Monday, February 26, 2007

In Praise of Marguerite de Angeli 1

Girls on their way home from school, from Up the Hill by Marguerite de Angeli

I would like to encourage all mothers of elementary school age children to find the books by Marguerite de Angeli. You can readily find used editions of these books at
Marguerite de Angeli grew up in Michigan (scene for her famous Copper-Toed Boots) but moved to Philadelphia when she married. She had five children of her own but went to art school to learn how to paint and draw with the goal of producing books for children. The story is that when she tried to paint and draw in the playroom with her children, they would never leave her alone long enough for her to accomplish anything. She came up with an ingenious idea: she plunked herself in the playpen with her pencils, pastels, and paints, and let the children play around her, which they were perfectly content to do now that she seemed captured.

I recommend Mrs. de Angeli's books for the beauty of their illustrations, as shown here, for her bringing to life young people from different times, places, and cultures, and most of all for her portrayal of children within a loving family united in love of God.

Up the Hill is perhaps one of the best examples of all of these. I never read this book as a child, but when I set out to find all the de Angeli books to read to my daughter, I discovered it. The story takes place in 1930s Pittsburgh and is about a Catholic girl, Aniela, who is the daughter of Polish immigrants. The book is a song of praise to unselfishness. The father is an organist and a violinist who does not make much money. Therefore, the mother works. The little girl, age 10, therefore keeps the house and tends to the father's needs during the day when her mother is at work, since her mother cannot stay at home. We see all the the many chores Aniela must perform to keep the home. All of the family is scrimping to keep the oldest brother in medical school in Philadelphia. The middle brother is a budding artist, and Aniela gives up the money she has saved from selling eggs to buy a new bonnet to contribute to his going to art school in Philadelphia. The culminates in the celebration of Easter. Today's super-individualists would be horrified by this book, because its message is that a family revolves around loving sacrifice for the others in it, and this is the love we are called upon by God to have and to share. This is perhaps why today's super-individualists view the family as the major obstacle to imposing their vision of the world.

Here is an illustration from Henner's Lydia, the story of an Amish girl who is desperately trying to finish her hook rug so she can take it to market and the obstacles she overcomes on the way. This is one of Mrs. de Angeli's earlier books, and the illustrations seem to be all done in colored pencils. I loved this book as a child, perhaps because my earliest years were spent in central Pennsylvania and I was very familiar with the sight of Amish and Mennonite people. This book is very good for children because it introduces them to a very beautiful but different culture and also because Lydia is constantly but gently corrected by her father.

Thee Hannah! is probably the most famous of Mrs. de Angeli's books and tells the story of a Quaker girl who lived on Pine Street in Philadelphia during the Civil War. She chafes at having to be "plain" and envies the beautiful bonnets of her friends. Finally, just as she is walking down the street basket in hand, as in the cover picture above, she discovers what it really means to be a Quaker.

Girls walking to school in the rain in Thee Hannah! I loved this book not only for the story but also for its beautiful illustrations, like the one above. The story also gives a very good sense of what it was like to live in a well-managed frugal but elegant Quaker home, with loving attention to the details of linen, apothecary jars, shopping in the market, and the breakfast table.

Petite Suzanne and her brother and sister wave good-bye in this cover illustration. This is a story about a little girl who lives in a fish family in rural Quebec and how she discovers her love of painting and drawing, how her family prepares for Christmas, and how they live as Catholics.

This illustration of Petite Suzanne's classroom was etched in my memory as the most beautiful classroom I had ever seen. It seemed to radiate love of beauty (the flowers), love of God (the Cross and statue of Mary), and love of order and learning, enclosed in gentleness.

This is a scene from Copper-Toed Boots, which tells of the antics of a boy growing up in Michigan in the late 19th century. The antics of the boys are very funny, and I believe the book was inspired by stories of Mrs. de Angeli's father. The boy is a bit of a trial for his mother and vice versa. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, he receives his copper-toed boots, a milestone in growing up.

This is an illustration from Bright April, which was written in 1946 at the end of the war. This story tells about an African American girl, April, who lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. The story takes place during World War II, and the oldest brother is away at war and writes home to the family. April's father is a postman. April is a Brownie Scout and this is where she first encounters racist scorn against her. However, on a retreat that the troop takes, there is a terrible storm and the girl who has scorned her crawls into bed with April in her fright. From then on they are friends. The book ends with April describing this to her mother:

"You see, Mama," April explained, "she didn't know the truth about me at all. She didn't know at first that my skin is just like hers, only a different color, and she didn't know what good care you take to keep my clothes nice and clean, and she didn't know I like to read just as she does! I guess if she had known the truth about me, she would have liked me at first!" April laughed in sheer joy at remembering her new friend.

"Yes," agreed Mamma soberly. "Yes, that is just it, exactly. She didn't know the truth. We must know the truth, always, even when it hurts. The Bible say, 'Ye shall the know the TRUTH, and the truth shall make you free!'"

The illustration above of the breakfast table set for April's birthday is another illustration that was etched in my brain. I thought of this as the most inviting, warmest dining room in the world. Looking at this picture yesterday I found to my astonishment that many years later I have acquired the same dishware and replicated the windows with shades, ruffled voile curtains, and geraniums in my own home!


Mama Squirrel said...

Thanks for this post!--I've linked.

emilyatheart said...

I always loved the placemats and their fringed borders!