The Lemon Jelly Cake by Madeleine Smith


How much symbolism is it possible to read into a cake? A fair bit.

The Lemon Jelly Cake, written in 1952, is set in the small town of Troy, Illinois with a population of 452 (one person of African American descent) in 1900, and narrated by an eleven year old girl, Helene. Helene is the only daughter of the town doctor, Frank Bradford and his wife Kate. Her best friend is Gracie Baldwin, the only daughter of the town’s minister, and similar in nature, though a bit more sensitive to what’s really going on in the lives of the adults around them. The main plot arc, if I may use such a complex literary device for such a comparatively simple book, begins when Winton Fenton, a sophisticated gentleman lawyer who comes from Chicago to give his mailman, originally from Troy, a proper burial in his own small home town rather than let him be given a pauper’s funeral in the soulless city. Wint, as he is daringly known in an era when even close acquaintances call one another by their last names, takes an interest in (so our protagonist thinks) herself–readers will read through the lines that he is in fact interested in her mama–and dares ask him for such things as the makings of a birthday party and a bicycle. These he gladly gives as he will then get to spend time with Mama. The book ends with Mama taking a trip to Chicago, ostensibly to shop for clothing. She does come back, with a renewed appreciation for what she has at home.

Written in 1952 but set in 1900, I’m assuming that The Lemon Jelly Cake is to some degree autobiographical, though I don’t know how much Smith actually included from her own life. Despite having a tween narrator, I’d say the book was originally aimed at adults with a nostalgic bent for their own childhoods, although I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest it to kids whose reading level had outstripped their maturity level. The time and place and narrator combine to produce a deliberately naive story of some very adult situations. The book is told from an innocent child’s perspective, so despite there being a number of adult situation and themes in the book, the narrator interprets them in an innocently naive childish manner. For example, at one point, the town minister goes in search of a couple whom he has just married but only after the ceremony realized that the marriage is technically invalid as the license wasn’t from Illinois. Our narrator and her best friend tag along to Springfield with him, but rather than wait in the soda shop they decide to help the minister and ask after “people who are living in sin”. They are directed to a whorehouse. The girls do not understand the exact nature of the business, and think only that the ladies within are very prettily dressed, happily scampering off with the strings of beads given them by the girls within.

There are a number of works of fiction concerning controversial events interpreted from the viewpoint of an innocent child, To Kill a Mockingbird being perhaps the most obvious, but Cold Sassy Tree running a close second, from what I’ve read recently. The Lemon Jelly Cake is a much simpler book than either, however; I’d call it a gentle read for those who want something touching on social issues. Perhaps the Betsey-Tacy or Anne of Green Gables are a closer match. This is not a totally idealized world. The lone black woman in town is rushed off to the hospital in a neighboring town for an emergency operation, and walks the seven miles home rather than favor one of the two sparring biddies over the other by taking a ride home with them. Gracie’s mother runs off with the owner of the town hardware and feed store. In the long run, however, I get the sense that in this world of horse drawn buggies, in which telephones and paved streets are rarities, who puts up the prettiest pickles for the county fair or who makes the best angel or devils’ food cakes is of approximately equal importance to who’s stepping out with whom and the implications of whether or not they’re married. Overall, it’s something to read if you want a bit of escapism, finding modern issues too much of a trial.

Why the title? Helene’s mother is known for her “lemon jelly” cake–a layer cake with lemon jelly spread between the layers–and the family uses those separated layers as an analogy for the isolation that we all too often fall into, thinking ourselves alone in our own layer of the cake, when in reality we’re all required together for a proper cake in its entirety.

Two and a half book lover’s review

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