I first read Roller Skates (1937) at around age 11, and The Year of Jubilo (1940) somewhere in junior high school (that is, middle school). I'm blogging them here because of Yuletide.
In New York City in 1890, 10-year-old Lucinda Wyman is the youngest of five children. Her four older brothers range from a teenager in prep school to a grown man who's headed out west for a career in mining. Lucinda, a book-loving tomboy, is an afterthought, considered at best an amusing pet and at worst an annoying duty, understood only by her Irish nursemaid, Johanna, and her beloved Uncle Earle. When Mrs. Wyman becomes ill and needs to recover in a milder climate, Lucinda is left behind to stay with Miss Peters, a teacher at her school, and Miss Peters' seamstress sister.
The Misses Peters prove to be ideal guardians from Lucinda's viewpoint. Once her lessons are done, she's allowed to roam at will along the streets of New York, usually on her roller skates. She makes friends with a number of people of whom her parents - and even more so, her bossy and uptight Aunt Emily - would not approve, including the cab driver who first takes her to the Miss Peters' boarding house, a local policeman, the son of an Italian immigrant fruit seller, the four-year-old daughter of the impoverished family upstairs, a girl of her own age who is the grandchild of a married couple of actors, and a mysterious "Asiatic" woman whom Lucinda calls "Princess Zayda."
During the course of the year, Lucinda learns a great deal about life - and death. Tragedy strikes twice, and by the time her parents are due home, she isn't the same child she was. The ending is bittersweet: at least one other blogger was convinced, as a child, that Lucinda killed herself, because she says that she doesn't want her next birthday, and that she wants to stay 10 always.
When the story resumes in The Year of Jubilo, Mr. Wyman has died, but even before that, his businesses were failing. Mrs. Wyman, thirteen-year-old Lucinda, and the three sons who still live at home can no longer afford to live in New York. They still own a summer home in Maine, and the family moves there permanently. Every member of the family suffers at first from loss of Mr. Wyman and of their well-to-do lifestyle, but they gradually start to make a go of it. The boys take up lobster fishing (they sell the lobsters to restaurants as far as Boston) and gardening, Mrs. Wyman turns to housekeeping and mending, and Lucinda takes up cooking (with predictably comical results at first) and whatever else she can talk her brothers into letting her do.
Lucinda faces a great deal of resistance from her brothers, especially her next-older brother Carter, who is bitter at being pulled from his prep school. Although some of Lucinda's growing maturity here is depicted as her becoming less of a hoyden, she still remains very much a stubborn and decidedly un-meek person - and a passing remark by the narrator at one point indicates that she eventually goes to college, which was not a given even for a girl of the upper middle class at the time.
I was unsurprised, when I was looking for a copy of The Year of Jubilo last month, to discover that these books were, to a large extent, autobiographical. Ruth Sawyer lived in New York and Maine at the same time as Lucinda. I had learned, years ago, that Lucinda's school, run by Anna C. Brackett, was a real place: my stepmother's grandmother attended it. (It had a reputation of a very liberal place at the time: the girls were taught - horrors - anatomy and natural science, among other things.)
Roller Skates is to some extent a fantasy: it's unlikely that a child of Lucinda's age and social class would have been allowed to run wild in quite that fashion. Of course, that's what's so appealing about it. A lot of adult reviewers who read the book nowadays have said disparaging things about Lucinda's friendships outside of her own social class: I remember a crack along the lines of "this proves how democratic she is." But when I was a kid, my thoughts about this were rather different: of course Lucinda would rather play with Italian-American Tony, Aleda the actors' grandchild, and little Trinket. The girls at Lucinda's school - including Aunt Emily's four "gentle, ladylike" daughters - seem to be conventional girls of that era and class, uninterested in the things that captivate Lucinda, who reads At the Back of the North Wind and Rudyard Kipling's "Just So" stories and likes to talk to boys and adults. It seemed entirely reasonable to me that she preferred the friends she made when she stayed with the Peterses. The class issue is not ignored in the story itself, either. Her Uncle Earle talks to her about it quite frankly one evening when he takes her out to dinner and a play, and part of the sadness of the end of the first story has to do with the fact that both she and Tony realize that they will no longer be able to continue as they have been because Lucinda will once again be chaperoned by her French governess. Tony says, bitterly, that she should only come to visit if she can come alone: "We don't want stylish people hanging around our fruit stand."
There's also some casual racism in the book. Three African American characters are mentioned: the doorman of Lucinda's family's apartment building home, the cook at the boarding house, and the school principal's "colored man." The doorman speaks in classical minstrel show dialect, the cook is referred to as "Miss Lucy's faithful Black Susan," and the doorman is referred to only by his first name, although he is "almost as important as Miss Brackett herself." When Lucinda and Tony visit the Natural History Museum, Lucinda is fascinated by the "Indian" exhibits, and Tony is scornful: "Be an Injun - wear feathers and go naked!"
White cultural groups that aren't considered upper class get much the same stereotypical treatment. Tony's Italian immigrant family is presented as warm and loving but oversized - Mrs. Coppino is always having babies. The Irish Gideons - the cab driver and his wife - speak with strong Irish accents and feed Lucinda ham, potatoes, and griddlecakes (mind you, the meal as described sounded tasty and wonderful to me). The Princess and her scary, heavily bearded husband - Elise and Isaac Gross, to give them their actual names - are presumably Jewish and live in an apartment furnished in Near Eastern splendor. Only Trinket's family, the Browdowskis, are described without much baggage - and in their case, even Uncle Earle is dismayed when Trinket becomes ill: "I say, Lucinda, how to you find out about these things? Suppose it's catching!"
Finally, there's the issue of the two deaths in Roller Skates, which have horrified some of the relatively modern reviewers. I'm not sure why Trinket's death flipped anyone out: it was very sad, but very much of the same class as Beth's death in Little Women - an innocent life taken early by illness. But the Princess' death - clearly by violence, perhaps at the hand of her husband, who is shown in his one speaking scene to be jealous of his wife's time spent with others - is a bit unusual: in a very frightening and effective scene, Lucinda finds the body. I think also a lot of modern readers have been confused by the hotel manager's reaction: he wants to keep Lucinda out of it, because of course, it would have been a scandal at the time. One recent reviewer on Goodreads says something along the lines of "Nothing is ever said about it again in the story." But that's not true. Every chapter ends with an extract from Lucinda's diary, and Lucinda writes very effectively and strongly about the death and her feelings about it. And then she locks the diary and hangs the key around her neck, to stay there until her mother can come home "and make it safe."
All of these issues fade into the background in The Year of Jubilo. There's some stereotyping of the Maine villagers, but the Wyman family's position of near-poverty and their need to make their own way makes this attitude much less prominent. There's a bit of eye dialect - people talk to Lucinda about how they miss her "puppa," for example - but it's not as bad as the accents in the first book. There's a life-threatening illness and an enjoyably melodramatic story arc with some burglars who are stealing furniture from shut-up summer homes, but the story itself acknowledges the melodrama, and no one dies. The title of the book, however, comes from a popular song of the Civil War era (in the North), the lyrics of which are in the same minstrel show dialect used by the doorman in the first book (the songwriter was white).
As I am sure you can tell, I absolutely love these books, especially Roller Skates. I was a shy, prickly child, not as bold as Lucinda, but I also preferred to talk to adults and boys, rather than most other girls, and loved to read. I worshipped her and loved Uncle Earle with her, learned about Shakespeare with her, and was struck to the heart with her by Trinket's and the Princess' deaths. As an adult, I can acknowledge the issues (and flinch a bit at some lines), but I can still get wrapped up in Lucinda's view of her world. Aside from the issues mentioned, the writing is lucid and beautiful and treats the reader with respect: Sawyer does not hesitate to quote from works of literature and make classical allusions.
Roller Skates won the Newbery Award in 1937 and is thus still in print in paperback. The Year of Jubilo is more difficult to find, but I bought a copy for less than $10 from AbeBooks.