My husband and I take turns reading aloud to our kids (now ages 9 and 7) in the evenings. One of us will choose a book and read through it chapter by chapter, while the other does the dishes; when that book is finished, the other parent gets to choose a book, and the first parent does the dishes for a while. I just finished The Hobbit — it had been years since I’d read it myself — and now it’s Dave’s turn.
Dave didn’t read much when he was a kid. No one really guided his reading or showed him things he might like. So — in a reversal of our usual roles — he is usually the one to choose recently-published books and series (like Tony DiTerlizzi’s Wondla books and Lemony Snicket), whereas I am usually the one to choose classics: Oz and The Hundred Dresses and the Little House and The Wind in the Willows and Narnia.
Sometimes, though, I get to do something that feels both new and old. A couple of years ago, when I reviewed The Wild Angel by E.C. Spykman (read it!), biblioglobal recommended The Family From One End Street (1939) by Eve Garnett. I’d never heard of it, but I love good family stories, so I put it on my list.
The Ruggles family live at No. 1 One End Street in Otwell-on-the-Ouse. Their mother is a Washerwoman and their father is a Dustman, and there are seven children.
The neighbours pitied Jo and Rosie for having such a large family, and called it “Victorian”; but the Dustman and his wife were proud of their numerous girls and boys, all-growing-up-fine-and-strong-one-behind-the-other-like-steps-in-a-ladder-and-able-to-wear-each-others-clothes-right-down-to-the-baby, so that really it was only two sets, girl and boy, summer and winter, Mrs. Ruggles had to buy, except Boots.
The book is a wonderful, crammed-full, meandering affair, exactly like the prose you just read. Each chapter follows the adventure of one of the children (if adventure it can really be called; it’s more like day-in-the-life, but life is very full in a large family at One End Street.) Lily Rose tries to help her mother with the ironing, but the iron is too hot, and the artificial-silk petticoat shrinks to doll’s size. The calamity is enormous: how will they pay to replace it? But in this, as in every other chapter, disaster is averted, and Lily Rose goes home with nothing worse than her mother’s scolding and a slice of cake. And so it goes: Kate takes a scholarship but loses her school hat, and demonstrates intelligence and resourcefulness getting another; the twins James and John have day-long adventures for a secret society; the whole family has a Day Out to London. Every moment is both suspenseful and gloriously ordinary.
I have a colleague who is writing an article about the representation of poverty in children’s books. This is a perfect example. This family is living on the very edge of respectability, keeping everyone fed and clothed. Sixpences matter dreadfully. When Kate gets her scholarship, and it pays for tuition but not the uniform, it’s clear she won’t be able to go to school at all, because she’s required to have things like a tennis-racket and shoe bags. But there’s no misery here. Frustration, sometimes; longing for a trip to see family, certainly; sharp reminders of necessity, in almost every chapter. Mr. Ruggles has dreams of finding as much as five pounds in the trash he picks up! But the tone of this book overall is from a child’s point of view: there’s much more interest in adventure and exploration than in the ordinary world of getting enough to eat. Garnett’s skill is that we see a little of both in this book.
There’s at least one more book about the Ruggles that I’ll pursue finding. Does anyone know anything else about Eve Garnett?