put some of my favorites up on our Tumblr. Secondary characters matter more than in some of the recent books, and you see their development across the narrative as well. Basically, the author creates an immersive experience, whereby you come to love the simple life of the village for what it is. I would recommend this as a fairly entertaining read.

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