If you’d been at the library on the day that the girls went in the book’s opening scene, you could’ve been introduced to them along with Miss Allen, the pretty new librarian.
There’s Ella, the oldest, who’s 12, then Henriette (Henny) who’s 10 and a mischief-maker; then Sarah who’s 8 and has a terrible problem she must resolve with Miss Allen, Charlotte who’s 6, and, finally, Gertie, who’s 4, and only reads picture books.
Well, if you’re bookish, you have to love a book that opens with chatter of books, with an entire family of girls so excited about a trip to the library.
But there were all kinds of reasons that I loved the all-of-a-kind family. If they’d hung out a “Girl wanted” sign, I’d’ve volunteered immediately. And, even as an adult, I find the stories satisfying and charming (yes, old-fashioned, but not offensively so).
A Papa with a junk shop.
‘If you were a boy…’ Papa began and stopped. If only at least one child had been a boy, he thought. But which one? He smiled to himself. He couldn’t possibly imagine life without any one of his five girls.”
A Mama who smiles and hums and makes a game of dusting the parlour by hiding buttons.
“After the children had gone to school, Mama thought. Frequently she smiled. She got out her sewing box and began rummaging in it, picking out a dozen colored buttons. Then she put the box away and went back to her work, humming softly to herself.”
And a glimpse into a city (New York’s East Side) and a culture that I had no experience of as a girl, except on the page.
“Only one tongue was spoken here – Yiddish. It was like a foreign land right in the midst of America. In this foreign land, it was Mama’s children who were the foreigners since they alone conversed in an alien tongue – English.”
Readers learn about Passover and Purim and, also, the Fourth of July. The explanations are clear (delivered by older or more experienced characters to younger characters) but they aren’t condescending.
You’d think these bits would be the sort you’d flip through as an adult reader, but I was just as interested to re-read them as an adult as I was as a child, and the parents’ inclusionary approach to religion is a refreshing change (this is evident in the first book but even more readily so in later books).
The All-of-a-Kind family is clearly a Jewish family, but the book is primarily about family life. And how girls grow in that family.
At the end of the tale, Ella overhears something that changes her outlook about another’s life. It makes her step beyond her girlish fantasies, which isn’t entirely comfortable for her, but she chooses, nonetheless, to keep that information to herself, rather than alter her younger siblings’ views.
There is a note of promise there, a sense that Ella is growing and changing, and that you don’t, as an onlooker, want to miss the next stage.
And, neither do you want to miss the change broadcasted at the story’s end, the arrival of a sixth child. (Sorry, I know this is a spoiler, but a quick glance at covers in the series’ later volumes reveals it anyhow.)
After Baby Charlie is born, Ella says that they aren’t an all-of-a-kind family anymore and Mama answers “I think that means more than our having five daughters. It means we’re all close and loving and loyal – and our family will always be that.”
And that’s why I re-read this volume so loyally as a girl. Did you?
Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
(It’s just the perfect match: I can’t add another!)