Remember when the weekends seemed endless, when children had time for adventures and when they were allowed to take a few risks? Elizabeth Enright's The Saturdays (1941) captures those seemingly lost-forever golden days just perfectly. This is the first in her series of four books about the Melendy children, who live with their widowed father in a shabby brownstone on the Lower East Side of New York City, in the days when ordinary families could occupy an entire house in Manhattan and when individual children could roam the streets of the Big Apple, relying on nice policemen to take them home on horseback if they got lost.
Loved by generations of American children, the multiple-prize-winning Enright and her charming stories are surprisingly and undeservedly less well known on this side of the Atlantic than they should be. Her format is familiar but always popular: the somewhat chaotic and slightly impoverished but affectionate household, with a single (often professionally absent) parent; a beloved housekeeper who valiantly tries to keep everyone in check; a scruffy mongrel dog; a group of children who each have their own talents - in this case the musical one, the dramatic one, the scatty one and the Youngest One - while Time hangs heavy and there are opportunities for good-natured mischief, scrapes and adventure.
The four Melendy children pool their weekly pocket money so that each child in turn can afford a Big Adventure. And these are very nice children, whose adventures all become learning experiences, most of which would make any parent proud: a trip to an art gallery, an outing to the opera, a visit to the hairdresser's, an afternoon at the circus and boating on the lake in Central Park. There's no wasting of talent here.
But there's a darker undercurrent too. The children hear about the seamier side of life from people they encounter along the way: one was kidnapped by gypsies, while another was driven out of her abusive home with her brother and lived on the city's streets. The Melendys nearly die from carbon monoxide poisoning one night, and on another occasion they accidentally set fire to their own home.
The joy of reading Enright is in the neatness of her structure and the simple purity and clarity of her writing. Her children are wonderfully characterised, while humour prevents them from descending into cuteness. She also imparts a genuine sense of time and location, weaving real people, places and events through the narrative, which makes the stories both believable and effective. She writes about New York City in 1941 with the affectionate eye of a local, but a strong awareness of the plight of children thousands of miles away in London suffering from nightly bombing raids.
Elizabeth Enright was born in 1909 to a political cartoonist father and a mother who was a designer and illustrator. Her maternal uncle was the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Enright followed in her (by then divorced) parents' footsteps, going to art college and herself becoming an illustrator before turning to writing and then to literary criticism. She won the Newbery Prize for children's writing in 1939 (the equivalent of the UK's Carnegie Medal), the first of many such awards. She was also a successful writer of short stories for adults. There is some confusion surrounding her early death in 1968 aged just 58: some internet sources claim she committed suicide, while her New York Times obituary simply states that she died at home following a short illness.
What a wonderful discovery this book was for us all.
Next month we are reading The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne-Jones (1980), together with a posthumous reminiscence about Diana by her son, Colin Burrow, which was broadcast on Radio 4 in 2011.