When Lucinda's parents leave her in New York City to take the Italian air for the sake of her mother's health, the 10-year-old girl sees this not as an occasion of sorrow, but as an opportunity for adventure and new experiences. She straps on her roller skates, and wanders the streets of the Capital of the World with the zest of a child.
New York City was surely a different place in the 1890s than it is now, but even so many adult readers will doubtless be surprised and perhaps unsettled at the free reign Lucinda's guardians give her. She goes everywhere alone, a short-haired little girl who talks freely to strangers of all kinds—adults and children, bums and street vendors, mysterious women and scowling men.
She never meets heroin addicts or prostitutes, but she does make friends with a woman who ends up murdered by her suspicious husband, and a few remarks from her guardians suggest the danger of running into the seediest of characters. But as one of the Misses Peters says, Lucinda's summer was spent "in the lap of the gods."
Lucinda looks at everything like a fairy tale, and is uniformly lighthearted. She goes from one newfound friend to another doing good deeds, playing pranks, and generally having a good time and spreading cheer. She avoids Aunt Emily, whose severity ranges between unnecessary and cruel. She makes friends with Tony, the pushcart boy, and Mr. Gilligan, an old Irish cabbie, among many others. She stages a puppet play rendition of The Tempest, befriends an Asian woman, and, of course, roller skates.
Two of Lucinda's friends stand out from the rest: Trinket, and Uncle Earle. Trinket is the frail 4-year-old daughter of a brilliant yet poverty-stricken Eastern European violinist. Lucinda loves the child immediately, and while Trinket's parents are very private people, they accept Lucinda as their beloved daughter's older sister. This family figures prominently in many of the book's vignettes.
Uncle Earle is Aunt Emily's jovial, redhaired, bearded husband, and one of the best characters in the book (or any other children's book, for that matter). He teaches Lucinda to love Shakespeare, takes her to musical plays, rescues her from the clutches of Aunt Emily (who he knows how to handle), and helps her build a small theater.
Together, these two clip Lucinda's wings a little. Not so much that she can't fly, but just enough to keep her gliding closer to the ground and nearer to the hearts of her friends and loved ones. She grows gradually from a lightheaded, careless child to one that is wiser, more kind, and more full-hearted.
Each chapter is essentially a vignette taken from the year of Lucinda's "orphanhood," and is based on similar experiences of the author, Ruth Sawyer. Lucinda isn't exactly a tomboy, even though Tony is one of her best friends; she's just exuberant, full of life, and blessed with a vivid imagination. She uses all three to keep out of trouble, cause trouble, and help others.
At first, it seems like nothing bad can ever happen to Lucinda, partly because she's lucky and partly because she has such an upbeat attitude that even bad events don't keep her down. Then, abruptly, near the end of the novel she encounters death in two very stark ways, and even Lucinda is thrown off balance.
By the epilogue, she's lost just about everyone. Not only to death, but also to changing circumstances, maturation, the return of her parents, and marriage. She wishes she could stay ten forever, but the first chapter clearly indicates that her wish doesn't come true. Her wish is clear, though: without the change of years, there is no change in one's happiness or ability to cope.
Roller Skates is a rather strange book. It isn't near as safe as most children's fiction, and there is no clear moral by the end. Ruth Sawyer has an eccentric writing style peppered liberally with period slang and idiom that can be difficult to grasp at first, and it's ultimately unclear whether Lucinda learns a lot or just a little.
More perplexing is the fact that there's clearly a strong Christian inluence behind the story, but all direct references to Jesus, the sacraments, preaching, or other religious language are carefully avoided. Readers are even supposed to find Lucinda's lack of piety somewhat funny, though she does go to church and believe in God.
Then again, these are pretty indicative of 1890s New York culture, and urban society in general. While there is a strange fairy tale element constantly at work in this narrative, there's also a pervasive realism that shows not only how cities were beginning to change, but how the people in them were adapting to those changes.
Change is probably the predominant theme of Roller Skates, which is ultimately that most common of children's novel—the coming of age tale. Yet in so many ways, Sawyer's book is anything but common, and virtually any grown reader with an open mind and heart will find Lucinda quite as lovable and quite as frustrating as any real child, while most children will find in her at last someone with whom they can identify as they make that mystifying journey from childhood to the realm beyond.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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