I love children’s books that are about ordinary lives: no magic, no amulets, no spells, just children going about their everyday business. Some of my very favorite books are in this category: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, the Little House books, the Melendy books by Elizabeth Enright — and now, among those, these books about the Cares children, Theodore, Jane, Hubert, and Edie, living their lives in Summerton, Massachusetts, around the turn of the century.
Last year, I read E.C. Spykman’s book A Lemon and a Star, and found it pitch-perfect: she understood better than almost any author I’ve ever read the way children are overwhelmed by incidents adults barely notice, and take events in stride that adults cannot bear. This book is more of the same. Theodore, now fourteen, is completely disgusted with all of female creation. Jane finds herself utterly bewildered because she must be educated (her parents try several methods, from a dreadful French governess to an equally dreadful girls’ school in Charlottesville.) Hubert, the only pacific one of the family, is forced into dancing school by evil Aunt Charlotte. And Edie, the baby, is developing her own personality: loyal, persistent, fierce.
The book gives what it’s really like to be a child in strong doses, which means it’s not all innocence and unicorns, not by a long chalk. The chapter in which Jane goes to school is quite difficult to read, because, having grown up only among her siblings, she doesn’t understand certain kinds of social interaction and can make nothing of the manipulations and machinations of the other schoolgirls. This leaves her lonely and bereft to the point that she is intensely grateful to sprain her ankle. And worst of all is that she doesn’t understand why she must go to school at all:
She urgently wanted someone to know that the things she knew were the right things. Didn’t she know all about the Red House from start to finish, its animals alive and dead, the trap door in the cellar, all the roads of Summerton, the happenings of all the seasons?
But this knowledge is not enough to save her; children are subject to adult whims like learning, and she must suffer for a while.
By the end, all the children have come back to where they belong. Even Theodore has received a much-needed lesson on the valuable female half of the species. But the destination is less important than the journey. I was so delighted to spend some more time in the presence of the Cares children; the fact that there are two more of these books makes me even happier.