1940: Daniel Boone (Racist Anthem to Manifest Destiny)


Laurinda’s Rating: 1/5

James Daugherty won the 1940 Newbery Medal with Daniel Boone, a semi-historical retelling of the American frontiersman’s biography. Boone has compulsively restless feet and moves west at every opportunity. He also becomes entangled in key events of American history, including the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the Louisiana Purchase. With his signature grit, he braves many hardships, generally acting in the benefit not only of himself but of those around him.

I loathed this book. First and foremost, the book is incredibly, incredibly racist. Besides the general characterization of Daniel’s relationships with Native Americans as universally adversarial, the author frequently uses language like “red varmints” and savages to describe the Native Americans in the book. He also draws heavily on stereotypes of Native American behaviour, describing them alternately as sullen and lazy or murderous and uncivilized. Rather than drawing an even marginally nuanced picture (by, I don’t know, mentioning that settlers were taking native land or talking about the mutual antagonism between the groups), Daugherty sets up a black-white relations between Boone and his neighbours.

Here is where I admit that I have an undergrad degree in history and anthropology, among other subjects. It’s probably why a non-contextualized binary description of history drives me up the wall. And that’s exactly what this is. It’s straight-up hero worship of the flawless Daniel Boone. Although things go wrong for Daniel, it’s never depicted as his fault and his wits always get him out of it with minimal consequences. I know it is probably too much to expect in a children’s book, but a frank discussion of Daniel as a person would have interested me much more than what was presented.

Further, the writing style hardly makes up for the poor storytelling. Structure is variously simplistic and overblown, with an overabundance of Biblical metaphors. The wilderness/God speaks directly to Daniel at one point, for example. Relationships are spurious and under-developed, something the author throws out there and forgets in favour of more over-described massacres.

Basically, this book just fails to commit. In my opinion (and yes, I know I have a lot of these), a book like this could succeed in one of two ways. It could either have presented a balanced historical perspective (like, taken out the racism and given the Native Americans a fair shake as far as presentation) or swung further to mythology. Doing neither, it utterly fails. In fact, it falls close to the bottom of ALL of the Newbery Medal winners I’ve read thus far. Skip this one. If you must consume cheesy Daniel Boone mythology, I advocate the Hanna-Barbera cartoon.


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