It never fails that when I start researching for one thing, I come across something else that takes me down another road, then to something else again that may or may not be related to the first thing I was researching, and then I wind up with something new and exciting that I never dreamed at the start.
“A Little Florida Lady” is that “something new and exciting” discovery.
I came across this 1903 children’s story by Dorothy C. Paine while I was researching life in the Old South and plantation living for a separate writing project. One thing led to another, this book came across my radar, and I decided it might be worth a read.
The little Florida lady is Beth Davenport, a native New York little girl, who moves to Florida with her family. She experiences new sights and sounds, odd flora and fauna, and a different way of life and vernacular along the way, beginning with the train trip to Jacksonville, Florida, and then beyond to their new home in the South.
Paine uses dialect to perfection when the black characters speak. And to buttress the dialect, she describes the black characters in terms that today would be considered in bad taste. How times have changed! However, as long as the reader understands that this story was published in 1903, dialect and descriptions work well together. In fact, I found that I could easily visualize the characters and scenes because of that. It was real.
There are lessons in this story, though awkward and perhaps judgmental in today’s mind and thinking, yet are very good ones. For example, let’s look at this scene:
Beth loved to travel, and soon was on speaking terms with every one [sic] on the car. She hesitated slightly about being friends with the porter. He made her think of the first colored person she had ever seen. She remembered even now how the man’s rolling black eyes had frightened her, although it was the blackness of his skin that had impressed her the most. She believed that he had become dirty, the way she sometimes did, only in a greater degree.
“Mamma,” she whispered, “I never get as black as that man, do I? Do you s’pose he ever washes himself?”
Mrs. Davenport explained that cleanliness had nothing to do with the
“Is he black inside?” Beth questioned in great awe.
“No. All people are alike at heart. Clean thinking makes even the
black man white within, dear.”
Beth’s mother gently explained to her, in so many words, that people are people, no matter their outward appearance – a sort of “we are all God’s children” lesson.
We see a new world as Beth sees it. Cotton fields looked like “little specks of white [looking like] little balls of snow . . . on bushes.”
Beth sees Spanish moss on live oaks as “hair.” She compares new things to those she knows, and she has that feeling and reaction of awe:
She was impatient to see everything . . . She felt that she needed a thousand eyes. The trees bewildered her. There were so many varieties she had never seen before – magnolias with their wonderful glossy foliage; bamboos with their tropical stalks covered with luxuriant green; pomegranates; live-oaks and water-oaks; the wild olive with its feathery white blossoms, and many others.
Beth makes friends at her new home, including the ubiquitous chubby, happy, red kerchief-wearing, apron-toting black woman found in many Southern stories. Yes, it’s typical and almost expected in these old stories, but I remained unphased about it – after all, this “typical” character’s name was Maggie, and that was a nice change from – brace yourself – Mammy.
Pierce’s use of dialect works well, albeit with the vernacular at the time this story was written:
As Mr. Davenport and Beth walked to the side of the darky, he lifted
his stovepipe hat that had been brushed until the silk was wearing
away. He revealed thereby a shock of iron-gray wool. He made a
“Massa, am dis de little missy dat yo’ wuz tellin’ ’bout? I’se powerful glad to meet yo’, missy.”
And that is how the reader is introduced to the Davenport’s driver, January.
Pierce continues the stereotypical descriptions of people, but it’s almost unnoticeable since it is the story:
Beth returned to the barn with Duke. January as usual was idling. He
had his fiddle and was playing “Dixie.” Beth sat down on the hay near
him, while the dog family frolicked around her. She was happy, so
happy that from sheer light-heartedness she began to sing.
Along the way, Beth meets and befriends blonde, blue-eyed poor white trash Gustus, who helps to expand her new Southern world. He exposes her to fishing, and teaches her a lesson about alligators, which she thought at first were dragons.
All in all, “The Little Florida Lady” is a good read, and one that can be finished inside of a couple of hours. As long as the reader understands the timeframe in which this story was written and the thinking of people back then, it becomes a positive, learning-lesson type of story that can be applied today in various ways, despite the mischievousness of it.
As Pierce wrote about Beth’s recovery from an illness, we can possible apply our own recovery from the illness of injurious prejudice today:
With the elasticity of childhood, Beth grew well rapidly, and was once
more her mischievous self.
How elastic are we today, in a world vastly different than in 1903 when this book was published, in regards to anything that is negative? We can learn that while we can bounce back from the condition of misunderstanding and prejudice, we can also become our mischievous selves again. The point to ponder is, are to become mischievous in a playful and impish sense, or mischievous in a malicious and wicked sense?
You can find a free copy of this book in electronic format at LoyalBooks.
“A Little Florida Lady”
By Dorothy C. Paine
Copyright, 1903, by
George W. Jacobs & Company
Published, October, 1903
©Susan Marie Molloy, and works within.