Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cheaper by the Dozen

1948, 1988 Bantam edition
Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Illustrated by Donald McKay
Cheaper by the Dozen
Original price $5.50, purchase price $3.00
Fair condition paperback

Although I'm an only child, I've always had a soft spot for stories of large families, which I suppose you can blame on The Brady Bunch.  There are twice as many children in this real-life story, although one (Mary) died at age five.  For the most part, this is ignored, and the brood is spoken of as a dozen throughout.  In any case, eleven or twelve children was a lot even in the 1920s, and perhaps only a pair of efficiency experts could've deliberately planned and managed that amount (even down to there being half girls, half boys, although that was just luck).

Having read Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth-- A Life Beyond "Cheaper by the Dozen," I know that she was a much more complex woman than the mother shown here, or in the 1950 movie.  Even in the sequel, Belles on Their Toes, more sides are shown to her.  But this book is about Dad, up to shortly after his death in 1924.  He comes across as larger than life, bluff and charming.  However, what really struck me this reading was his harsh discipline.  I don't mean the spankings or the way the children had to check off things like teeth-brushing.  I mean things like him hitting them on the head to teach typing, or flogging them when they're the crew on his boat.  The punishments are told in the same breezy, humorous style as the rest of the book, but they leave a bad aftertaste.

The other weakness of the book is the illustrator.  On the one hand, McKay shows many funny moments from the lives of the Gilbreths, but on the other, his style is kind of bland.  I could blame this on the decline of illustration in the post-war period, and gosh knows he's not as ghastly as Kramer, but I own some 1950s books with pleasant or even beautiful illustrations.  The worst thing that McKay does is hair.  Whether the girls wear cootie-catchers (long hair) or bobs, their hair is nondescript, and the boys' isn't any better.

On the plus side, the book is still occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and the co-authors (eldest boy and third-eldest girl respectively) do a good job of making each of their siblings, even baby sister Jane, distinct to the reader.  It's also fun to see how the early '20s seemed a quarter-century later.

Apparently, this book is sometimes assigned in high schools, and one of the Phyllis Reynolds Naylor "Alice" books (which I've read but don't own) has Alice taking the role of eldest sister Anne in the school play.  I never thought of it as a children's, or YA, book.  It contains enough mild swearing to offend some readers on Amazon, and there are references to illegitimacy and prostitution.  There's also a quite funny scene, which made it into the movie, where a mother of eight sends a birth control activist over to the Gilbreths because Mrs. Gilbreth would be a better campaigner for the cause than she is.

And, yes, I can like this book and Margaret Sanger's autobiography.  The Gilbreths wanted and could afford a dozen children, even sending them all to college.  However, I despise the 2003 Steve Martin movie because it's tasteless without being funny.

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