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roller skates

13 july 2014

Ruth Sawyer's Roller Skates is a children's novel at once both very familiar and surprisingly fresh; deliberately old-fashioned yet acceptably hip, adjusting for its period and genre. One can see why the Newbery jury liked it so much back in 1937.

Lucinda Wyman, our reflector-character heroine (and, we learn in the opening frame, our narrator, projected back into her childhood), is one of a long series of girls in children's fiction: protagonists abandoned permanently or temporarily by all or part of their family, moved to new surroundings, forced to make new and unexpected friends. Specifically she moves from one home in Manhattan to another, linking Roller Skates in turn to any number of growing-up-in-New-York stories that have been staples of the Newbery lists for decades. Still more specifically, she moves from Social Register circles to the rough-and-tumble of a boarding house and the streets, learning to appreciate the wider American palette. "You're getting a sort of vaccination this year," her wise, loosened-up Uncle Earle tells her.

If you don't know it now, you'll find it out some day. But it's going to keep you from dying of a terrible disease. … Snobbishness—priggishness. (80)
Lucinda, with the aid of the title transportation, breaks out of the narrow world of femininity and status-preservation represented by Earle's priggish wife Aunt Emily, and encounters Italian fruit-vendors, Polish musicians, Irish domestics and cab-drivers, all-purpose Orientals – well, she doesn't get as far as Negroes or Jews, but how progressive do you want the book to get? It's faintly patronizing – in fact, whenever Lucinda meets an Other, most of whom seem to be frustrated artists, she thinks immediately of literally how to patronize their careers – but it is a mildly progressive book, and its heart is tentatively in the direction of multiculturalism and understanding.

Roller Skates is also slyly grown up, touching lightly on sex and death and the mysteries of relationships. "Hell" and "damn" are in its vocabulary, giving it a kinship with the contemporary Gone with the Wind. I found myself at times chafing at its plotlessness. There's no real drama or arc to the novel apart from the continuous expansion of Lucinda's world. But Sawyer makes us care about that expansion: if not to the point of rapt suspense, at least to the point of identification and interest.

Sawyer, Ruth. Roller Skates. Illustrated by Valenti Angelo. 1936. New York: Viking [Penguin], n.d.