I'm reposting this review from my Doll Week in June. At the time, I forgot to add a label for Winter Holiday Stories because I almost forgot that the last half of the story took place on Christmas Eve. So, if you need a last minute gift for a little girl who likes dolls or just need a good doll story, don't miss Big Susan!
You may recognize the artwork of Elizabeth Orton Jones from her 1945 Caldecott winning book, A Prayer for a Child, written by Rachel Field, winner of the Newbery in 1930 for her excellent book, Hitty: Her First 100 Years. I first learned about Jones' 1947 book Big Susan while perusing the pages of the Chinaberry catalog years ago. For those of you who have never heard of Chinaberry, started by Ann Ruethling in 1982, was once a great resource of personally read and recommended, lesser known children's books, often sold at a discount. Now functioning as a website, they have expanded to offer "books and other treasures for the whole family," and is a bit less easy to navigate than flipping through the pages of a "books only" catalog. However, the quick perusal I did of the side before linking to them here did prove that they still offer a pretty good selection of unique titles (I saw many that I have read, loved and reviewed) as well as some great audios and an outlet. At the time, my daughter was too old to appreciate the book, but, because my 7 year old niece has recently taken up playing with her mother's childhood dollhouse, I decided it was time to read Big Susan.
I am happy to report that Big Susan fulfilled all my nostalgic adult fantasies and then some! I was obsessed with dolls and miniatures as a child (see my review of Holly Hobbie's Fanny books for more on that...) and spent hours making and arranging items for my own dollhouse, which my mother carefully wallpapered with different tiny calico and checked prints. Big Susan, the story of a girl and her doll house, is almost like Ann M Martin, Laura Godwin and Brian Selznick's Doll People series, but for younger children. Notice, I did not say "girls." I read Big Susan out loud to my 5 year old son and I know that there are many a little brother who have listened to The Doll People as it it read out loud to big sisters.
The story of Mr and Mrs Doll, their six celluloid children (yes, celluloid, this might take a bit of explaining to little kids - I just changed the word to plastic when reading it out loud) and the cook and the nurse takes place mostly during the brief magical time between twelve o'clock on Christmas Eve and dawn of Christmas morning when the dolls come to life. The dolls, used to being moved around and given dialogue by Susan, "the Wonderful Person to whom the Dolls belonged," are excited by this time to themselves nonetheless. Although the dolls have never seen all of Susan at one time, they are quite familiar with "part of her face and one or the other of her taffy-colored pigtails" and her hands, which they saw most often. Jones' descriptions of Susan, who is so gentle she can, "lift a whole bed with six children asleep in it right out of the house and put it back without even waking them," are among my favorite in the book. Jones writes of Susan, from a doll's perspective,
Her face was not a bit like celluloid, nor like china. It was soft and warm and alive. And sometimes it smelled of soap and water, and sometimes it smelled of cinnamon toast. And sometimes, especially at night, it smelled sweetly and faintly of tooth paste. And that was the Doll children's most favorite smell in the world. Susan would often peep into the nursery at night, when the children were in bed, to make sure they were nicely covered, as children should be. They could not see her face at all, then, because it was dark; but they knew she was near, for their favorite smell was in the air-the sweet, faint, good-night smell of Susan's tooth paste.
I think I love this passage most because Jones seems to capture, simultaneously, the sensations of being a parent and child. Susan's actions exhibit the tender thoughtfulness of the child playing mother as she tucks in the Doll children, along with the comfort that comes from being tucked in and doing the tucking in. I know we have all had many nights where we have covered up sleeping children, kissed their heads and breathed in their warmth - our children are comfortable and we are comforted.
The drama from the story comes from the six weeks of neglect that lead up to the magical hours for the Dolls. When the Dolls "awake" at midnight their house is a mess and, unlike Christmases past, there are no decorations or presents in the living room of the dollhouse. And, perhaps saddest of all, Susan has not given Mr and Mrs Doll the china baby they had been hoping for. Despite this, the Dolls decide to make the best of the situation. If there are no presents for them, then they will give Susan a present. As Mrs Doll says to her family, "Susan has always done everything for us. This year-why don't we do something for Susan?" And what is the one thing they can do for her during these magical hours? Clean the dollhouse, of course! Jones' descriptions of the dollhouse in a tip are both comical and spot on. "On Mrs Doll's dainty white dresser lay the logs that belonged in the fireplace," the frying pan is on her bed, a big button, a green marble and a big elastic garter are in the nursery, a painted wooden Easter egg is in the bathtub and the nurse is stuck, head first, in the bathroom sink.
The Dolls' hard work, aided by the "pretend light" and "pretend water," does not go unrewarded, however. The china baby is discovered in Cook's room which, having no door, must be reached - at some danger to the Dolls - by stepping around the and onto the open side. Mr Doll and Nurse introduce the baby to the rest of the family and the children decide to name her Little Susan.
The Dolls continue to tidy. As dawn approaches, Mr and Mrs Doll stand in the nursery admiring their children who are asleep on the floor, having given Little Susan their bed and all their toys. The, too, fall asleep and when they awake it truly is Christmas morning for them as well as Susan. For, as Mrs Doll half-dreams, in the hour after sunrise but before waking, a "Wonderful Person, even bigger than Susan, reached into the house and lifted her out, and undressed her, and then - gently dressed her again, and put her to bed, and covered her nicely, as if she were a little celluloid child. And a sweet, faint smell seemed to be in the air - a smell more life flowers than tooth paste." As Susan and the Dolls marvel at their presents, Mrs Doll begins to have an inkling of how the universe might work, that there may be "someone even bigger than Big Susan - someone whose hands..." But she changes her mind.
In 1939, Elizabeth Orton Jones also wrote Twig, the story of a little girl who lives in an apartment building and turns an empty, dusty backyard into magical place when she turns an empty tomato can into a home for fairies. This book was so popular when it was first published that, during her lifetime, Elizabeth Orton Jones was often called Twig after the character in her book.
Happily for us, the amazing folks at Purple Horse Press are dedicated to "bringing back the finest in children's books" and have lifted this once popular book out of obscurity. You can now purchase their paperback edition of Twig for a mere $12.95 or a special limited edition, signed by Jones, for $40.00!