Welcome back to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick re-reads Sydney Taylor's 1951 classic about a family of five Jewish girls living on NYC's Lower East Side, All-Of-A-Kind Family'.
Obviously the great tragedy of starting with All-of-a-Kind Family is that I am not going to get to talk about the dress.
You know what dress. It is a white linen dress, and it reaches to the tippy-toes of hook-and-eye leather boots. It has a ruffled, lacy front. It was white. White! Now it is a lovely, warm, buttery brown. It has been hanging in the closet as usual. It cannot be yellowed with age. It is very pretty, but...Why is it light brown? How has this happened????
I'll let you clear all that up in the comments, but as we make our way through the primary texts of our girlhood, I am going to have to do something that pains me profoundly: side with Trey Ellis over Barbara Ehrenreich. (Oh, what the hell. Platitudes was one of my favorite books in my twenties, but you don't side against Barbara Ehrenreich.)
First, you must forgive me, I think, for being staggered at how profoundly these 19th-and-early-20th century works deal entirely with food, petticoats, and chores. Obviously they would not deal with hedge-fund management and the perils of kiddie soccer leagues. Okay. That dispatched, I have to say, no one could be more profoundly untouched by extensive rereads of whatnot-dusting and helping-ma-make-sausaging than I. Because as I make my way through yet another deliriously fetishized vision of household labor ("I want a little washboard and a little tub so I can wash my dolly's clothes", Gertie answered at once), I cannot but reflect that, although I, too, am in need of a little washboard and little washtub so I can wash my dolly's clothes, I never even pick up a Method wipe.
So Barb, no worries! And now we come to the series itself, the wonderful story of Ella, Charlotte, Sarah, Henny, and Gertie, 5 Jewish (what else?) girls growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century — one of whom, I now apprehend, is definitely a lesbian. If I can be chosen for a sec, I have to say that, because no Jews were harmed in the making of this series, this work, is, literally, good for the Jews. And, as much as I like a pogrom-to-DP story (see The Endless Steppe, Number the Stars) it is nice to see how Jews live, too.
Which brings us back to the housework. I had forgotten how strictly Taylor hews to the Dickensian model of providing pretty much one event per chapter, preferably something illustratable. What this means is you can successfully call up the entire text by simply listing the chapter titles. (Since you asked: The Library Lady, Dusting is Fun, Rainy Day Surprise, Who Cares if it's Bedtime?, The Sabbath, Papa's Birthday, Purim Play, Sarah in Trouble, Mama Has Her Hands Full, Fourth of July, Family Outing, Succos, A New Charlie. You're welcome.) We don't have time to cover them all today— I KNOW, I'M SORRY — but, besides Uncle Hyman coming by to eat six-hard boiled eggs and half a loaf of rye spread thickly with butter (uh, DELICIOUS) nothing has ever stuck in my brain quite so much as Mama's method of getting the girls to do a better job dusting the front room: placing buttons for the girls to find in all the hard-to-find spots.
Because I was tortured — TORTURED! — by how once the girls found one button (say, on a table leg) they might leave the rest of the table undusted. (!!!!!!!!) LUCKILY, upon rereading, I realized that Mama was crafty, and, in time, periodically placed a few buttons on one item, or none, or a penny, to prevent just such an eventuality. (Also, did anyone else ever notice that Mama, like Ma, has a china shepardess? Take out the sausage-making, and they are looking clonier and clonier.)
In contrast, I was also quite touched by the image of Pa, at his rag shop, having hands that were so cracked and dirty that the dust seeped in beneath the skin no matter how much he cleans and oils them. How can stamping rags and old books and bums cutting out sturdy pieces of cardboard to replace their hole-y soles seem cozy? It does. Anyway, the rag shop is where we meet Ella's crush, Charlie, who, surrounded by the other Italian, Polish, and Jewish peddlars, is "....different from the others. He was handsome, blond, and blue-eyed, and a good deal younger than most of the peddlars. It was rumored he came from a wealthy family and had a fine education."
Uh...wait, Sydney, no you didn't! Um, okay. I will only forgive you for that brief daven towards the master race because you are always talking about how pretty Mama is and how fine her manners are, and how she is just as pretty as that shiksa Miss Allen, the librarian who turns out to be — spoiler alert! — Charlie's lost love, not that I ever see this coming, even though Miss Allen always has a hint of sadness in her eyes and so does Charlie, and they are the only two of-age singletons in the narrative, and he has been searching for his lost fiancee FOREVER.
Accessing his vast store of shaygets knowledge, Charlie is the person that introduces us, when the entire neighborhood celebrates July 4th, to Roman Candles:
I'm just putting this in here to point out that real Roman Candles look nothing like this illustration and are lame and this fact has killed me for my entire life, and that I just realized it's possible Taylor put this whole chapter ("Independence Day," Ella answered. "It's a holiday all over the country") to show that Jews could, too, assimilate. Taylor, you're killing me.
Whatever, we're also in for more food — a la pig's tail and abalone — that is apparently delicious. As a person of interest, I am in the unique position of declaring that, if you have somehow avoided gefulte fish, stewed fruit, and matzoh balls up until now, this is indisputably so! And when Gertie and Charlotte, like Laura and Mary before them, suck the bits of salty flesh off the skin of a salmon, I can only advise you that, if no one is slaughtering a pig nearby, that is a good way to go.
You should also go to Coney Island circa 1903, the better to plunge into the Atlantic wearing 8 petticoats, holding hands with your sisters, stopping only to get lost and be taken in by an Irish policeman ("Air ye now! Well, ye come along with me...") who buys you a peanut-candy bar and a lollipop and an ice-cream and it is magically not creepy at all. This is a scene perhaps only equaled by the bathing scene at the lighthouse summer home in Cheaper By The Dozen. (Ma swimming way out? Flaking whitewash, Davy Jones' Locker, Katie-bar-the-door? Anyone? Anyone? We'll get to it.)
It is the dead of winter. Here you go. I wish I had one of Ma's limburger sandwiches too.
Which brings us to the end. This is going to tragically, I think, turn into another score for Ellis. Because watch where Papa weeps-literally weeps!-when he finally, at long last, gets a son:
I had forgotten that COMPLETELY. I am really just sitting here, watching Bridezillas, still, at age 34, stuck on Uncle Hyman's thickly buttered rye bread and boiled eggs. So, while Ehrenreich could probably start fretting over any detailed food descriptions accompanying those of the tiaras, I think we've got score one for feminism.
Unfortunately, I am now newly perturbed on that "blonde hair and blue eyes" thing. I will think about it once I get back from changing some money.
Related: NPR: The Big Book Of Blogs
Earlier: Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die
Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan