Monday, December 26, 2016

Skating Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (Book Review)

Title: Skating Shoes (UK title: White Boots)
Author: Noel Streatfeild
IllustratorRichard Floethe
Publication: Random House, Hardcover, 1951 (currently available in pb)
Genre: Juvenile fiction Setting: London
Description: Harriet Johnson has been ill and her doctor is concerned about her slow recovery so recommends ice skating. The Johnson family is delightful but impoverished: father George makes an inadequate living running a London shop in which he sells random produce etc. sent up from the country by his brother, mother Olivia manages meals for six out of the merchandise no one will purchase, and Harriet’s brothers immediately come up with a plan to subsidize her skating. Once at the rink, Harriet is befriended by talented Lalla Moore, who literally pulls her onto the ice when she is in awe at just glimpsing a rink for the first time. Raised by an affluent aunt, Lalla has been groomed since age 3 to become an ice skating champion. Their unexpected friendship will change the lives of both families.

Audience: Readers about 8-11 and adults who love Streatfeild.
My Impression: One of my all time favorite books, and a top three Streatfield, along with Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes. Although perhaps best known for her young characters who aspire to performing arts careers, Streatfeild is also gifted at portraying normal family life: Lalla, who was quick, soon picked up Casino and found it the most exciting game….Certainly she had never seen a family card game with everybody trying to do down the rest of the family, and roaring with laughter when they succeeded. Streatfield also makes it clear that frugal tea with the Johnsons is more fun than the cake with pink sugar and chocolate biscuits served in lonely splendor at Lalla’s home. On the other hand, part of the appeal of this book is learning what it takes to become a skating champion and witnessing Harriet’s skating development.

The supporting characters, as in all Streatfeild books, are warm and appealing, from Lalla’s Nana who does not approve of “making a show” of Lalla and encourages the friendship with Harriet and her family; the governess, Miss Goldthorpe, who invites Harriet to join Lalla’s lessons; and Max, the moody skating instructor, who is frustrated by Lalla’s lack of attention to the compulsory figures then required of skaters. Most vivid of all are the descriptions of George Johnson’s shop. His brother eats “the best of everything he grew, caught, or shot” and sends up to London dozens of near-rotten eggs, hundreds of cabbages, and possibly edible toadstools that are difficult to sell. Unlike many poor but honest families in English fiction, the Johnsons really are scraping the bottom of the barrel. No loyal retainer manages the kitchen, and they don’t have two shillings to spare for renting skates (Toby, the quantitative brother, immediately wonders how much skates would cost to buy and whether that would be more economical). 

I always think about this beloved book on Boxing Day because that is how I learned about this British holiday. Harriet’s brother Alec gets a paper route with Pulton’s News Agents to pay for her skate rental. It pays 14 shillings a week (sigh for the long lost days of a morning and evening newspaper delivery) and when he gets paid Mr. Pulton says, “Twelve shillings for your sister’s skates, and two shillings for your dreams.” Alec is invited to stop by Mr. Pulton’s flat, above the newspaper shop on the day after Christmas, which American readers learn is Boxing Day, and offered plum cake and ginger-wine (I assume this is the ginger beer also drunk by the Swallows and Amazons). Mr. Pulton listens to Alec’s ambitions for a market garden and gives him a leather cash box for his savings. His quiet support keeps Alec determined to save even when he is tempted to buy other necessities. Unlike some books where there is comeuppance for a talented but conceited character and success for the underdog, both Lalla and Harriet are likeable in different ways. Lalla is spoiled and lacks Harriet’s consistent work ethic but despite her upbringing she is generous (except in chapter 13) and capable of real friendship. Harriet’s improvement as a skater is fun for the reader, whether a skating fan or not.
About the Author: Noel Streatfeild was the daughter of an English minister and her book, A Vicarage Family, is the first of three that are more or less autobiographical.   She attended the Academy of Dramatic Art in London and acted professionally for several years before beginning to write.  Ballet Shoes was the beginning of the "career novel" for children, and in the US many of her later books were retitled with "Shoes" to increase sales.   White Boots became Skating Shoes, which makes much more sense than Family Shoes (The Bell Family) and Party Shoes (Party Frock).

Source: For years I checked this out of the Newton Library with the original US cover shown above. I now own a hardcover and the Puffin paperback also displayed.  Highly recommended and Happy Boxing Day!


Lory said...

It's true, I remember learning about Boxing Day from this book too! Nice homage to one of my favorite Streatfeilds.

GSGreatEscaper said...

I read all these 'shoes' books, but as a Thursday's child, I must count that one as my favorite.

CLM said...

I think Thursday's Child was the first one I owned so Margaret Thursday is special to me too!