Thursday, September 23, 2010

Nancy and Plum

I am very fortunate to live within a pleasant five-minute stroll from our local library. In addition to it being a lovely old building, it has a great children's room with lots of toys and activities for our little boy, and an interlibrary loan system that Ickie and I can't live without. Another great perk is the free advance reader copies of children's books and novels. The library simply asks that if you take one home, write a brief review and return it to the library. I've had some winners and losers, but the other week I stumbled upon a gem: an updated edition of Betty MacDonald's Nancy and Plum.

Originally published in 1952, Nancy and Plum is the story of two precocious orphan sisters, inspired by the bedtime tales MacDonald used to make up for her sister when they were children. Nancy and Plum's parents died when they were little, and their careless uncle abandoned them in a wretched orphanage run by the horrid, heartless, stingy headmistress, Mrs. Monday. Nancy and Plum have enough intelligence and humor to make the best of any situation, whether it is being locked up without any food on Christmas Day or being tormented and tattled on by Mrs. Monday's spoiled niece. It's the sort of plot my sister and I used to invent with our dolls. The orphans are charming and hilarious, the sympathetic neighbors are wise and sweet, and the villains are tremendous fun to hate. I read the book from start to finish within 24 hours, laughing and crying simultaneously and often.

It's not just a great story with memorable characters, for MacDonald has a gift with prose. She describes the countryside with beauty and also describes people and situations with memorable detail and poignancy. Jeanne Birdsall, author of The Penderwicks, wrote the introduction to this new edition, and MacDonald's novel is certainly reminiscent of Penderwicks, as well as the novels of L.M. Montgomery.

Here's an excerpt.

After Mrs. Campbell had gone with the lamp, Nancy said, "Doesn't Mrs. Campbell smell good. Like cinnamon and fresh bread."

Plum said, "She's beautiful."

Nancy said, "And Mr. Campbell is very handsome."

Of course they weren't at all. Mrs. Campbell was round and cozy with sparkling brown eyes, curly brown hair and rosy cheeks but she wasn't beautiful. Mr. Campbell was tall and thin with merry blue eyes and stiff sandy hair but he wasn't handsome. They were good and kind however, and oftentimes goodness and kindness cast a glow over people that passes very well for beauty.