Monday, March 30, 2009

The Girl Who Ran Away (1969) (aka Charley)

also published as The Girl Who Ran Away
Joan G. Robinson, il. Prudence Seward
1969, Coward-McCann

"I'll run away," said Charley, "that's what I'll do."

Charley, whose real and unused name is Rowan, is a prickly, rambunctious and imaginative girl who likes to draw and hear the story of Lizzie Scrotten.

The story of Lizzie Scrotten was a story of the bad old days, when poor people starved, and people without homes went tramping from workhouse to workhouse.

This beloved story is told and retold, patiently, by the family cook. Charley's favorite part is when Lizzie is alone at night, homeless, and walking along looking longingly into the lighted windows of the cozy homes she's passing. A middle child trapped between a clever older brother and a sickly little brother, Charley dreams of being alone and outcast, set apart.

When she's sent to stay with a favorite aunt, Charley's thrilled - until she reads a note not meant for her eyes, and realizes that aunt Louie hadn't wanted her to come. Betrayed, Charley gets off the train early and sneaks into town instead of going to Louie's house. Finding an old chicken house, Charley seizes on her chance to become Lizzie Scrotten. And for a season, the protected middle-class child becomes a free-spirited child of poverty - albeit a somewhat romantic, Boxcar Childrenesque poverty.

It was dawn when she woke properly. The sky was lightening and the air was full of the twitter of birds. She sprang up and scrambled through the hedge, which was hung with great glistening spiders' webs.

Sleeping in her chicken house and drinking from a garden hose in a nearby yard, Charley keeps a watchful eye on her aunt's house and plays different roles with different people she encounters - a gypsy with a local child, a mute with a shopkeeper, a cripple with a minister - for a variety of reasons both practical and playful. Her most meaningful encounter, though, is with a young man who is also running away, and the conversation they have about it. When a crisis comes, though, Charley discovers that she can't be Lizzie any longer.

A cheerful, interesting read that draws its power from the mundane-turned-fascinating details of Charley's hobo life, and her quick, deep store of tales to spin for the strangers in her aunt's village.

About the author
Most famous for her picture books about Teddy Robinson.

Other books
When Marnie Was There
The Adventures of Uncle Lubin
The Dark House of the Sea Witch
Dear Teddy Robinson
Teddy Robinson Himself
Mary-Mary Stories
Meg and Maxie
The Summer Surprise

Similar Stories
The Boxcar Children Gertrude Chandler Warner 1924
Roller Skates Ruth Sawyer 1936

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Witches' Bridge (aka The Mystery Of The Witches' Bridge)
Barbee Oliver Carleton
1967, Holt, Rinehart And Winston

Out of the night, and the fog, and the marsh, these three, Doom shall come for thee.

Dan Pride is a 13-year-old orphan who's spent the three years since his parents' deaths as a lonely, largely unwanted resident of English boarding schools. Finally, his reclusive Uncle Julian has agreed to take him into the family house near Boston, a property set in salt marshes which has been in the family for generations. Dan is looking forward to being part of a real family again, but his hopes are crushed by Billy Ben, the jolly handyman who tells him of the family curse. Long ago, the town accused Samuel Pride and his wife of witchcraft; they were executed, but not before Samuel laid a curse on the town that even today lingers in the locals' minds. Now, Pride's Point is as isolated mentally as physically, subject to superstitions and suspicions that have embittered his uncle and explain why Dan's own father fled the place for Europe.

Dan, struggling with the loneliness and local hostility, learning who he can trust and what he will believe, finds that family history is both a burden and a link. Desperate to make his distant uncle like him, he determines he'll solve a long-festering mystery at Pride. Years earlier, the curse had struck again when Julian's father had died on a foggy night in the marshes, supposedly on his way back from making peace with their arch-enemies, the Bishop family. The Bishops said he'd never come; the money he'd been carrying was never found. The death had reinvigorated the legend, and turned Julian into an oddity.

He peered through the rain, eager for his first glimpse of the great salt marshes. "What's Pride's Point like?" he asked curiously.

"It's self-sufficient, like the old places, with its own orchard and gardens and such. And it stays the same while the world keeps changing.

The house and holdings of Pride's Point, usually simply called Pride, exert a powerful pull on the story, a sense of place reminiscent of Moorethwaite Manor or Green Knowe. Ancestral homes, the magic of long-standing occupation, the sense of a history shared through the roots of plants and set of stones. It's not a matter of who has the big ancestral house, though; Lamie, the hermit, expresses it most plainly:

My mother made such ointment as this, and her mother before her... They have not gone, you know, theose good people. You see them in the ditches dug in the marsh, and in the cellar holes below... and you see them in the white roses that grow wild now, on all our islands. They brought the roses with them when they came, three hundred years ago and half a world away... They are still here, our first people.

A very well-written book with interesting, believable characters and an engrossing plot.

Other Books
The Wonderful Cat Of Cobbie Bean (1957)
The Secret Of Saturday Cove (1961)
Chester Jones (1963)
Benny And The Bear

Friday, March 13, 2009

Enemy Brothers
Constance Savery, il. by Henry C. Pitz
1943, Longmans, Green & Co.

When R.A.F. officer George Ingleford visits his sailor brother Ginger, he happens upon a group of Norweigans who had been picked up while escaping to England. And among the Norweigans is a German prisoner, a 12-year-old Hitler Youth who angrily says his name is Max Eckermann. George, known to his large family as Dym, recognizes with a shock the little brother who was kidnapped 12 years ago. But when Dym lays claim to the boy and takes him home to an English house stuffed with cousins and refugees, the fun begins. Max flatly refuses to believe he's the long-lost Anthony Ingleford, and wages a private war of resistance to convince the family to send him home. He sings a German nationalist anthem in church, breaks the blackout by shining a huge beacon from the roof of the house, and runs away again and again. Dym, stationed at a nearby air base, patiently returns again and again to find him and soothe the ruffled family feathers. Dym realizes that Max is driving everyone to distraction, but he promised his mother on her deathbed that he would find his brother. Also, he has the strong sense of saving Max from the Nazi mentality, a sense he tries to explain to his younger cousins.

He was being slowly poisoned in Germany. He was getting the poisonous teaching that is given to all Germans under Nazi rule... They are being taught that Germany is a master nation with the right to rule the world, trampling down the smaller nations, robbing them, torturing them, turning them into mindless, soulles slaves. They are taught that lies and spying, treachery and cruelty and broken promises don't matter if they are done for the good of Germany. They are taught that they must be mercilessly hard because pity and mercy are only shown by weak fools. That's all poison. It poisons the soul. I couldn't leave Tony to drink it in.

Max, despite his resistance to being Tony - and British - has an unwilling fondness for Dym. And when he finally gets a chance to go back to Germany and the woman he knows as his mother, Dym and his values make it unexpectedly hard for Max to leave.

A well-written and engrossing novel whose characters are slightly quaint but strong and likeable. Some of the imagery is dated and the earnest tone can sound old-fashioned, but it's believable from people in the midst of wondering if the Nazi invasion is really going to suceed - in one chilling moment, a runaway Max contacts a child he knew back home, a child whose parents are double agents now living in England, and the boy responds to the surprise of seeing his little German classmate by asking coolly when did the invasion start? Also impressive is the lack of the smug bullying tone that is unfortunately very common in British children's books from the first half of the 20th century. A very good old book that makes a compelling dilemma out of what should seem like an automatic choice.

Bethlehem Books

Other Books
The Reb And The Redcoats
The Royal Caravan
Joric And The Dragon (1964)
Scarlet Plume (1953)
Blue Fields (1947)
All Because Of Sixpence (1961)
Change With Me (Gateway)
Danny And The Alabaster Box (1949)
Young Elizabeth Green
Breton Holiday
Emeralds For The King (aka Green Emeralds For The King) (1938)
In Apple Alley (1966)
Magic In My Shoes
The Sea Queen
Gilly's Tower (Junior Gateway)
The Strawberry Feast
Welcome, Santza
To The City Of Gold
Dark House On The Moss
Lavender's Tree
Redhead At School
Meg Plays Fair
There Was A Key
Peter Of Yellow Gates
The White Kitling
Tabby Kitten
Thistledown Tony
Yellow Gates
Up A Winding Stair
The Drifting Sands (1971)
The Sapphire Ring
The Silver Angel
The Golden Cap (Gateway Series)
Five Wonders For Wyn (1960)
The City of Flowers
The Sea Urchins
The Good Ship Red Lily (1944)

About the Author
Savery wrote over sixty children's books, and lived to be 101. After taking an English degree at Oxford and a brief stint as a teacher, Savery went home to help her widower father, a clergyman, run his parish. She and her four sisters remained single throughout their lives; three of her sisters also became writers.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Leveller
Jacqueline Dembar Greene
1984, Walker & Company

In 1779 Massachusetts, a young man named Tom Cook lives alone, regarded uneasily by his neighbors. They can't deny he has helped the poorest among them by his 'levelling' activities of stealing from the rich to give to the needy, but there are rumors about Cook, rumors that won't die. It's said that when he was an infant, his mother sold his soul to the devil in order to save his life from a fever. The story has plagued him his whole life, forcing his family to abandon the community of Westborough and their devil-owned son, and leaving even the most kindly neighbors somewhat in fear of him. It's only when Jesse Baxter, a boy whose family is new to the village, comes to see him that Tom realizes how lonely he's been.

"You don't have to be so alone," Jesse offered. "You could make friends with the farmers you've helped. They trust you."

"No, Jess. I won't be accepted in this town unless I stand before the Meeting and confess that the devil's led me to steal and ask the forgiveness of the Meeting. I'll never do it. I'm serving God in my own way and don't need anyone's blessing."

Tom's stubborn, proud and resentful of the minister who bought his family's former home. He may be the perfect New Englander. But he also has a devilish sense of humor, one that bails him out of various human traps and may, in the end, bail him out of his hellish bargain. For the story is true; Beelzebub has bought Tom Cook's soul and is intent on collecting.

A quick, character-first story that blends the stoic blandness of the New England colonial period with the snappish color of a ghost story. Tom's a convincing character, and his enemies are given some depth. The robin hood aspect of the story is less believable, and rather glossed over, as is Jesse's character.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Girl Across The Way
(originally: The Cat Across The Way)
Ann Huston, il. John Fernie
1968, Scholastic Book Services

10-year-old Lacey is miserable in her new life in Cleveland. She misses her small-town home, she misses her best friend Pam, and she misses her pony. The city is ugly and unfamiliar, the school big and confusing, and her new friendship with fellow horse-nut Rosette is bumpy. But her father's old job in Three Corners is gone, and her family must stay in the city. Slowly, Lacey acclimates. And strangely, it is the big yellow cat she watches out her bedroom window who helps give her unhappy troubles a good resolution.

Nicely written and always in character as the point-of-view of a little girl. One of the last generation of those older children's books focused on what were once considered normal child concerns - friendships, family, neighborhood - before we entered the era of 'problem novels.'

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I think it's only fair to mention first that I love Noel Streatfeild's books. Their heroines combine the tough-as-nails mental attitude of boarding school inmates with the hard-working ethic of dancers, and each one was filled with that mesmerizing and uniquely British talent for making horrific food and brutal living conditions sound utterly desirable. For the ultimate in this, see The Little Princess.

Dancing Shoes (originally published as Wintle's Wonders)
Noel Streatfeild, il. Richard Floethe
1957, Collins (U.K.) - 1958, Random House (U.S.)
Edition shown - Dell Yearling, 1981

When Rachel and Hilary Lennox's mother dies, they are taken in by their uncle Tom and his wife, Cora, who runs a London stage school for children. The talented little ballerina Hilary instantly hits it off with Cora, but quiet Rachel seems to rub her aunt the wrong way from the very beginning. The struggle to fit in and adapt to their new circumstances is complicated by their tempermental and spoiled cousin Dulcie, who is the uncontested star of the school.

One of the 'shoe' books from Streatfeild and one of several books she wrote about children studying the performing arts in professional schools in London, Dancing Shoes stands out by virtue of its look at the low end of the scale. The School of Dancing and Mrs. Wintle's Little Wonders are not aiming at the prestigious theatre and ballet - they're strictly chorus lines, troupes of cute kids with talent. Early on, it's mentioned that the Wonders have appeared on TV and in film - two art forms Streatfeild clearly considers second-class in her other books. Rachel, feeling that her mother wanted Hilary to be a 'real' dancer, ie, a ballerina, is frustrated by this divide - she wants Hilary to become a student at The Royal Ballet School, not learn to do high kicks in a chorus line. Hilary, on the other hand, adores the Wonders' costumes and lifestyle and longs to be old enough to get a license to work.

"But suppose I don't want to be made something of?"

Rachel's unhappy question is an attack on her aunt's incessant attempt to make her over into an attractive Wonder, and even the sympathetic Pursey - co-owner of the school and cozy housemother to the entire place - scolds her for her resistance. It is a standard Streafeild answer to make her misfit child a star at some other art; you get the sense that if they hadn't discovered their niche so speedily, they'd have been obligated to force themselves awkwardly into the spot chosen by their guardian.

One oddity, placing the book in an earlier era and different place, is the recurring mention of Hilary's being adopted. Initially, she's not included in Tom and Cora's offer to take in Rachel, and it's mentioned several times that she's not a 'real' sister. The children are adamant that they are sisters, but the adults seem a bit hung up on the adoption thing.

About the Author
The White Gaunlet - website about Noel Streatfeild

About the illustrator
Born in Germany, came to the U.S. in 1928. His wife Louise Lee Floethe was a writer. He also illustrated Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, Circus Shoes, Theatre Shoes, Family Shoes, Tennis Shoes, and The Stranger In Primrose Lane.

In Print?
Available at Random House

Other books (shoe books)
Ballet Shoes
Tennis Shoes
Circus Shoes
Party Shoes
Movie Shoes
Skating Shoes
Dancing Shoes
New Shoes
Traveling Shoes