Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer was my pick for February’s Newbery Through the Decades challenge, so I’m just a few days late finishing it. It was not for want of desire to read this delightful story; it was for want of time. Most days the only time I really have to read is when I crash into bed, which is far too late most nights, so I don’t get more than four or five pages read before I have to call it a night. I was highly motivated to read this novel because I absolutely adore Maggie Rose, Her Birthday Christmas, which we read aloud for the first time this past Christmas. I KNEW I’d enjoy anything she wrote. Well, I was right!
Wikipedia says that it’s a “fictional autobiography,” and I can believe that–Sawyer writes such a unique tale about a ten year old girl spreading her wings in New York City during the l890s that it reads like a story by someone who actually lived it. Lucinda Wyman is the protagonist–a child of affluent parents who is left under the care of a school teacher while her parents sail off to Europe for her mother’s health. Lucinda makes the most of what she calls “joining the orphanage.” She sees the city on her roller skates, with the understanding that no place is off limits to her as long as she leaves a note for her guardians alerting them to her whereabouts and is home by 5:30. She makes friends with an Italian boy whose father runs a fruit stand, a police officer, a hansom cab driver, the daughter of stage actors, various and sundry residents of an apartment building, and the list goes on to include even William Shakespeare. Lucinda’s life is one adventure after another, but this is really just a book about life, for these are adventures as seen through the eyes of a ten year old girl. Along the way she encounters heartbreak. I won’t lie: I was even shocked at some of the things that transpired in the story. Since I did not live in NYC in the 1890s, I cannot say whether or not it’s a realistic portrayal of what life was like, but I tend to believe it is. Despite the ugliness of real life, Lucinda views the world through keen, optimistic, and unjaded eyes, and we are the better for having viewed it with her.
What I really want to say about this book is this: Lucinda gets to live life the way I imagine children would most benefit from living it–with little adult interference and much freedom. In the absence of her parents and with only weekly contact with her overly fastidious aunt, Lucinda has such freedom to explore and make friends and just BE. It makes me really think about how much freedom I give my own children, and it makes me want to give them more. She is not without caring and concerned adults in her life, but she is without the constraints of always having to live up to the expectations of the adult world. That is a beautiful thing. A lot of my thoughts on this are informed by the “professional development” I do as a homeschooling mama. I’m in a season now of “diving deep” (to borrow a Julie Bogart-ism) into educational philosophy and trying to figure out what I really think about parenting and education. I’m reading a lot about various philosophies and ideas about education through The Homeschool Alliance, and reading Roller Skates gave me a lot more to think about.
I dog-eared over twenty pages in this average-length children’s novel that contain passages that I love. I won’t share them all (you’re welcome 😉 ), but I will share a select few.
This, from chapter one about the congenial living arrangement Lucinda has with Miss Peters:
Like the bottom dropping out of a cheese-box, the dos and don’ts dropped out of the daily vocabulary that had heretofore confronted Lucinda. There were certain things discussed by Miss Peters, and agreed upon mutually, as necessary for the peace of mind and welfare of the three of them. So on the table beside Lucinda’s desk was placed a pad and pencil. After she had returned from school and had had her dinner, Lucinda was to write down what she proposed to do for the afternoon. So could Miss Peters know of her whereabouts, and incidentally, judge how Lucinda’s afternoons were being spent, and with whom. She was always to be home by five-thirty.
In their turn, Miss Peters and Miss Nettie were to write of their plans, so that Lucinda could know. “It’s an elegant arrangement,” said Lucinda. “Everybody as free as air, and yet all of us polite about it. How ever did you think it up, Miss Peters?”
I love this exchange between her and her uncle Earle regarding her friendships with all sorts of people in NYC:
“Snoodie [Uncle Earle’s pet name for Lucinda], do you know that the scientists think they’ve discovered something very wonderful–something they call an antitoxin for diphtheria. The punch it into you, and instead of your getting all choked up and dying with the disease you get well. A remarkable discovery, if it works.”
He picked up his knife and fork and went on with his roast guinea-hen. Lucinda wondered what diphtheria had to do with Tony Coppino. But Uncle Earle had a way of stopping and then going on again, like a balky horse. So she waited. A moment and the knife and fork went down: “You’re getting a sort of vaccination this year. If you don’t know it now, you’ll find it out some day. But it’s going to keep you from dying of a terrible disease.”
Lucinda was filled with amazement. She put down her knife and fork, even though she was eating guinea-hen for the first time in her life and liked it tremendously. “What is the disease?” she asked solemnly.
“Snobbishness–priggishness–the Social Register. I don’t care a d[—] what you call it Snoodie, as long as you get your antitoxin before the disease gets you.”
There’s so much more to share, including one beautiful episode in which Lucinda and her friend Tony produce their own version of Twelfth Night, complete with gorgeous set and intricate puppets. (I LOVE this part.) The word I would use to describe this story is rich. It is well-deserving of its Newbery Medal of 1937. Highly, highly Recommended.
- Review of Maggie Rose, Her Birthday Christmas by Ruth Sawyer at Hope Is the Word
- Review of Journey Cake, Ho! by Ruth Sawyer–1954 Caldecott honor book illustrated by Robert McCloskey’s–at Hope Is the Word
- Wikipedia article about Ruth Sawyer (fascinating!) in which I learned that she was Robert McCloskey’s mother-in-law!