This is a poignant, charming, and very sweet little book. It is technically classified as a children's book, but it will touch the hearts of
children of any age. It is the story of five siblings growing up in Victorian England, narrated by the second oldest boy, whose name we never know. It is
about life perceived as a child, and yet. . . it has the quality of an older adult reminiscing about his childhood. Perhaps that is what makes it appealing,
no matter what your age.
Tragically, though, I wonder if modern children could relate at all. How many today could imagine life without TV, cell phones, computers and computer games. . .? I certainly can. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, my time was spent in the same blissful imaginary world as these children. When I was alone, I played with my dolls and paper dolls, my collection of fishing tackle (that was my dad's contribution), and made use of the great outdoors to inspire my creativity. When I was with friends, we camped out (our tent was a bedspread thrown over the clothesline), played dress-up, and created a grocery store made up of food boxes and empty cans meticulously washed without losing the labels. It was awesome, you know. I pity the kids today who will never understand what it means to play.
The creative imagination of these five children was unstoppable!. The open road was an invitation for bears, Indians, pirates, or Lancelot and his Knights (which was a pretty big deal to Victorian kids). When they learned about Jason and the Argonauts, they weren't sure they wanted to admit him into their circle. That is, until they found Harold, the youngest, in the pig trough, rowing with a shovel. They decided to do one better, and snuck out down the stream in Farmer Larkin's boat. They went far enough into strange lands to meet Medea. She was willing to play until her aunt started screaming "Lucy" and she was sent inside. Jason and crew headed for home.
The five siblings had no parents—they lived with their aunt and uncle whom they referred to as The Olympians. Their opinion of adults was not favorable; they were dry, boring, strict and sometimes cruel, and certainly not loving or affectionate. I guess that was the disadvantage of growing up in Victorian England. Occasionally, however, they found adults who broke the mold. Or maybe the kids had a biased opinion that was a little harsher than it should have been. In any case, many of their excursions, it was claimed, were borne out of a need to escape.
The book is divided into short little chapters, which seem to cover about a year in the life of this family. Each one describes a particular experience—a little story in itself. In addition to their adventures, some stories are just touching observations. In one, little Charlotte is playing with her dolls, trying to tell them a the story of Alice in Wonderland. But Jerry keep falling over against Rosa, making Charlotte very angry. But then the dog comes and snatches him away, putting an end to Jerry.
In another, our narrator has taken off by himself, walking on a special road. Miss Smedley, their tutor, had said "All roads lead to Rome," so he was wodering if he could arrive there by walking. He doesn't, but the next best thing happens—he meets an artist who actually lives in Rome. They have a nice long conversation about a special city where anyone can do or be what they want, and live in whatever house they want and not get blamed for stuff they didn't do. They agree to meet again, maybe in Rome, or their imaginary city. The little boy is so excited because he has actually found an adult who understands him.
And speaking of Miss Smedley, the children are so thrilled that she is actually leaving. "Exit Tyrannus" is the name of the chapter, and they have all planned how they will celebrate, like flying a flag and setting off a cannon. That is, until the day she actually leaves. She cries, Charlotte cries, and they all feel sad and pretend to make excuses on why they aren't celebrating.
And added throughout to these lovely stories is the magnificent artwork of one of my favorite American artists/illustrators—Maxfield Parrish.
In all, this is a very enjoyable book, whether you are young or young at heart. It would be great for English teachers, too!
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