Three Books with a “turn-of-the-century” setting

Maggie and Oliver by Valerie Hobbs – an okay read

The Doll Shop Downstairs and Cats in the Doll Shop by Yona Zeldis McDonough – wonderful books that will make you wish for more and keep you thinking after the last page is turned.

three books for especially for 3rd and 4th grade girls who appreciate gentle, but honest stories

Maggie and Oliver or A Bone of One's OwnSet in Boston at the turn of the century, Maggie and Oliver, gives readers a glance at what it might have been like to live as a child in poverty at that time.  Readers learn of the time when school wasn’t available to all and children were taken advantage of as cheap labor in the mills.

Oliver’s owner has passed away and when her family comes to divide the property, he is left behind.  Maggie, never having had a family, is let go from her maid position when she speaks out of turn – she asks entirely too many questions and that is not good if you are to be seen, but never heard.  Both Oliver and Maggie find themselves on the streets of Boston at the end of winter – they both need food and shelter; they both need to find some way to ease the ache of the dark feeling of loneliness that has settled upon them.

They do, but not without many trials along the way.  Maggie and Oliver has been sitting in my “to read” pile for a few months.  It was okay, but I wished for more.  I decided to dig deeper into that pile to find  The Doll Shop Downstairs and its sequel, The Cats in the Doll Shop.  Set in the same time period, these books are full of rich descriptive language that washes over you with care and honesty.  The main character  is a girl I can fully understand.  If she could step off the page, we would immediately be friends.  From reading I know that much about her but I still want to know more.

The Doll Shop DownstairsAnna is in the middle.  Sophie is two years older and always knows more.  Trudie is two years younger.  She is always babied, and worst of all, adores everything Sophie says and does.  They live in a small apartment above their doll shop.  Papa repairs dolls and Mama sews clothes for them.  Working together they make a fine living until the war breaks out.

World War I has begun so there will be no more trade with Germany and that means no more parts for fixing dolls.  The family wonders about what they will do to make a living until Anna comes up with an idea – rather than repair dolls, perhaps they can make them.  They all work together to create a limited edition doll, Nurse Nora.  She is beautiful and brave and is discovered by Mr. Greenfield, the buyer for FAO Schwartz.  The Doll Shop will survive the war.

This is a wonderful story of family life in the city in the early 1900’s.  Anna’s parents are immigrants for Russia.  They have family in the old country and they are bridge the old and new ways by making sure their children have schooling and opportunities.  The girls work with their parents doing the chores they need to do so they can also have time for dolls and tea parties, penny candy treats and ice cream cones.

Anna struggles with her feelings of never being old enough or young enough.  She knows she mustn’t whine as little Trudie does, but sometimes it is challenging not too.  She knows she must not feel jealous of Sophie when she gets A’s and gold stars on everything.  She knows she must just work harder, but it is a challenge.  Caught in the middle she takes time for watching and knowing.  She takes time to be alone, to wonder and question.  Because of this, she has some pretty amazing things to share.

The Cats in the Doll ShopIn the second book a year has passed and the Doll Shop continues doing a good business. Nurse Nora dolls are sold at F.A.O. Schwartz and other toy stores too.  As the war continues and letters from the “old country” come more frequently.  Sometimes they seem happy news but not always.  At last Mama tells them that Tania, their cousin – born on the exact same day in the exact same year as Anna – is making “the crossing.”  She is leaving her mother and her country behind to stay with Anna’s family until her mother can save enough to join her.

While waiting and planning for Tania’s arrival Anna observes the continuing life and work of the city and shop. She notices a ginger cat, fat with babies.  She listens to the lilting voices and whistling of Kathleen and Michael who have joined Papa and Mama in the busier than ever doll shop.  She sees the cruelty of the man sweeping the ginger cat and her new babies off his fire escape to fall into the yard below.  Only peachy-colored Pluckie survives, though his leg dangles helplessly behind.

There is schoolwork to be done, planning and hard work for the holiday orders coming to the shop.  Anna tries to imagine what Tania is feeling.  She tries to figure out how to help the hurting cats.  At last an idea comes to her and in a moment of free time Anna designs and makes Tania a new doll.  It is a special doll.  A school-girl, whom Anna calls Shannon. Anna hopes she will be, a friend for Tania while she learns what it is like in this new country.

When Tania finally arrives it is nothing like Anna imagined.  It is hard for this poor, frightened, lonely girl.  It is hard for Sophie, Anna and Trudie too.  Though she is their cousin, Tania is quiet, shy and strange.  She is challenging to understand, but Anna tries.  To Anna, Tania seems as afraid and sad as Pluckie.  It is that sameness that brings them together and allows that family to see how change can be good, especially when it happens for the right reasons.

Again I admire the courage, honesty and bravery of Anna.  Though caught in the middle, she seems to know what to do.  The writing wraps around you and comes to life in your mind.  What a wonderful family to be a part of and what a wonderful friend Anna is for her readers.  I am hoping there is another books to share soon.