Friday, March 7, 2008

Free, Joyous Roller Skates


What a relief to read Ruth Sawyer's Roller Skates (the 1937 winner), especially after the sour taste left in my mouth by the last Newbery book I read (Daniel Boone, the 1940 winner). Roller Skates was a gentle book, an unpretentious and interesting look at "the old days" - the 1890's - in New York City. It couldn't be more different from Daniel Boone in almost every way.

Were any of the same people on the Newbery Committee three years later, when Boone won? Did they think that Daniel Boone was a good "boy story" and that Roller Skates was a good story for girls? It's really hard for me to imagine any of the same people selecting these two books for an award.

Anyway, about Roller Skates. Like many of the other historical fiction winners (especially the older ones, like Adam of the Road and The Dark Frigate), I don't think that a lot of kids today would really enjoy this book. I suspect that they would be bored, and the story isn't really exciting enough to keep them going through the descriptions of pongee pinafores, hansom cabs, penwipers, and puppet theatre - though I really enjoyed it a great deal (despite having to Google pongee, which turns out to be a kind of unbleached cloth, and guimp, which is a type of ribbon decoration).*

It's a shame that more kids won't read it, though, because Roller Skates really has a lot to recommend it. The main character, Lucinda, is a strong-willed, energetic, free-thinking girl, who takes to her year of "orphanage" (her parents are in Italy for her mother's health) with more liberal caretakers as a time of "free, joyous vagabondage" (p. 59). She gleefully takes this opportunity to explore outside traditional constraints of gender and social class:
For ten years life for Lucinda had been systematic. At almost any waking hour of it she could have pointed finger at the clock and said: It is time for this or that. Aunt Emily had brought Lucinda's mother up on System, Duty, and Discipline; these were for Aunt Emily the three Rs of living.

...Life beyond the brownstone front, two flights up and beyond, was delightfully higgledy-piggledy as to System; and Duty and Discipline had become pale, thin creatures that no longer cast shadows except on Saturdays - from four o'clock on. Saturday was dedicated to Aunt Emily and sewing. Lucinda buttoned up her fortitude and her best manners, when she buttoned her best pinafore, made of white French lawn, Hamburg edging, and sleeveless. It was a step up in the world above the pongee (p. 47-48).
See what I mean about the possibility of grabbing the interest of your average 5th grade boy? Slim at best. However, if you've got a kid (or an adult) who likes Little Women, you might have better luck getting them engrossed in Lucinda's adventures with an Italian grocer's son, an Irish cab driver, a poor violinist and his family, and her puppet production of The Tempest.

The only part that struck me as a little "off" in Roller Skates was Lucinda's relationship with the "heathen Chinee" wife of a wealthy (and somewhat scary) businessman. Spoilers below the picture (one of the modern reprint covers of Roller Skates - and isn't the original cover above much classier? Does anyone know if these later reprints include Valenti Angelo's lovely line drawings?).


"Princess Zayda", as Lucinda calls her, ends up unexpectedly murdered - Lucinda actually discovers her body. We never find out who killed her (although it was implied that her husband was jealous and possibly abusive), and we never find out if anyone was arrested for her murder. The whole chapter didn't really fit in with the rest of the story, and this loose end (and Lucinda's rather stoic acceptance of it all) bothered me. Plus, the slightly condescending view of other ethnic groups and social classes (not too surprising, given that Roller Skates was written in 1936) is most pronounced in the chapters that mention Mrs. Isaac Grose. Well, and when Lucinda goes on about those cute bambinos that just keep being born. Still, this is a pretty minor part of the book, and something that can be discussed with young readers (just like the same kind of sections in Caddie Woodlawn).

Otherwise, Roller Skates was an enjoyable if rather old-fashioned read, and one I'm glad to have done.
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*I never did figure out what kind of food pettyjohn is - there are too many people with Pettyjohn as a surname to Google it, and I couldn't find it listed in any historic food glossaries or discussions. Whatever it is, Lucinda ate it with toast and cocoa. Please leave a comment if you know what it is!

2 comments:

The Squeaky Cyclist said...

There are an amazing amount of fake virus scan sites associated with the keyword "pettyjohn", but I found mention of a Pettyjohn Breakfast Cereal Company on a genealogy site at:

http://genforum.genealogy.com/pettyjohn/messages/73.html

CStalcup said...

SPOILER HI! My daughter and I just finished reading this book. It was great! My daughter was a bit bored at times, confused why they never called the police to help Zayda, didn't catch on that Trinket died, until I explained the seagulls, but we learned a lot. I personally cried at the end. How is Lucinda related to Miss Peters and Miss Nettie (if at all)? Who is writing the introduction? THANKS!