A classic tale of three orphaned sisters training for the stage brings a bygone era vividly to life.
Meg Ryan was speaking my language. Here I was, watching a silly rom-com (You’ve Got Mail), and the lead character started giving advice on children’s books. What could be better? Well, perhaps the fact that she recommended Noel Streatfeild’s beloved “Shoe” books, the first of which, Ballet Shoes, is near and dear to my heart.
Pauline, Petrova, and Posy Fossil are sisters, though rather unconventional ones. Pauline’s parents drowned at sea, Petrova’s parents died under harsh conditions in Russia, and Posy’s mother couldn’t care for her. All three were found and adopted as babies by Great-Uncle Matthew, affectionately known as “Gum.” Gum, however, is a paleontologist, and an adventurous one at that. His explorations may lead to the finding of our young heroines, but his constant, prolonged absences mean that their care falls to his long-suffering niece, Sylvia, and her ever-practical nurse, Nana.
“We three Fossils vow to try and put our name in history books,” swear the three girls when they are young, “because it’s our very own and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers.” Garnie — their name for Sylvia — struggles to pay the bills with Gum gone, so she takes on boarders. This leads to the girls’ enrolling in the local Children’s Academy of Dancing, where it is discovered that Pauline has a talent for acting and Posy has the makings of a singularly great dancer. Petrova, alas, dislikes the seemingly endless drills and rehearsals, much preferring to spend her time reading books on engines and aeroplanes. Knowing the family needs the money she’ll bring in when she can work on stage, she doesn’t let on about her dislike of the training. The story then unfolds, and we follow the ups and downs of each girl’s struggle to hone her talents and discover her place in the world.
One of the charming aspects of this tale, besides its delightful characters, is its realistic and entertaining portrayal of a bygone era. Published in Britain in 1936, the book not only shows three girls pursuing their dreams, it gives readers a unique view of what it meant to be a child performer at the time. While Streatfeild doesn’t glamorize the stage, she paints a vivid and interesting picture of what the training and opportunities looked like for the young performers of this era. Our heroines have various classes in ballet and tap dance, singing, acting, and even French. Readers learn about the licensing process each child has to go through, that children had to be twelve to work on the stage, and even how much money they were required to save from their wages. The secrets of organdies, auditions, and backstage goings-on are all presented in a lively fashion. And, silly or not, this reader always enjoyed the chapters wherein our girls had dress problems. Little girls grow quickly, and with money so tight in the house, dressing them properly is a challenge. I loved the thrift, sacrifices, and ingenuity of the characters, and also all the references to pence, pounds, and shillings scattered throughout. Streatfeild effortlessly weaves in these period-specific cultural details and circumstances, speaking with authority. And well she might. Streatfeild herself was a trained performer and acted for over a decade with various companies as an adult.
The characters in Ballet Shoes are amusing and even a bit precocious. Far from perfect, the girls have their moments of bickering and teasing, and Pauline gets her comeuppance in a memorable performance of Alice in Wonderland. But overall, the girls are fiercely protective and encouraging of each other. In addition to their stage training, there is a particular emphasis on their formal education. If our schools today required even half of what our heroines studied, we might be in a better place. You see, two of the boarders Garnie takes on are doctors, the kind that coach in Shakespeare and mathematics, and these lovely women offer to teach the Fossil sisters for free. Just because they were training for careers on the stage didn’t mean the other areas of their education were neglected. In fact, much of the success of the girls stems from the love and care given them by adults who keep them to a steady schedule and push them to do their best in all they undertake.
Streatfeild’s simple, straightforward style is engaging and clever. Her characters come alive, and we can laugh, reconsider Shakespeare, and take an interest in motor-engines along with them. We cheer them on as they learn battements, fly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and discover screen acting. And while I have it on good authority that Streatfeild’s other books, particularly Skating Shoes, are excellent reads, you should just take Meg Ryan’s advice: “Noel Streatfeild wrote Ballet Shoes and Skating Shoes and Theatre Shoes and . . . I’d start with Ballet Shoes first. It’s my favorite. Although Skating Shoes is completely wonderful. But it’s out of print.”
Something to Consider
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