Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ballet Shoes

Every once and a while I hear a book I read as a child mentioned in a movie or a song and I get to feel a little smug about being in the know. The first time it happened was several years ago: I was watching You've Got Mail and as Meg Ryan sat crying in the children's section of Fox Books, she explained to a shopper what the "shoe books" were, and recommended Ballet Shoesas the one to start with.

I was given Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes as a Christmas gift when I was about 10. I never went on to read the other books in the series (all loosely-related not by characters but by premise), but Ballet Shoes became a book I read at least once a year for the next 10 or so years.

The story is a relatively simple one. Set in the late-1800s in London, Ballet Shoes is the story of three sisters growing up. But Pauline, Petrova and Posy are sisters by a rather unusual form of adoption. They were found (one after a shipwreck, another after her parents died) during the course of their Great Uncle Matthew (GUM)'s travels and sent home to Sylvia (his great-niece) as presents of a sort. GUM is a fossil hunter, searching the world for treasures indicating prehistoric life, and because he referred to the girls as his "little fossils" they took that as their last name.

Before he left, GUM (who is absent for almost the entire story) made sure there would be enough money for Sylvia to keep house for seven years. Then of course he threw three children into the mix and the money ran a little thin. So Sylvia opens up his big house and takes in borders, one of whom is a dance instructor at a local performing-arts school. She starts teaching the girls in her room and, recognizing the potential for talent they possess, rigs a deal whereby the girls can attend the school for free in exchange for a portion of their wages once they are old enough to earn (12-years-old in those days).

I did not take ballet as a kid, but the descriptions of the lessons fascinated me. Theatre school (which also comprised acting, although dance was clearly Streatfield's focus) seemed like a lot of fun, although Pauline and Posy enjoyed themselves far more than Petrova (who was far more interested in motor cars and airplanes).

I'm kind of a sucker for stories of poor families who do the best with what they've got. And that is Ballet Shoes to a tee. Streatfield herself grew up in a pretty poor family (her father was a very strict vicar), which may be why her descriptions of Sylvia worrying about money ring so true. The girls' dresses are frequently made-over so as to work as hand-me-downs, and there's a whole scene in which Sylvia frets that Pauline is going to an early-autumn audition in a summer dress. It might be because that kind of seasonal-wardrobe concern is so foreign to me and yet so vividly presented her that I can't help but become involved in the story of the Fossils.

If every story worked out so well in the end, I would probably be very annoyed. But sometimes it's nice to know that the hard work of the characters will get them something - even if that something isn't what you thought it would be.

Ballet Shoes
by Noel Streatfield
First published by Dent in 1936 (cover image shown from Penguin edition)

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