Tuesday, January 24, 2012
The Goat Lady, based on true people and events, tells the story of Noelie Houle, an elderly woman who lives in a run-down, old farmhouse with her family of goats. All of the other homes in the neighborhood are newer, freshly painted, with neatly mowed lawns, but not the goat lady's house. To many neighbors, it stuck out like a sore thumb with its peeling paint, crooked door, and a yard full of goats. Some people complained about the unkempt nature of the property and considered the goats to be a public nuisance, but our young narrators are intrigued. They like to watch the frisky goats and can't help but wonder about who takes care of them. Finally, one day, they see her -- "a slightly bent, but still rather tall woman" with mismatched clothes, a warm smile, and a twinkle in her eye. She invites them to come meet her goats and kindly introduces herself. It is the start of a wonderful friendship, and in the weeks and months to come, the children return to Noelie's house often, learning all about how to care for the goats and helping Noelie with her chores. They learn more and more about her life, too -- how she moved there from Canada to work in a factory but became ill with arthritis. How goat's milk gradually cured her, and how she set out to raise goats so that other people could be helped by drinking their milk. How she eventually had so many goats, she gave some away to an organization (Heifer International) that sent them to people in poor countries, "so that those people would have fresh milk to drink, too." Perhaps the most important thing the children learn from their friendship with Noelie, though, is tolerance. Unlike their neighbors, they don't judge Noelie by her outward appearance. In taking the time to get to know her, they see the kind, compassionate woman that she is, and that is a beautiful thing.
The children soon ask their mother, a portrait artist, if she might like to paint a picture of their friend Noelie and her goats. She happily agrees, and eventually goes on to create enough paintings for an art show at the town hall. (Some of Jane Bregoli's actual paintings from the real Dartmouth Town Hall art show about Noelie are featured in the book.) As word gets out about the show and more and more people begin to learn more about Noelie, people's attitudes about her start to change. "The neighbors became more accepting of Noelie's way of life. The yard didn't seem quite as messy, the old house didn't look so rundown, and the animals didn't appear to be as unruly as before." Soon, those neighbors that used to complain about her ways are stopping by to help Noelie, too.
The message of acceptance and tolerance that pervades this book is inspiring and refreshing. I love the way it shows the incredible difference children can make in the life of an adult, and in some cases, an entire community. Everyone knows people who are different, eccentric, "strange," and it is easy to judge them or cast them aside without taking the time to get to know them or their circumstances. The fact that Noelie is elderly and impoverished is subtle but relevant, and although it might not be immediately noticed by children, it can certainly be discussion worthy.
The Goat Lady is beautifully written and a wonderful story in every way. My son is just as engrossed by this story as he is with much sillier ones, which just goes to show that a book needn't be funny or fictional to be fully appreciated by a child. The fact that it is a true story makes it all the more wonderful. The real Noelie and Bregoli lived in Dartmouth, MA, so I hope that this book is easy to find outside of Massachusetts. With its many important lessons about kindness and compassion, we highly recommend the Goat Lady for children in preschool and beyond.