Saturday, April 5, 2008

Rereading an old favorite, part one

My first surprise was to discover that The Pink Motel is by Carol Ryrie Brink, author of the much better known Caddie Woodlawn, a Newbery Award book I must confess I have never read (but will, now). Caddie Woodlawn was published in 1936, but The Pink Motel was published in 1959 so the copy I kept taking home from the library must have been fairly new when I was in grade school. I wondered how dated the story would be.

“Six Weather Vanes for Seven Houses” is the title of the first chapter. (I love chapter titles. When did they go out of style?) I don’t think I noticed in 1964 that the adult characters all have names that more-or-less tell you who they are. There’s Mrs. Ferry, who surprises the children with occasional bits of unexplained magic. Eventually you figure out that she is – a fairy. Her friend Marvello the magician is more obvious. The snobby family who are only interested in achieving perfect suntans are named Brown. The children discover that Jimmy Locke and Jack Black are gangsters. The cast is rounded out with a complement of dopey parents, mysterious visitors, gators and dogs.

One character in particular caught my interest. The children are quickly befriended by a local boy who knows all about coconuts, alligators and other Florida surprises, as he has grown up down the road from the motel and always helped out there in the summer. Although only 10, he becomes their mentor and defacto babysitter as they explore their new home. He is, as we are first introduced to him on page 21, “a little colored boy named Big.”

Bam. We’re instantly back in the 1950s. No chance this book is going back into school libraries today. And yet, I was pleased to discover as I read, that Ms. Brink’s development of the character of Big was not at all demeaning. In fact, although Big’s speech reflects his lack of formal education, his innate intelligence and common sense are essential to the tale (this might be considered stereotypical, although it certainly did not seem so to me as a child reader). And the relationship among the four children (as the daughter of the snobby Brown family is inevitably drawn in to the adventure) is completely untainted by any hint of racial tension. Since this would have seemed unusual in 1959, I think it likely that it was Ms. Brink’s intention to suggest, without preaching, that children (and by extension, anyone) can be friends regardless of race or class. I think I absorbed that lesson from my hours at The Pink Motel. Looking back, I hope I also learned that an author can teach without preaching, by simply weaving a story that represents life as she knows it is, or can be.


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