Monday, October 16, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: The Loner by Ester Wier

He is so alone that he does not even have a name. Traveling from place to place with migrant crop pickers, ignored and neglected, he has ceased to care for others, and watches out only for himself. However, one day he finds a friend – a young girl among the crop pickers who is just his age – who shows an interest and affection for him that nobody has before. But just as the two become close, there is a horrible accident, and the boy is left to wander by himself. During his journey he meets someone else, who does not seem very loving, but bit by bit gives him the first chance he has at finding a home.

This was something like the book talk that my advisor in library school gave for The Loner to me and my classmates, and it had nearly everybody in tears. Wier’s story of the homeless, nameless boy’s journey is told in spare, solemn prose, but with an insight and introspection that makes it touchingly beautiful.

The homeless boy, after leaving the migrant workers, is found on the Montana prairie by a sheep rancher who is known only as Boss – a tall, gruff woman who keeps mainly to herself.

I think we all know what happens next: there are scads of homeless orphans in children’s literature who run into gruff adults, and they always manage to work their way into the affections of the gruff adults, and get adopted by the end of the book. (See A Single Shard or The Midwife’s Apprentice.)

The boy takes the name of David (a Biblical shepherd) and the rest of the book focuses on the careful relationship that blossoms between him and Boss as they herd sheep together over the winter. Because of this, The Loner is a bit of a slow-moving book, although there are a few scenes involving an abandoned mine, coyotes, and a bear to spice things up. However, the heartbreaking journey of David from drifter to loyal shepherd is one that shouldn’t be missed – it’s one of those simple, earthy books that makes you want to smell the earth, run through the snow, and relish the pleasures of hard work. The Loner was awarded a Newbery Honor back in its day, so it’s easy to find a copy, but like many of the runner-ups, it has fallen by the wayside. Go ahead and seek it out -- like a sunrise on the Montana plains, it’s worth the wait.


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