The Melendy Quartet, or another set of children’s books to be rescued from oblivion


Another set of books which I enjoyed as a child and now as an adult, serve as “comfort reads” are Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet, The Saturdays, Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five and (several years later) Spiderweb for Two. We’re talking the literary equivalent of good macaroni-and-cheese and hot cocoa, fluffie flannel footsie jammies and a down comforter, being tucked into bed by someone who loves you…that kind of security. Things go wrong during the books1, from falling out of a rowboat in Central Park to child abuse, but Enright always manages to leave the feeling that the world is a fundamentally safe and secure place with the Good People vastly outnumbering the Bad–policemen protect us (and mounted policemen are the best of all), busses are a reliable and safe form of transport, children may roam the wilds of Manhattan and the depths of upstate New York with only minimal adult supervision and most of the adults the children encounter are eccentric but sweet2, not at all nonplussed by random children showing up on their doorsteps in need of help.

The first book is set in Manhattan slightly before the United States joins WWII–call it 1940-1941–when four siblings decide to start ‘The Saturday Club’, and pool their allowances so each of them may splurge on something they’ve always wanted to do but been unable to afford. Miranda, nine, goes first as the creator of the club and goes to an art gallery, where she meets an old family friend, approximately grandparent age, and discovers that far from being a befurred Old Lady to whom the children must be polite but do not consider worth befriending, Miss Oliphant had her own adventures as a child outside of Paris. Rush, the oldest, goes to see Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera, Mona gets her first manicure and ‘set’, and even six-year-old Oliver sneaks off to the circus. The next three take place just outside a small town not too far from New York, as the father moves them out to a building eccentric in its own right, called The Four Story Mistake.

They’re a slight anomaly for me, as there’s no mystery, no fantasy or supernatural or science fiction elements in the books–just four siblings growing up together in the early 1940s. The kids squabble with each other, but they’re happy to work as a group and entertain themselves as a rule. They’re mature enough to take care of themselves for a couple of weeks (with some assistance from the handyman and neighbors) but still relieved when their father and the housekeeper return home. There’s none of the gooeyness from the Bobbsey Twins books and their like; these kids hate spinach, cleaning their rooms and going to bed. They tease each other. They get exasperated with and exasperate their father. Tracking mud through the house is the least of their problems: they raise butterflies/moths in the bathrooms, fall down wells, and almost get buckshot-riddled as they flee from neighbors protecting an illegal still. Nothing terribly dramatic happens.

Reading them as an adult, I notice that there’s a slight internal vs. external time discrepancy between the first three books, which take place during WWII, and the fourth book, which clearly takes place after WWII has ended but doesn’t specify how long afterwards. The internal chronology is quite clear: they take place within a three year time span, as Oliver (the youngest child) goes from six in the first book to nine in the fourth book. The external chronology is a bit awkward, though. So far as I can figure out, The Saturdays takes place in the spring of a year after WWII has gotten underway but before the U.S. has entered the war (presumably somewhere between 1939-1941), The Four-Story Mistake and Then There Were Five take place after the U.S. enters the war3 while Spiderweb for Two takes place after the war has been over for some time4 (a year or more?).

1furnace leaking coal gas and fires in the attic, sprained ankles while ice skating and ramming into a bus while learning to ride a bicycle, German measles/croup/various other childhood diseases, child neglect and alcoholism
2ranging from a traffic cop who keeps an alligator in his bathtub to an elderly woman living alone who supports herself by her garden and wildcrafting
3the kids buy War Bonds/Defense Stamps and go on scrap metal drives
4Oliver refers to a church bell that hasn’t rung since the war ended

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One thought on “The Melendy Quartet, or another set of children’s books to be rescued from oblivion

  1. Pingback: Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright | Josephine's Readers Advisory

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