Minerva Kalpin, the star of the new Depression-era novel Chig and the Second Spread, is so tiny that her nickname is Chigger, after the little red insect that lives in the hills around her hometown, Niplak. Niplak might be small, with only about 100 families sprinkled through the hills, but Chig loves it. She's a new pupil at Miss Barkus' one-room school and excited to "dip her toe into the river of learning." Though just four feet tall, Chig is a year older than the other beginning students. Her mother taught her at home so she would not be too far behind her peers and hoped for a growth spurt that never came.
Chig loves school and Miss Barkus, but all is not well in class. First, Chig is so quiet that she often can't be heard. She worries about becoming invisible to those around her. To make matters worse, the class bully Ed Beemus taunts her and makes hurtful comments about her height. Then one day, during lunch, Chig notices the missing "second spread" on her classmates' sandwiches. Instead of meat and ketchup on their biscuits, there is just ketchup. The lack of food is a sign of hard times, a signal to Chig of the financial worries of the outside world. Soon she, along with her trusted teacher, come up with a plan to stem the tide, at least in their little town.
Author Gwenyth Swain includes many historic details about small-town Depression-era life in this charming novel. The general store has the required wood-burning stove where the "chair testers" spend their hours gossiping. Recess is filled with pretend games, intense marble tournaments and inevitable lunch swapping. Swain's wonderful sense of rural living will earn her comparisons to novelists like Kate DiCamillo, Sharon Creech and Cynthia Rylant. She is an author who deserves her place in that sorority.
Lynn Beckwith is a second grade teacher in Nashville.