Ruth Sawyer: Roller Skates

Roller Skates[ ROLLER SKATES ] By Sawyer, Ruth ( Author )May-06-1986 Paperback - Ruth Sawyer

I can understand why this novel was so loved. Lucinda is a 10-year-old tomboy, who is given an enviable amount of freedom one year in the 1890s New York City while her parents travel abroad. Lucinda, who dislikes stuffy traditional girls, spends her free time exploring the city on her roller skates. She meets new people and comes up with great schemes -- one of which, endearingly, is to launch a puppet production of <i>The Tempest</i>. Despite her pollyannaism, it's easy to love Lucinda and her joyful drive to wriggle out from under the weight of proper society. Although, it must be admitted that it's so easy largely because Lucinda is unfailingly polite, helpful, compassionate, open-minded, generous, and just. So she's not exactly subversive, just perhaps more like what an adult would want a 10-year-old girl to be than most actual girls are.

Even from its point of view in 1936, this novel is set in "old New York" -- you know, back when a kid could just be a kid and people took the time to stop and talk to each other. Not like today, when everyone is in such a rush and everything is so dirty and full of crime. I think this pressing nostalgia was the main source of irritation I had with the book. Perhaps depicting the past as oh-so-golden was a calculated appeal to the adult who is reading this book aloud to a child (or grandchild), but I found it grating. Also, there were many details, like the clothing (referred to as "bib-and-tuckers" and "pongee pinafores"), which seemed to be meant more for nostalgic adult readers than for the children this book claims to be aimed at.

A few aspects of the book were difficult for me, most noticeably ethnicity and race. Irish people are twinkly and charming, Italians are spicy and hyperprocreative, and African Americans...oh, no. I choked on the passage about "black Susan":

<blockquote>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.</blockquote>

Um, that needs some unpacking, right? Nope, on to the next adventure!

Fortunately for us, we decided to stop reading this book before the murder (!!!) occurs. My co-reader found the story tedious and bland, which is what happens when a book tries to convince the reader that the past was more wholesome than the world they know. Kids today have no attention span, I tell you.

There is much to like about this book, but also much to avoid. Full enjoyment may depend on being able to consider the period in which it was written, which isn't a skill most children would have. Given the wide range of truly excellent children's books that we have to choose from, I can't recommend making the time for this one, unless you are exploring the Gilded Age in literature or looking for a discussion of racism in the 20th Century.