Good Stories and Good Writing: The Melendy Quartet
I found a great new children’s book series to share with my nine-year-old daughter. I was at the library, just browsing while the kids raided the shelves, and I stumbled across it: a group of four books with the series title of The Melendy Quartet. I immediately pulled all of them out, for I could tell I had stumbled onto something great. They were written by an author I had not heard of, and I realized they had been written in the 1940s. I could also tell they were classics and not to be missed, yet I’ve gone the last three decades without ever hearing of them. So let me introduce you (if you aren’t already acquainted) to Elizabeth Enright and the books she wrote and illustrated.
The first is called The Saturdays (1941), and it is about the Melendy family of four siblings: girls Mona and Randy and boys Rush and Oliver. Each has a distinct personality, and they live in New York City with their professor father and housekeeper Cuffy. Of course, as in all good children’s books, their mother is dead. (Do storytellers get rid of mothers because no child could have a decent adventure with a mother around to keep an eye on them?)
So the four siblings find themselves bored on Saturdays, and they decide to pool their allowance money, giving it to one person each Saturday to go out alone and do something they enjoy. Adventures ensue, with Randy going to an art gallery and making friends with old, wealthy Mrs. Oliphant, who has a magnificent past as a child kidnapped by gypsies. (Ah, my worst nightmare as a child.) Mona goes to a salon and gets a makeover to the astonishment and disapproval of her family, but she felt it was necessary to grow up and accomplish her goal of becoming a celebrated actress. Rush attends the symphony (he’s a pianist) and comes home with a stray dog. And Oliver isn’t supposed to go by himself, for he’s only six years old. However, he manages to sneak away one Saturday to the circus and ends up coming home on a police horse. These stories are magnificent and captivating. After all of this, the family still manages to experience some excitement involving firemen and police officers in the middle of the night!
Olivia and I couldn’t stop reading, and now we are in the middle of the second book in the series, The Four-Story Mistake (1942). This is the name of the Melendy’s new home, in the country, where they meet people with an alligator in their bathtub, find a secret room that belonged to a mysterious girl from the 1800s named Clarinda, and hold a variety show in order to earn money for war bonds. Despite the very specific setting, none of the happenings are confusing or outdated, and it gave me an opportunity to talk with Olivia about somes of those times in our history.
And what’s a good story without good writing? Enright had that down, too. Here are some of the best lines from the Saturdays.
Randy: “Things like that never happen to us. We lead a humdrum life when I think about it. It’s funny how it doesn’t seem humdrum.”
Mrs. Oliphant: “That’s because you have ‘eyes the better to see with, my dear’ and ‘ears the better to hear with.’ Nobody who has them and uses them is likely to find life humdrum very often” (p. 47).
“Sometimes people are not the way they look, thought Mona. It was a great surprise” (p. 91).
“Oliver watched it raptly while eating a hotdog with mustard. He surveyed the acrobats (whose muscles seemed to stretch like garters) while eating another hot dog, this time with sauerkraut. It was forbidden Paradise. Cuffy didn’t believe in hot dogs or mustard or sauerkraut, but Oliver believed in them all” (p. 113).
I have to mostly agree here with Oliver. I believe in mustard and sauerkraut, but not so much in hot dogs!
“The hot cocoa was exactly right and Mona had created some unusual sandwiches composed of peanut butter, mayonnaise, brown sugar, grape jelly, and lettuce all at once between enormous slabs of bread” (p. 124).
“‘I suppose we’ll have to get cleaned up?’ Rush said wistfully, gazing at the front of his shirt. It bore the marks of interesting encounters with chalk, maple syrup, machine oil, and good plain dirt” (p. 148).
“All over the house suitcases gaped open hungrily and two ancient trunks were slowly being fed, bit by bit: delicious morsels such as Oliver’s overalls, Mona’s party dress, assorted bathing suits, six pairs of sneakers, Beethoven’s Sonatas, the Milk of Magnesia, the iodine, three rolls of adhesive tape, litters of socks and scores of other things” (p. 161).
As you can see, not only are these captivating children having wonderful adventures but they are learning the truths of life. All of this comes through in Enright’s delightful style and illustrations. I highly recommend this series. I can’t wait to read the other two books: Then There Were Five and Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze!