Rereading: THE MELENDY FAMILY

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© Elizabeth Enright Gillham.

Winter is a good time to pull a few favorites off the shelf and reread them, and this is one of mine, first read in grade school as three separate books: “The Saturdays,” “The Four-Story Mistake” and “And Then There Were Five.” I found this omnibus edition in The Strand bookstore in New York City in the 1970s. It contains the entire text of the three books plus a brief biography of the author, and an introduction by her. The books are illustrated by Enright in a simple but talented open line style, as you can see on the cover, and here’s another example:

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Enright comes from an artistic family; her mother was book illustrator Maginel Wright Enright, her father was political cartoonist W. J. Enright, and her uncle was famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. She began as a book illustrator too, but soon began writing books for herself to illustrate, then moved away from the art and concentrated on writing. Her output wasn’t large. In addition to these books and one more about the Melendys, there are five other children’s novels and a few picture books, plus a few collections of short stories written for adults. I loved her writing from the moment I began to read “The Saturdays,” and still do. Enright is one of those writers who can turn on a dime from humor to drama to poetic language to prosaic realism. Her characters are idealized, but still very human.

The Melendy family is comprised of four children and their father. Their mother died some years ago. Helping raise the children is Cuffy, their live-in housekeeper, cook and mother-figure, and the household also supports a maintenance man, Willy Sloper. In the first book, the family lives in an old brownstone in New York, but a charming older New York from the late 1930s mostly. (The books are copyrighted 1941, 1942 and 1944.) Mona, the eldest girl, wants to be an actress, and can quote Shakespeare on any occasion. She’s also fond of her own looks, which gets her teased by the others. Her brother Rush is next oldest: outgoing, mischievous, a talented piano player and often supplying humorous comments. His sister Miranda, or Randy, is the somewhat spacy watercolor artist and would-be ballet dancer, though she’s often shown as clumsy when not dancing. Youngest is Oliver, a placid child with an interest in scientific things as well as food.

In “The Saturdays,” the kids come up with a plan to pool their small allowances so that each one in turn can go out in the city on a Saturday to do something that costs more than they could afford alone. Randy, for instance, goes to an art gallery show, Rush to the Metropolitan Opera, Mona gets her hair cut in a beauty salon, and Oliver (who is really too young to be out on his own, but sneaks out anyway) goes to the circus. The city they have their adventures in is a much kinder one than today’s New York, and the children usually have luck on their side, but the adventures are still exciting and memorable. There’s a lost dog saved, a ride on a policeman’s horse, and even a fire in their own home.

In “The Four-Story Mistake,” they move to the country, probably Connecticut, though it could be New Jersey, to a large old house that gets its name from a mistake made by the builder. It was supposed to have four stories, but ended up with three plus a cupola on top. The children have more adventures exploring the house, the large grounds (with a stream and plenty of woods), making new friends and getting into new kinds of trouble, but soon out of it. In the end they put on a show to raise money for War Bonds, and it all sure sounds like great fun.

In “And Then There Were Five,” the children make a new friend, Mark, an orphan being raised by a mean and miserly uncle. Though other things happen, the focus of this book is the gradual understanding that they need to rescue Mark from his situation somehow, and the way they go about that.

When I was a child myself, I loved these children, and wished I could have a family like theirs. My own family was a good one, but Enright’s writing is so persuasive, I couldn’t help feeling that way. Enright admits in her introduction that, while they’re based on friends and family, they are her own idealized creations. She put a lot of love into them, and it shows in every word. While the books are certainly of their time (who now can afford live-in help, for instance), and do contain some topical and cultural references (“Superman” is mentioned twice!), the quality of the prose makes them just as enjoyable to read now. I would call them modern classics of children’s literature, the way “Little Women” was for its time, though perhaps not having that kind of impact. They’re just good stories about a family that, once they take you in, you’ll want to revisit often.

Here are modern paperback editions with covers by some other artist that I don’t much care for. I hope the author’s own interior illustrations are still being used inside. If not, search them out at your library or favorite used book site.

7 thoughts on “Rereading: THE MELENDY FAMILY

  1. John

    I remember reading these when I was a kid. There’s actually a fourth Melendy book: Spiderweb For Two. It’s about the two youngest kids trying to keep themselves amused while their older siblings are away at boarding school.

  2. RAB

    This is a lovely review and definitely makes me want to check these out right away. However, I must object to one line above:

    “The city they have their adventures in is a much kinder one than today’s New York…”

    Comparing present-day reality to gentle fiction from the past is terribly unfair. Surely we don’t imagine that the real New York of the 1930s was as idyllic or as safe as it seems in a children’s book? For that matter, I have no firsthand knowledge to confirm whether the real New York of the 1930s was any more or less kind to children than the New York of 2010. My parents lived in New York then, and described it in subsequent years as very challenging. I suspect that in reality, it was safer and kinder in some ways back then, and less safe than it is now in other ways.

    As I say, this is the only line with which I take issue; I love your reviews and hope you won’t take offense at this.

  3. Todd Post author

    Yes, that’s a good book, though I think Butterworth’s best is “The Enormous Egg,” about a chicken that lays a dinosaur egg. A third book by him, “The Narrow Passage,” is hard to find, and I thought not quite as good, but still worth looking for.

  4. Kurt Busiek

    I liked THE ENORMOUS EGG a lot, but I love THE TROUBLE WITH JENNY’S EAR. Maybe because I grew up in an area much like the one they lived in, so the setting was vivid for me.

    Great stuff. We’ve been sorting and rearranging our library, so I just ran across our copies of the Butterworths and the Melendy books, though I don’t have either SPIDERWEB FOR TWO or THE NARROW PASSAGE.

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