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Stories We Tell

August 5, 2014 | by

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It’s a strange coincidence that I should think to look up Ruth Sawyer today. Last night, I mentioned her book Roller Skates to a friend—I thought her nine-year-old daughter might enjoy it—but I had no idea that August 5 was her birthday.

Sawyer died in 1970, at the age of ninety. As a young woman, she traveled to Cuba, where she worked in kindergartens established for orphans of the Spanish American War, training their teachers in how to tell stories. Upon returning to New York, Sawyer obtained a scholarship to study storytelling and folklore. She went to work telling stories in the city’s school system, working primarily with immigrant children, and later founded the NYPL’s first storytelling program. Throughout her career, she would travel around the world collecting folktales, and for many years she volunteered as a storyteller at a women’s prison. Her Way of the Storyteller, from 1942, is still regarded as a landmark text—one full of charm and interest for the layman, too.

The stories she learned and the people she met inspired several of her many children’s books. But the most famous, Roller Skates, which won the Newbery in 1937, was, frankly, autobiographical: The story of one year in the life of a well-to-do New York ten-year-old. Like her heroine, Lucinda Wyman, Ruth Sawyer also spent 1890 away from her parents, who were traveling. Far from resenting their absence, she found the time living in a boarding house to be one of adventure and discovery.

Like many of the best children’s protagonists, Lucinda is a bit of a black sheep: an independent-minded tomboy who would much rather roller-skate around Manhattan, get to know new people, and read Shakespeare than spend time with her ladylike cousins or French governess. Considered difficult and temperamental, she is in fact bursting with unexpressed affection. Indeed, given free reign for the first time, Lucinda’s openhearted curiosity allows her to make friends wherever she goes; in the course of the novel, she meets the poor family upstairs, the beat cop Mr. Gilligan, and the Italian boy, Tony, who runs the fruit stand. She has plenty of inspiring adventures—her puppet production of The Tempest stands out particularly—but the book is not without real sadness, even tragedy. Certain descriptions and stereotypes date it, but Sawyer’s compassion and broad-mindedness shine through, and it has aged well.

As in the cases of Harriet the Spy or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the character’s independence comes as the direct result of a sort of benign parental neglect, and the freedom that seems so magical to a young reader is not untouched by loneliness. Lucinda is ever aware that her idyll will end, that she will be expected to resume normal life, and, ultimately, to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. (In real life: shortly after this period, Sawyer’s father would die, leaving the family penniless; this latter period is chronicled in the more melancholy The Year of Jubilo.) Even knowing that the author—the character, in a way—would go on to a life of independence and adventure, it’s hard not to feel a pang at the passing of her childhood. To feel desperate, even. Here is how the book ends:

Today the skates sang a sorry rhythm. She’d never belong to herself again—not until she married and got herself a husband, and then she’d belong to him. Suppose she kept on skating in the Park for ever and ever! Never went back to the Misses Peters’ parlor, two flights up; never went to meet mama and papa with Aunt Emily tomorrow; never had another mam’selle. She could do it; she could do it, live like the lambs in the Park, be as free as air, never have tantrums, and she could cuddle all the babies in their prams. Her next birthday wasn’t far off. Somebody else could have it—could be eleven who wanted to. She didn’t.

She reached the reservoir and stopped, climbed the steps to the railing and looked into the still, placid water. Leaning over she could see her face reflected in it. She addressed herself solemnly: “Lucinda, how would you like to stay in the Park? How would you like to stay always ten? You could tell Tony and Uncle Earle, perhaps; and Mr. Gilligan. They’d keep the secret for you. Winter you would sleep with the bears in the caves and come out in the spring. Come out every single spring always ten years old, never any older. That’s what I’d call a perfectly elegant idea!”

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