Monday, May 7, 2012

The Story Behind Lucinda, or Is It Ruth?

One day as I was putting away the vacuum cleaner I had an overwhelming longing for Lucinda. I knew Emily was the only one who would not think I was crazy for admitting this out loud, so I told her. Imagine my pleasure when she announced triumphantly a few minutes later, “Mom! There’s a sequel. You can read more about Lucinda.”

Roller Skates was a family read aloud book many years ago when all six of my children were still at home. We spent many long summer evenings out on our screened porch reading the adventures of Lucinda,
an engaging ten-year-old girl in New York City during the 1890s. Her parents had left her in the care of a spinster teacher and her spinster sister and Lucinda had the year of a lifetime, rollerskating everywhere she went, meeting all kinds of people who wouldn’t have crossed her path in her former life. During that year of freedom, she found out how people in other social classes lived due to friendships she struck up with a cab driver, the son of a vegetable cart seller, a newspaper reporter, the daughter of a poor musician, and of course, Uncle Earl from whom she learned to love Shakespeare. Lucinda had many scrapes, learned the joys and trials of other families, and even experienced the death of a small friend. It was actually that episode which made Roller Skates a questionable book in 1937 when it was awarded the Newbery Award for Children’s Literature. Death was not a subject in children’s books of that time. The controversy mystified me when I heard about it because I thought that part of the story was the most poignant and sensitive I could ever imagine being recounted for children to both understand and benefit from.

Roller Skates is actually autobiographical about a real year in the life of its author, Ruth Sawyer. Yes, Tony, Trinket, Mr. Gilligan, Uncle Earl, and Mr. Night Owl were all her real friends. Born in Boston in 1880, Ruth Sawyer says her first childhood memories were of wanting to do big and important things. The first of these accomplishments in her young life was learning to rollerskate before she was four years old. Most of Lucinda’s adventures were her own. She too was the daughter born to a family of all boys, mostly grown by the time she came along. Young Ruth also rollerskated all over New York City herself, making friends all along the way.

One of the things she freely confesses is never aspiring to be a writer. What made her a writer? Certainly not her proficiency in grammar, a subject she never passed, and she freely admitted to having “rather odd” spelling and punctuation. Her father read to her from Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, her mother from the Bible, but, most influential of all in her mind was her Irish nurse, Johanna. Johanna was a born storyteller and the one to whom Sawyer gives the credit for her later ability to write stories. For a time, Ruth Sawyer herself was a library storyteller to immigrant children in New York and it is probably there she learned her talent to connect with children and why she gathered many of the legends and tales from other lands that became part of her famous collections. She especially loved the stories surrounding Christmas, which probably accounts for the nine Christmas collections published in her lifetime. We enjoyed This Way to Christmas during Advent one year.

In all, she authored 38 published books. You can read more about her ideas on storytelling in The Way of the Storyteller and How To Tell a Story. It’s not too surprising that her own daughter grew up to marry another writer, none other than the famous Robert McCloskey of Make Way For Ducklings, One Morning in Maine, and Blueberries for Sal. He actually illustrated Ruth’s popular book Journey Cake, Ho! and her granddaughter, Sarah, is Sal.

The story of Ruth’s life is rich in joy and sorrow, travel and strong home ties. It’s no wonder I settled into that sequel to Roller Skates, The Year of Jubilo, with delicious pleasure and shed more than a few tears as my beloved Lucinda faced some tough life experiences and had to grow up. These also were Sawyer’s own tales.

And, just for the record, I am not so weird for missing Lucinda. After the criticism of her treatment of death in a children’s book and ultimately receving the Newberry for Roller Skates, she was at a loss for how to give her acceptance speech. Guess what she did? She went down to Central Park to look for Lucinda, and when she found her there, Lucinda told her exactly what to say.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Another good blog on Ruth Sawyer. Just ordered a few books I don't have. With all my thanks!

  2. Her home is now a B&B:

  3. When Francis died unexpectedly in 1894, the family, uncertain of their financial circumstances, closed their home in New York and moved to Maine. Because they had to dismiss all their servants and Ethalinda had never learned to cook, Ruth, who was just 14 at the time, became the family’s gardener and cook. Their kitchen is described in great detail in her book, The Year of Jubilo (1940), which chronicles the year spent in Maine.

  4. and her daughter married Robert McCloskey.

    Ruth Sawyer married Albert Durand, a physician, and they had two children. Their daughter, Peggy, a children’s librarian, married Robert McCloskey, the beloved children’s book author best known for Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal. Collections of both Sawyer’s and McCloskey’s books are available at the inn for guests to enjoy during their stay.