Title: Caterpillar Hall
Author: Anne Barrett with drawings by Catherine Cummins
Publication Information: Hardcover, Collins, 1950
Genre: Children’s Fantasy Plot: Penelope, a bright but lonely girl, has lived in London for two years with her kind but distant uncle and fussy governess, while her father works in Persia, trying to rebuild the family fortunes. When her father sends her five pounds to buy something special, she is drawn to a beautiful umbrella with shiny blue-green silk and a parrot’s head with gold beak. The umbrella leads Penelope in several directions: first, it blows out of her hands into the walled garden outside a quaint house that Penelope nicknames Caterpillar Hall, where she makes a friend, Miss Pellay. Next, Penelope learns the umbrella has a special magic that allows her to see the innermost secret yearnings of those around her, through flashbacks to their childhood. Once Penelope realizes the significance of what she has seen, she is determined to use the money left over from her father to buy gifts for her friends to fulfill their desires: a shiny copper kettle for Mrs. Prewett, her uncle’s housekeeper; a ship in a bottle for Mr. Prewett, who as a child longed to go to sea; a beautiful hat for her drab governess; and a picture reminiscent of Seventrees, the family estate, for her uncle. Like Penelope’s father, Uncle Everard is trying to earn money so the family can reclaim Seventrees, now leased to a stranger. Of course, the modern reader smiles a little at the concept of a family that is “hard up,” but can still afford two servants and a governess but that was the reality for certain English families, both in fact and fiction.
What I liked: The story is charmingly written and unusual. The magic provided by the parrot umbrella helps Penelope see past her own loneliness and frustrations to understand the adults around her. In turn, this improves her relationships with them and makes her happier. In Miss Pellay she finds a wonderful friend. Even a young reader would probably see the plot developments miles before they occur but that does not detract from the charm of the book.
What I disliked: The book was very likeable and sweet, but perhaps best read by an 8 year old. Fortunately, I still have two nieces young enough to reach that age in good time.
Source: I bought this book from a friend in Australia, Jennifer Genat, who is the proprietor of Buttercup Books and the author of The Old House at Mount Munecarthur. As you can see, it is a nice hardcover with a segment of the original dust jacket preserved.