Noel Streatfeild, il. Peggy Fortnum
1970, Random House
When young Margaret is sent to an orphanage in 1900
"One of those independent children," she agreed. "It will take some time before she is molded to our shape. Send her to me when she comes in from school tomorrow. She shall have ten strokes on each hand. That will teach her who is the ruler in this establishment."
Good luck, cruel Matron. Margaret is a sturdy, outspoken child whose remorseless imagination and strong sense of her own story - she was left on a doorstep as a baby, with fine baby clothes and a secret benefactor who sent gold to her caretakers every year for ten years - makes her impervious. She also has an ally in Lavinia Beresford, a fellow orphan who has gained employment in a big house as a scullery maid, and her two little brothers, Peter and Horatio, who are fellow inmates at St. Luke's.
Matron is a standard big, evil woman. Lavinia and her brothers are the standard upper-class children fallen upon hard times and Margaret is a standard chutzpah-laden upstart. Yet despite the cliches, it's a good, satisfying read. Perhaps because of kid-lit gems like this:
In the kitchen there was a cupboard called "The Housemaid's Cupboard." This was always bulging with snacks: game, cold chicken, cold meats, as well as fruit puddings and cakes. Any of the staff could help themselves from that cupboard whenever they felt hungry. Lavinia took a plate and piled on it a rich assortment of food. Then, fetching a knife and fork, she sat down at the table and ate the lot.
The book pays subtle honor to the classic orphan stories; there's more than a hint of Mary, of Anne, of Sarah Crewe. But Margaret is a 20th century heroine, albeit early; at the end, when she's offered the standard dream outcome for an orphan - a rich ready-made family - she reacts:
Her chin shot into the air. "Thank you very much but I don't want to be anyone's daughter. I was not found like an ordinary baby. I had three of everything all marked with crowns and each year lots of money was paid to keep me. I have friends, Hannah and the rector, and I've got a stamp so I am writing to ask them to come and see me act Little Lord Fauntleroy."
This book has a sequel, Far To Go, and was made into a television miniseries by the BBC in 1973. This is available on TV.com
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