Books, characters, children, families, favorites, fiction, influences

Influences: Elizabeth Enright

Another one of the few non-fantasy authors who have been an enormous influence on my writing and my life, Elizabeth Enright doesn’t get anywhere near the appreciation she deserves, in my opinion. Which sounds odd, considering she won a Newbery Medal for Thimble Summer. It’s been my experience, however, that most people get a blank look on their faces when you mention Enright’s name, and then only vague recognition comes with the mention of Thimble Summer.

I thoroughly enjoy Thimble Summer, but it can’t hold a candle to my favorites of hers – the Gone-Away books. Whether it is the close relationship between a boy cousin and a girl cousin, reminding me so happily of the friendship between my cousin Zach and me, or the idea of a hidden, old-fashioned community, or (in the second book) all the fun of renovating an old house (which, having lived through, is Not Really Fun At All, but Enright made it seem fun), and moving to the country after having lived in the city … whatever it was, the books were a delight. I especially like that, unlike so many YA and MG books, the adults are present and involved, while the children still have freedom to explore and be brave and get themselves in and out of trouble. We need to see more of that in books for young people!

Then there’s the Melendy Quartet. I’ve written in my favorites posts about this family – Randy and Rush and the family overall. I love them. I want them to be my next-door neighbors. I want to have had Randy and Rush to adventure with as a kid, and I want them all to be my kids’ friends. They are real, and delightful, and funny, and brave (and occasionally not), and ambitious, and loyal and loving.

I think what I like best about Enright’s books, and her characters, is that perfect blend of realism and idealism. While the Melendy gang have marvelous adventures and impossible luck, they also feel like real people, people you could meet any day walking down the road. Same with Portia and Julian and the rest of the Gone-Away crew. As for Garnet of the wheat-colored braids, despite living in the hardest of times in American recollection, the Great Depression (a farmer’s daughter, no less), there is no grimness in her; she still exudes the natural joy of childhood, mixed with a very real worry for her parents’ livelihood.

Another factor that has always personally influenced my delight in Enright is the friendship that exists between boys and girls, without any romance or foolishness, just very easy and natural. Garnet and Jay and Rush and Randy are, true, brother and sister, and Portia and Julian cousins, so romance would be quite ick in their cases, but so many writers only seem to capture the squabbling side of boy-girl family relationships, or the exasperation each feels for the other. There is some of that in Enright’s books, as there is in life, but there is also the deep and meaningful friendship that only comes when boys and girls are friends with each other, instead of boys only being friends with boys, and girls only being friends with girls. I love that Enright shows those sorts of friendships are possible, instead of assuming there must always be this unfathomable chasm between the two. Ugh! No wonder we have such problems with gender discrimination; it is so ubiquitous, even in children’s literature!

Whenever I want to capture some of the sense of my childhood, I re-read an Enright book. And in my writing, I try to keep in mind how natural and fun her characters all are, regardless of the book’s setting. When children who were created sixty, seventy, eighty years ago feel more real than children written about today, you know something has been done right!

Are you familiar with Elizabeth Enright? If so, which is your favorite book? What are some books you can think of that feature really excellent boy-girl friendships, without any hints of romance?

7 thoughts on “Influences: Elizabeth Enright”

  1. I LOVE her books! Thimble Summer is a'ight- the library scene always terrified me- but I really love the Gone-Aways and the Melendy books and would never part with them! I think one of the things EE captures so well, re: sibling relationships and boy-girl friendships, is that easy, taken-for-granted, hates-to-be-obvious, heartfelt affection that all her characters share, even in their moments of frustration and/or upset. I love that about the Melendys especially. The Four-Story Mistake is one of my all-time favourite books.

  2. I'd gotten Gone Away Lake out of a book order in school, and it was a book club edition with a modernized cover, and I assumed it was going to be a fun but relatively forgettable potboiler paperback, and was really surprised by how GOOD it turned out to be (somehow at that age I COULD tell the difference between literary and packaged fiction, I just happily read them both anyway). I grew up assuming I'd found this secret treasure among books nobody cared about, and only years later found out it was more like a modern-day classic. I got into a conversation about Enright with a college friend (who you remind me a lot of, incidentally) and was so surprised that someone else actually knew about Gone Away Lake… at which point my friend promptly insisted I read the Melendy books, which I even more promptly completely forgot to do for the next twelve years or so, when The Saturdays showed up on Betsy Bird's Top 100 Children's Novels Poll and I was so shocked that a book was on there that I didn't know. THEN I fixed that problem.

  3. Connie – Yay! I love being able to point people to new writers, especially writers I love so well.Beautifulmonday – I actually always liked the library scene; the thought of getting to spend an entire night in the library, even with the spookiness of it, appealed to me. And The Four-Story Mistake is just one of those magical, timeless classics. It has such a special quality to it, something that makes it stand out even from the rest of her books.Rockinlibrarian – My mom handed me Gone-Away Lake from the library one day when I was a kid, and I promptly devoured that, Return to Gone-Away, Thimble Summer, and The Four-Story Mistake, which were all we could find. I was so delighted when I found the rest of the Melendy series as I got older – more adventures with Rush and Randy and the rest! I was even more pleased to discover that I hadn't outgrown them, and never would.Kirsten – You know, I bought Tom's Midnight Garden at a library sale recently, but haven't actually gotten around to reading it. Now I have the needed incentive to dig it out of its box and read it through!

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