Saturday, August 14, 2021

Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (aka Wintle's Wonders)

Title: Dancing Shoes
Author: Noel Streatfeild
Illustrator: Richard Floethe
Publication: Yearling paperback, 1980 (originally published in 1957)
Genre: Juvenile fiction
Setting: 20th century London
Description: As Rachel and Hilary’s mother is dying, she urges Rachel to make sure talented Hilary continues with her ballet. Once orphaned, the ten-year-olds are given a home by Rachel’s father’s brother Tom and his wife, Cora. Cora runs a theatrical school, Wintle’s Wonders, and does not initially plan to give a home to Hilary, "only" an adopted niece, until she sees Hilary dance and recognizes she has potential – although she does not think Hilary is as gifted as her own daughter, Dulcie, destined for stardom. Rachel does not settle well in her new home. While Hilary resents their being treated like second-class citizens by Aunt Cora, Rachel feels she is betraying her mother’s dying wish by allowing Hilary to learn tap, musical comedy, and acrobatics (presumably, what we would call gymnastics). Unfortunately, the adults assume she is jealous of Hilary’s talent and would ignore her opinion even if they understood because Aunt Cora has built an empire of young dancers who get licensed at 12 to perform. Rachel is a dreadful dancer but is forced to learn anyway, although her happiest hours are studying with Mrs. Storm, Dulcie’s governess, now shared by the cousins. Can these orphans manage expectations and find happiness in London?
My Impression: My school and city libraries had most of Streatfeild’s Shoes books and a few others but not this one. In sixth grade, we took a family trip to Bermuda and spent a day in Hamilton at a bookstore full of English books (where I discovered Susan Cooper’s Over Sea Under Stone and the Chalet School). We also went into a local library and there, as if waiting for me, was a copy of Wintle’s Wonders, the original title of this book. I sat and read it, enthralled, for about ten minutes before we had to go. I couldn’t think of a way to persuade the librarian to let me take it with me and I couldn’t illicitly borrow it with my mother standing right there, but it hurt to leave it behind. It was quite a while before I found a library that had it and Dancing Shoes has been one of my favorites ever since. Orphans! Ballet! Theatre! Pride goes before fall! But the book is really about ambition – Cora’s for Dulcie, Rachel’s for Hilary, and Hilary’s entire lack of it.

Streatfeild fans usually admire the talent and determination of the characters, most of whom are gifted at something, not necessarily dancing, and their seeming agency at a young age. Here, it is also easy to empathize with Rachel, who is absolutely miserable and doesn’t fit in.
“What about Rachel, Mrs. W.?” asked Pat. “She will be twelve in January.”

“Train her,” said Mrs. Wintle. “It would indeed be scraping the barrel if I were forced to use her, but there is no harm in having her ready in case.”

Rachel heard the news that she was to be trained as a stand-in Wonder in resigned silence. That evening when she was undressing for bed she told Hilary was going to happen . . . “I’ve accepted my fate. Ever since I got here I’ve asked in my prayers that when I’m twelve I won’t mind being a Wonder. They say everybody gets the strength they need for the cross they have to bear. I can feel I’m getting strength to bear being a Wonder, even if it means being an elf like the Aladdin Wonders were last Christmas.”
Her father died when she was very little; she just lost her mother; she is too intimidated to communicate with her aunt; her artist uncle, although very nice, rarely interferes with his wife (Streatfeild implies the imbalance of power is because Aunt Cora brings in all the money); and she is a weak dancer in a school that requires basic competence if there is no actual ability. Streatfeild’s characters may be talented but her readers are probably not and we are capable of identifying with Rachel’s passionate ambitions for Hilary, her slow realization that Hilary does not want the career Rachel and Mrs. Lennox dreamed of, her agony at being the least skilled Wonder, and her ability to lose herself in a book. Fortunately, the worm starts to turn when Dulcie gets her big stage role, with Hilary as the understudy, and Rachel’s lessons with Mrs. Storm pay off.

Source: Personal copy.


Ruthiella said...

I am almost positive I read this as a child. I really want to read it as an adult and see if I still feel the magic!

Jeanne said...

I also found this long after I'd read most of the others by Streatfeild. I wonder if copies got scarce for a while because it was so many peoples' favorite.

LyzzyBee said...

I mean she can't write a bad book, can she, but this is a good one. How lovely to discover those important books, how dreadful to have to leave this one!

Lark said...

I'm sad I never got to read this one growing up. I think I would've really liked it. :)