Ruth Sawyer (1937)
CAUTION: Murder and death of a child occur in this story
Read to: 1st - 3rd grade
Read independently: 4th - 5th grade
Roller Skates is the story of Lucinda - a year in her life.
Things are set up fuzzily but it seems Lucinda's parents have older children and Lucinda came along much later and unexpectedly. When she is about ten they go off for an extended time in Europe, prescribed by a doctor for health reasons, and leave her in the care of Miss Peters - whose official relationship is never clearly defined. It seems she's a teacher at Lucinda's school, or maybe Lucinda's teacher or maybe she just works at the school. She may also run a boarding house or live in one or near one. If I were using this story to study life as a ten year old in New York City in the 1890s maybe more careful reading would have produced the specifics. However, casual fuzzy reading does not detract from the enjoyment. On page 48 we read, "There had been two faultless, best-mannered Saturday since Lucinda had joined the orphanage." Yet we never see any other unchaperoned children and, really, few kids at all where Lucinda lives.
Before the first chapter there is a three page Introduction to Lucinda. She is talking to someone in their apartment window but it is never clear who. Whomever it is - Lucinda has previously given them her journal that she kept the summer her parents were away. One could assume it is Miss Peters - although I flipped to the back and saw no mention of her leaving the journal. This introduction though, sets up the story with an omniscient narrator - as if the narrator is reading the journal.
Each chapter ends with one or two entries from Lucinda's journal. The year is always 189_ - I don't know why.
Chapter 1 is a bit of the history and premise of the book. This is the only time we see Lucinda interact with her parents. We are also introduced to the Hansom Cab Driver, an Irishman named Mr. Gilligan.
Chapter 2 introduces us to Miss Brackett who owns the private school where Lucinda attends and Miss Peters teaches. We also meet Patrolman M'Gonegal whom Lucinda sees every day on her way to school.
And so the book continues with one introduction after another until we have a full cast of characters. As is the case with many of the early Newbery winners, what was socially acceptable to write back then wouldn't be dared written the same way today. One example of the casualness of the times is on page 30:
Their house and the house next door was run by a Miss Lucy Wimple, known to the inmates and boarders as 'Miss Lucy, honey,' because that was what her faithful black Susan called her. Black Susan was cook; and she had come up from Virginia with Miss Lucy from the old home to make a living for both of them.
After school and "dinner" Lucinda wrote down her plans for the afternoon so that Miss Peters would know where she was until 5:30 when it was time to come home. Trinket Browdowski lived upstairs and Lucinda liked to "borrow" her. Other times she hung out with her Italian friend, Tony Coppino. Lucinda, although only ten, is a girl who gets a lot accomplished. Like the time she networked her friends to help Tony with a bullying problem.
Lucinda refers to herself as an orphan and uses this status to gain consolation from Louis Sherry who gives her a bag of candy which she gives to Patrolman M'Gonegal and asks him to go round the Coppino fruit stand and scare the kids that take the fruit on Tony's watch.
Domino plots like this show the book requires a bit more attention and recall than a Ramona book, but it would not surprise me if Beverly Cleary took her inspiration from this few year period of Newbery winners (Caddie Woodlawn, Roller Skates & Thimble Summer). Lucinda is a charismatic little girl but always respectful, considerate, helpful, generous and giving. She is also hard-working and industrious and, at one point, gets two jobs to earn money for Christmas presents. She works as both a dog walker and English teacher.
Religion plays a small part in this story. In a journal entry at the end of the second chapter Lucinda writes that her mom told her she had to go to church or Sunday school so she went back to her old church since mom didn't specify a location. Aunt Emily was upset that Lucinda didn't go to the church Emily had switched the to. Lucinda observes, "She'll keep it up until mama comes home but I'm not going to weaken. I was very polite about it, outside; but inside I boiled." (p. 45)
In most situations her good temperament prevails, but Lucinda did not have the proper temperament to succeed at sewing as her cousins did. She tries to keep her temper in check but on page 52 explodes out, "...I wish i was in heaven and you and your everlasting sewing in hell, Aunt Emily! Lucinda did not intend this to be the damning thing it sounded. She had wanted to place Aunt Emily and herself as far apart as possible."
Uncle Earle rescues her and takes her to the library with him where he reads Shakespeare to her. This is another nod to the temperament because I daresay most of today's ten year olds would see Shakespeare as the ultimate bedtime story and be asleep before the first scene played out. Lucinda, however, was so captivated by Shakespeare that it almost became an obsession. She uses all her resources to put on a puppet show of The Tempest. Perhaps 15% of the book relates to the theater, or Shakespeare, or Lucinda's performances - again something that is largely lost on today's children - but not insurmountable.
Shakespeare is not the only thing Lucinda goes over the top with. But she truly seems to have the golden touch - such as in this excerpt from age 68:
Lucinda was all of a dither. She...demanded of Miss peters if she could go on a picnic with Tony...'the same as we have in Maine only in an empty lot instead of on the shore. More exciting. Don't you see?'
Miss Peters did, but not with pleasure. She had made it a point to go around to the fruit-stand on Eighth Avenue and take her own measurements of Tony and his father. She had been satisfied with what she had seen; they were simple, honest Italians, minding their own business. But here was Lucinda asking for a picnic in an empty lot. She knew that a Lucinda, cooped up, forbidden this and that, was bound to be a restless, dissatisfied Lucinda. Nature had succeeded in pumping her full of ideas and energy which ran amuck when not worked off. ... 'Honestly, Lucinda, what do you think your mother would think of picnics in empty lots!'
'Just one picnic and one lot. ...'
'But it isn't the place for little girls to be.'
'Tony isn't a girl. Tony'll look after me if I need looking after. We'll be safe as shuffle bugs.'
'He couldn't look after his stand very well.'
'Then I'll look after him,' Lucinda exploded with laughter. 'Just what do you think would happen to use, Miss Peters? Think of all the plagues of Egypt; there isn't one likely to overtake us in an empty lot.'
Miss Peters was laughing now. 'I guess you're on the lap of the gods this year,' she said.
Little did Miss Peters know that in that vacant lot Tony and Lucinda would befriend Rags-an' Bottles and feed him and worry about him.
Lucinda also worries about little Trinket which caused me to worry about the potential readers of this book. There are some intense scenes towards the bottom of page 163 and through page 167. When Trinket gets ill Lucinda learns about life without money - the Brodowski's don't have money to call a doctor. She visits her own doctor and convinces Doctor Hitchcock to come see Trinket. They nurse her for a long night but she dies anyway. DIES! What kind of an award-winning child's book is this? The Doctor takes Lucinda out in the morning, and tries to break it to her gently. She catches on and takes it well.
The death of the dear, innocent Trinket came after another intense passage that began on page 128. The snow had caused Lucinda to feel cooped up which led to the "week of disgrace" when she took candy to school, passed it out, and one student got caught by Miss Brackett and ratted out Lucinda. On page 129 Miss Brackett says, "This is the first time you've broken a rule in school, Lucinda. Don't let it happen again.
Lucinda did not break another rule. She did something far worse before the week was out. So heinous a crime it was, that no pupil was thought capable of committing it; hence no rule had ever been made to prevent it." Lucinda switched student schedules and sent kids in all the wrong directions. The saga is still going on page 130:
...She tried to turn up to Miss Brackett an eye of innocence. But what was the use? Miss Brackett was like God - you couldn't fool her.
'Did you do it?'
'Yes, Miss Brackett.'
'Go downstairs; put on your things and leave the school. Don't come back until i send for you.'
Lucinda was prepared for anything but this. The old Lucinda had learned to take punishment, chin-up; sermons had been preached at her since her ears had been open. She had been kept home from parties, deprived of her allowance, sent to bed supperless, and had worn a placard on certain days telling of her sins. But all this had happened to the old Lucinda, the Lucinda without roller skates... . Yet even the old Lucinda had never been sent home from school.
She was dumbfounded - humiliated. The misery was like a rock in her stomach.
On her way she runs into Mr. M'Gonegal. he suggests she'll feel better in the company of friends. She goes to visit the princess and wanted to surprise her so goes in without knocking. (p. 132)
The room is dark, "princess crushed among the cushions on the divan". Lucinda yells boo several times with no response. She goes closer and notices the princess is face down; "...She was wearing the loveliest gown she had ever seen her wear, all flowing gold and crimson, and in the back of it stood, straight up, the jeweled hilt of the dagger that should have been hanging on the wall." Lucinda picks up a doll and places it near the princess. Then she goes to the manager of the building - Mr. Spindler. She cried a lot then told what she saw. He asked about who had seen her come in or out and if she might've left anything behind.
...She wanted the manager to go back to the room...to do something for the princess.
Mr. Spindler took bother her hands...
'Listen, Lucinda, something very ugly, very terrible has happened in that room. I don't want you mixed up in it. There is nothing I can do. If I go down there now the police will ask me - why did you go? And I will have to say, because...Lucinda Wyman went there first. That must not happen. Do you understand?'
'Not quite' said Lucinda.
'Then you must take my word for it. ...Mrs. Grose has been killed. There is nothing we can do to help her now. But I know she would not want you troubled about it. (p. 134)
He explains that soon a maid will discover it, report to him, he'll call the police. He give her a cover story / alibi. He doesn't want her to be alone so he gets her to Mr. Gilligan who gets her to his house. Lucinda didn't tell anybody, only wrote in her journal, "It has been a hellious day" and referenced Arabian Nights.
After these two significant deaths, life just kept moving. The book ends the day before her parents are due home as she goes on one last roller skate through the park. Nothing ever came into play about the doll being moved, the wrap around is never unwrapped. It feels like a happy ending but not an ending at all...just like the writer got tired of writing.
I read this book to my son when he was 6y7m and winding down his Kindergarten year. He did not seem the least bit disturbed by all the drama. I think Lucinda's character traits overshadowed any dark spots on this book. But I know some children are much more sensitive than mine and would caution against this book if yours is a sensitive one.