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?