I found a nice hardback copy of Ruth Sawyer's Roller Skates this weekend, with a sort-of impressionist cover, but the original Valenti Angelo illustrations inside. I couldn't resist, but then the inventive, intelligent protagonist of this story is irresistible.
I missed this book as a child due to a fixation on animal stories almost exclusively (okay, there were Danny Dunn and Miss Pickerel and Donna Parker and Johnny Tremain), but found it wonderful when I finally picked it up as an adult. I didn't find out until just recently that this novel and its sequel, The Year of Jubilo, were autobiographical.
Lucinda Wyman is a privileged child growing up in 1890s New York City. She loves to read, play guitar, and invent plays with her tabletop theatre, and is generally lonely, as her four brothers are much older than she is and, it is implied, tend to think of her as a pest (this is revealed in more detail in the sequel). When her mother becomes sick with one of those inevitable Victorian illnesses that sent people off to Italy for warm weather to cure them, instead of being left with her autocratic aunt and her "four docile daughters" ("the gazelles," Lucinda calls them), Lucinda is entrusted to the care of one of her schoolteachers from her private girls-only school, and the teacher's sister.
Lucinda can't help making friends wherever she goes. In her first weeks as a temporary "orphan," she befriends Mr. Gilligan, the hansom cab driver who conveys her to her new home; Patrolman McGonigall, the beat cop outside Bryant Park, where she loves to use the titular roller skates (Lucinda never walks anywhere she can skate!); Tony Coppino, an Italian boy who helps his father run the family fruit stand; "Mr. Night Owl," the evening beat reporter for a local paper; and an impoverished couple with a six-year-old daughter nicknamed "Trinket," whom Lucinda takes to her heart.
The story follows Lucinda's year as an "orphan," celebrating the holidays, befriending yet more people—an exotic woman and a little girl whose parents are actors, attending the circus and having the opportunity to ride the elephant, putting on a Twelfth Night play, and "borrowing" Trinket for tea parties. But tragedy also plays a part in Lucinda's orphan year.
Lucinda is a marvelous child, imaginative and loving, despite her relatives' perception of her as a cold, withdrawn person. Her personality sparkles. She reminds me a little of Addie Mills. While her aunt only insults her looks and tries to make her into a little automaton, her friends as well as her Uncle Earle celebrate her individuality and creativity.
The sequel has more of a Victorian plot: a crisis strikes the family and they must move to their summer home in Maine and try to make ends meet with reduced finances. Lucinda wants desperately to be a contributor to the family income, and her brothers, especially the one closest to her in age, tend to discredit her at first. The tone of this book, predictably, is different from Roller Skates, in which Lucinda finds happines in life despite some emotional setbacks. Year of Jubilo is more a story of having to grow up quickly to survive.
Roller Skates is a joy. I am glad that I made the acquaintance of Miss Lucinda Wyman.