Blue Willow Critical Essays

Doris Gates


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

On the literal level, Blue Willow is the satisfying story of a young girl obtaining her heart’s desire. If the novel is reviewed with a probing eye and a literary background, however, shades of T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald appear. Blue Willow is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) written for children. Doris Gates has set her characters in a modern wasteland, but unlike the other authors, who were writing for adults, the Larkin family is allowed to escape.

Gates carefully uses four main settings to move the family symbolically from security to despair and back to hope. While their Texas home is only sketchily portrayed, in Janey’s memories it represents stability and all that is good. As seen at the county fair and camp school, Janey loves books and reading, which she attributes to her experiences with books on the Texas ranch. The second setting, the dust bowl locale of their shack in California where the story starts, reflects their poverty. A reprieve from this precarious state is offered by the third location, the river, which Mrs. Larkin describes as the biblical phrase “rivers of water in a dry place.” During their day at the river, Janey wanders into the final setting, the Anderson Ranch, which parallels the dream world of the willow plate. This setting foreshadows the possibility of a change for the family. Yet, as in the stories of King Arthur and the fairy tales that Janey loves, they must overcome an evil opponent in the guise of Bounce Reyburn. The blue willow plate is the catalyst that brings...

(The entire section is 650 words.)