There was a time, not so very long ago, when I was not familiar with the Melendy family. Sure, I had heard them mentioned by friends, and they sounded like a nice enough family. But my life, I thought, was full. Ooops.
For those that don’t know about the Melendys, they are the center of a series of four books by Elizabeth Enright: The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. Frankly, part of my intrigue was also based on the fact that Enright is a neice of Frank Lloyd Wright. But though these books have been mentioned to me with loving affection for years, I just had never gotten around to reading them (curses to the too-long to-read list!)
And then I finally read Gone-Away Lake and fell in love. So, it seemed only natural to eventually get to the Melendy family. I spent a good chunk of New Year’s Eve reading The Saturdays. I was almost (but not really. . .) disappointed when my friend finally arrived that night. I finished it the next day. This past weekend, I dived into The Four-Story Mistake. I am still waiting on the library to send me the last two. A dear friend has also lent Doublefields, which is a memoir/short story combo. So yes, Enright is about to become a much bigger part of this blog.
Here are just a few of the things I love about these books:
1. The kids feel infinitely real. I have known kids like Oliver. And Mona and Rush and Randy.
2. Everybody needs a Cuffy in their life. My grandmother lived with us throughout my childhood, and she and Cuffy definitely share some similiarities.
3. Their adventures!! Randy discovers that an “old Elephant” actually has a story worth hearing–and is a good friend to have. Oliver runs away to the circus (sorta). They put on shows!
4. They have fabulous homes. First, a brownstone with an amazing attic. Then, the Four-Story Mistake, complete with a secret room. They summer at a light house.
5. The books are downright funny. And charming. And the writing is simply luminous.
There’s so much more, but I have a feeling I’ll be referring to these books often.
From a history perspective, they’re set right in the midst of WWII. Even better, they were published during the war, so Enright isn’t writing with the gift of hindsight. In The Saturdays (published in 1941), Hitler is definitely on their minds and they’re definitely aware of what’s going on in the world. At one point, Randy asks Cuffy: “What was it like when the world was peaceful, Cuffy?’ ‘Ah,’ said Cuffy, coming up again. ‘It seemed like a lovely world; anyway on top where it showed. But it didn’t last long.”
By The Four-Story Mistake (published 1942), the war is, as expected, a much bigger part of their lives. The kids decide to put on a play to raise money for war bonds. Mona has a complete plan of things they can do to help–save paper and metal, practice first aid (this part made me giggle a bit), knit, and buy Defense Bonds. Of course, with not much allowance, they have to do something extra special to raise the money. Even after the Big Show (which is a delightful success!), the bond issue comes up again and again as the kids end up with extra jobs–and the cash to buy more bonds.
But what’s so wonderful about all of this (from the history nerd perspective) is that there is no explanatory note about what a war bond is at the back of the book. There are no extra insertions of the authorial voice to explain what’s going on. This was a current book, and the first crop of readers knew exactly what was going on. And yes, the cynic in me thinks that perhaps “The Show” chapter was put in there to be inspirational for young readers during the war. However, the me that in the crush phase of a new literary relationship is pretty sure that’s not the case at all. But even if it was, it’s done so well and so smoothly that it’s not the slightest bit jarring or preachy. These books are wonderful examples of those books that are published as contemporary and survive to become historical.
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