Nancy and Plum by Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle author Betty MacDonald (first published in 1952, and recently re-published by Random House with illustrations by Mary GrandPré and an introduction by Jeanne Birdsall) was one of the books I checked out of the library over and over again as a child. I can tell you that before the local library’s remodel--creating an open plan with all the sections on one floor--I went down the dim stairs, made a left into the children’s room, went past the circulation desk, and off toward the right-hand corner, I’d grab the red-covered book from the bottom shelf, where it lived near the Betsy-Tacy books and Cherry Ames. I suspect I was the only one, or one of very few, who was still reading any of those.
I received a Nook for Christmas and exchanged it for a NookColor (I’ll review that later on), and as I’d seen a recent mention of Nancy and Plum on Twitter, I decided to make that title my first search. (I’m also trying to revisit or discover more middle grade books, because I haven’t been as heavy of a reader of those in the past few years, often because I get frustrated with the lack of stakes in a lot of books “suuuuitable for chiiiiildren ages 8-12.”) To my great surprise, I could get an electronic edition, illustrations and all, and I read it on a holiday plane ride. A little research and I discovered that the author lived in the Seattle area (city and out on Vashon Island) and also south of Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, places I know well. While she’s probably best known for The Egg and I (and Ma and Pa Kettle), I really only know her work for children.
Nancy and Pamela (“Plum”) Remson are orphans, and bachelor Uncle John has sent them to be boarded with the terrible Miss Monday, the home of an astonishing number of children, Miss Monday’s horrible niece Marybelle, and Old Tom, the man who works around the boarding home (and eventually turns out to be Miss Monday’s brother). At the beginning of the book, Nancy and Plum have been left behind while everyone goes into the city for Christmas, and the sound of jingle bells prompts a giggly rush into the snow to catch a glimpse of the sleigh. Unfortunately for the sisters, they are locked out, and because of a tall iron fence, locked in. Their adventures truly begin when they spend the night in the barn, drinking fresh milk and eating potatoes they roast themselves.
In the next 160 or so pages, the girls struggle with Miss Monday and their nemesis, Marybelle; Miss Monday not only misappropriates the boarders’ funds, but actively thwarts the girls' attempts to contact their Uncle John. The few other adults in their lives are ineffectual: a Sunday school teacher doesn’t notice when they skip out on a picnic, their benevolent teacher Miss Waverly can do little more than complain to the principal, and their kind librarian has no idea what’s happening at home. Even Old Tom, who’s happy to have them sneak out and visit the barn, is afraid to make waves. Still, Nancy and Plum keep trying, keep cheerful by entertaining the other children and dreaming of a better life. Finally, they run away, and are taken in by a farmer and his wife, realizing their dreams of a comfortable, loving household.
I am undecided on whether or not I am glad I re-read Nancy and Plum. I think I am, because the good parts are still good. A few moments don’t hold up at all today, like a couple of references to “wild Indians” and the glorification of cowboys as something versus the former. The gender roles for everyone are pretty rigid, and I found it odd that while Plum is adventurous physically and Nancy more verbally, they (later on) take on even more traditional girl/boy roles so that their adoptive parents can each have a child they adore best. The moment when the farmer approaches them after they’ve run away (at his wife’s behest to find the two girls who slept in the haystack the night before) takes place when the girls are swimming unclad, giving the scene an ominous feel--and even Nancy and Plum are unsettled, though that’s not further explored.
Otherwise, some of the things that don’t completely hold up are simply things that wouldn’t be written the same way today, or are quirks that I suspect have to do with MacDonald’s lifetime. There are long passages where the girls describe the things they might someday have in great detail, whether that’s dolls and accessories they dream of or how it would be if they could do this or that. When I first read this book, I would have been much more aware of having and not having, and it’s still easy for me to see how this is a wish fulfillment tale. (Ms. Birdsall explains that MacDonald had a history of telling stories to her sister, and I remember how Hallielocks, Lorilocks, and the Collinbreadboy had adventures in the Jell-O bounce house--just like in the movie of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs!--when I was small, so I see those influences, too: detailed lists that sound best spoken in a dreamy thread to lull one another to sleep...and to give you time to think of what comes next.) I also suspect that having the Depression hit when one was twelve or thirteen might prompt an author to luxuriate in a dream of perfection and modest wealth. And, today, child welfare laws require that authorities report even suspicion of abuse, and there are more governmental controls on child supervision, but it’s also doubtful that two tween girls would have such a happy ending once in any system.
At the same time, I do still love some things about this story. I love that Nancy and Plum have a lot of agency. They make plans, they make things, they escape through windows, and they care about their friends. I love that Plum is a little bit of a bully, but that she uses her bullying against another bully. I love the occasional pointed lines of humor, and I love the adventure inherent in two girls who know that they don’t have to be treated badly. I think I’ll always have a soft spot for Nancy and Plum.