by Ruth Sawyer
Interests: strong girls, history, New York City, city lifeThe Viking Press: 1936
186 pp – 10 chapters
Next: the movie Meet Me in St. Louis also takes place at the turn of the century, with lots of period details
When ten-year-old Lucinda’s parents go to Italy for a year, leaving her in the care of two single sisters, Lucinda regards her situation with great excitement. After years of being kept on a short leash, she revels in the freedom of her “orphanage” year and zooms all around 1890s New York on her roller skates. Free to do as she likes, Lucinda makes friends with everyone she meets, from hansom cab drivers to policemen to fruit vendors, eccentric neighbours, penniless musicians, and even the scruffy rag-and-bone man. With boundless energy and optimism she does all she can to help anyone she meets. Along the way she falls in love with Shakespeare’s plays, puts on an elaborate puppet show, and orchestrates a Christmas party for the poor little girl who lives upstairs.
Based loosely on the author’s childhood, this is a vivid portrait of a vivacious girl in a New York that is long, long gone. Many details of everyday life (and the occupations of many of the characters) may have to be explained but those with an interest in history should find it interesting. (It is noteworthy that this story takes place not long after the pioneer tales Little House in the Big Woods and Caddie Woodlawn.)
The divisions of class also, may have to be explained for Lucinda’s generous nature and open heart to be fully appreciated. The book has surprisingly dark moments toward the end, as first an acquaintance of Lucinda’s is murdered (and she is the one to discover the body), and then her little friend Trinket becomes sick and dies. It sounds rather harsh written down like that, but the murder is handled delicately, and Trinket’s death is also gently revealed. As sad as she is, Lucinda is still quite young, and rebounds from these dark episodes with hope and optimism.
More than anything else, what this book is about is freedom – always in short supply for children but all the more delicious whenever they can find it.
Roller Skates is a little dated, some may find the pace slow, and it may be difficult for kids to really picture the period setting, but the anecdotal chapters read like separate stories, and the charm and energy of the heroine keeps everything moving forward. Chronic cheerfulness aside, Lucinda is not entirely saintly (ie. priggish and boring). She has a lot of trouble keeping her temper and is even suspended from school for bad behaviour. A multi-faceted, complex little girl, Lucinda’s true talent is her generous spirit, making her a terrific role model in a fascinating period setting.