Saturday, June 2, 2012

Belles on Their Toes

1950, undated but probably 1950s Thomas Y. Crowell edition
Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Illustrated by Donald McKay
Belles on Their Toes
Original price unknown, purchase price $1.50
Hardcover with stains and broken spine

This book picks up right where Cheaper by the Dozen left off, three days after Dad's death.  Mother is going to Europe to deliver speeches that Dad was scheduled for, and so Anne is left in charge of the brood, although thrifty Martha is in charge of the budget.  So various crises break out, including chicken pox.  Although the book takes the family up to nearly the then present, most of it covers the year following Dad's death, as the Gilbreths adjust to life without father.

The dustjacket claims that "it is one of the few sequels that is more entertaining than the original," and it is indeed funnier and more touching.  Like Cheaper, it was an immediate success, and this is the 17th printing.  The dustjacket refers to Ernestine's "two teen-age children," and since her kids were born in '38 and '42, that gives this a date between '55 and '57, unless the biographical blurbs hadn't been updated.  Both authors lived long lives, Frank dying at 89 in 2001, Ernestine at 98 in '06.  In fact, all of the dozen except Mary, whose childhood death is mentioned in a footnote early on, and Martha, who died at 59, lived to be at least 77.  Fred is still around at 95.  And Mother Lillian survived till age 93.

The title refers to the saying (invented by the authors or common at the time I don't know) that belles have to be on their toes to get rings on their fingers.  Much of the book is about the struggles the girls go through in dating, particularly since their mother and their late father were so Victorian.  A later chapter shows how baby sister Jane's "big brothers" (the four little boys from earlier anecdotes) teach her how to be popular in the mid-1930s, in contrast to Anne's generation.  As in the earlier book, the six brothers don't get as much attention, although there is a funny chapter about the clothes they wear when meeting President Hoover.  Oh, and there's Frank dressing up as a girl to scare Ern's suitor.

Another thread of the book is Mother's engineering career, and how she combined it with motherhood.  When a nosy teacher asks about the career, one of the little boys indignantly says that if she has one, she never showed it to him.  There's an acknowledgement of the sexism Mother had to face, but as with all the other problems, it's discussed in a breezy manner.  This remains a comedy, despite poignancy.

The family misses Dad, but as a reader I didn't.  I'd rather read about Tom, the incompetent but good-hearted cook and "handy" man.  At one point, he brews moonshine in the basement (during the Prohibition era) and of course it explodes when an annoying guest is visiting.

McKay's illustrations are again forgettable, except that he seems to think that all (rather than most) of the children were redheads.

This became a movie in 1952, with a mostly new cast, although Myrna Loy as Mother and Jeanne Crain as "Ann" [sic] returned from Cheaper.  It's not quite as good, but it does have its moments.

And welcome to the 1950s.  We'll be here awhile.

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