Artists often make the best storytellers, for they see the world with curiosity. Their attention to and appreciation of detail enables them to grasp the important parts of a scene, helping them paint a picture for their reader. Their descriptive phrases are often surprising, and they delight readers with their clarity and charm.
Elizabeth Enright, a former illustrator, turned writer, was just such a storyteller, with books full of lively characters set in near-idyllic locations. A short-story writer and children’s literature author of significant acclaim, Enright wrote often for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications from the 1930s until her death in 1968. She was even a children’s literature reviewer for the New York Times and toured the country teaching classes on writing. The short story rivals children’s literature as one of the most difficult forms of writing, and Enright excelled at both. It is the ability to capture a story at just the right moment, to paint a vignette with breadth and depth, that makes Enright’s works shine, particularly her children’s books.
Foremost for this reader are Enright’s Melendy Quartet and her two books about Gone-Away Lake. Set in the 1940s and ’50s, yet timeless in their appeal, these books combine mystery, adventure, and family drama.
The books follow Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver Melendy. They are solid characters, the kind of children you’d want to play with and want your children and grandchildren to know. They aren’t perfect, but they are as children ought to be: noisy, kind, bickering, grumbly, self-giving, adventurous, daring, and ambitious. But above all, these children love beauty, and delight in the warmth of home and the meaning of family.
There is peril in the Melendy books, for what is a children’s story without it? But they are pastoral with just the right element of peril. A tumble into a deep well, not one but two fires, a near-deadly brush with coal gas, a wicked second cousin. The genre of family stories can be quite tricky; they easily become dull or preachy. Enright had a gift for telling a family story in a meaningful, captivating manner that engages readers, drawing them into the daily life of characters they come to know and admire.
And what a life it is! The Melendy series takes place over a period of about five years, following the children from their home in pre-war New York City in The Saturdays to upstate New York in Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. Through these books, the reader comes to know the children: their personalities, loves, dislikes, quirks, and dreams. They are talented children — Mona is an aspiring actress, Rush is a piano prodigy — but they are also children with plenty of faults and struggles who hate math and complain about chores.
And this is another lovely facet of Enright’s stories: Her world has stability. Not predictability, mind you, but the children don’t just run wild. She strikes a delicate balance in response to a problem that plagues children’s literature authors: namely, “What to do with the grown-ups?” The Melendys’ mother has died, but they are cared for by a loving father and a wonderful housekeeper, Cuffy. (Mrs. Evangeline Cuthbert-Stanley was too much for little tongues to handle, so “Cuffy” her name became.) The children have space in which to roam and explore, but also a home to return too, tables to set, the lawn to mow, and a home-cooked meal to eat. Everyone’s lives are woven deftly together, showing the value and importance of each member of the family.
This same sense of warmth, family, and adventure pervade two other Enright books that thrill me as much now as they did when I was twelve. Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away follow Portia, her brother Foster, and their cousin Julian over two consecutive summers. What would you do if you discovered a tiny ghost town of crumbling summer homes inhabited only by a delightful old pair of siblings named Pindar Payton and Minnehaha Cheever? And what if your parents bought one of those old houses? It hasn’t been opened for years — its owner had no children and then perished in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. From cellar to attic, you spend the summer refurbishing the home, discovering all the treasures that have been locked away for 50 years. Mix that with heaping doses of sunshine, trips to the spring-fed swimming hole, and rides in an original Model T, and you’ll suddenly discover you have an urge to start your own club or search for hidden safes in your home.
Enright is vividly descriptive without being verbose, reflective without being preachy, and family-oriented without being mushy. Age nine or 90, these books will make you grin, giggle, and shiver. You will find yourself lingering over a phrase, begin to writing riddles, and starting to plan picnics.
So, come. Join Mona, Rush, Randy, Oliver, Portia, Julian, and Foster, for they are begging you to thunder down stairs, swim in a brook, brave the Gulper, put on shows, hunt for moths, and maybe even take a bicycle ride while singing at the top of your lungs.