April 11, 2009

I should be writing about Graustark, by George Barr McCutcheon, which is probably the book the phrase “Ruritanian romance” was invented for, but I just finished Jane Abbott’s Keineth this morning, so I’m not in the mood for talking about Grenfall Lorry’s supposed heroics.

Jane Abbott was recommended to me by frequent commenter Elizabeth, who has far better taste in girls’ books than I do, and I started with Keineth because it was one of the only ones available on Project Gutenberg. I have trouble imagining that I’ll like any of Abbott’s other books better, though.

I love melodrama in books, but I also love the lack of it. A lot of the same things happen in Keineth as in other children’s books — a near drowning, a child winning over a grumpy older person — but Abbott doesn’t make a big deal out of those things, so instead of seeming contrived, they fit in and feel natural.

Keineth — pronounced “Kenneth,” I think — is the main character, a twelve year-old girl named Keineth Randolph. She lives in New York with her father and a French governess, and at first their situation is pretty ambiguous — Is the governess leaving for any reason other than that her family needs her? Do they rent out the top floor of their house because they’re poor? And if so, why do they eat dinner out every night? I found it puzzling, partly because it wasn’t a stereotypical sort of fictional childhood.

It turns out that Keineth’s father is important enough to be sent on a secret mission to Europe by the President (Woodrow Wilson — this is World War I), and he gives Keineth a choice between staying with her aunt Josephine, who is rich and snooty, and living with the family of his old friend Mr. Lee. Keineth has never spent much time with kids her age, so she chooses to go to the Lees, who have four children: Barbara, age 17; Billy, 14; Peggy, 12; and Alice, 8.

Keineth adjusts pretty well, although not unrealistically so — she has trouble convincing the Lee children that she’s worthy of their regard, and although she soon becomes friends with Peggy, but they don’t always get along. Peggy and Billy also get upset with her because she can’t tell them anything about her father. By the end, though, she’s completely part of the family.

Also noteworthy: Keineth plays the piano, and although there are pieces she has to practice, mostly she makes up her own music. Mrs. Lee teaches her to write it down, and eventually she sells a piece to a music publisher for $25. At the end, she hears it being played by a band in Washington.

Bits that practically made me squeal with glee:

  • Keineth writes a letter to her father in care of the President, and the President writes back.
  • Billy and Keineth are partners in a tennis competition, and Billy is mad at Keineth so he purposely plays badly. She tells him, “play square,” and he does, and they win. And then he tells his father that no one is ever going to have to tell him to play square again. I’m smiling again just thinking about it.
  • A ship sinks, and a newspaper reports that Keineth’s father was aboard. She refuses to believe it, but sort of does anyway, and then she gets a telegram from him saying he changed his travel plans, and wasn’t it lucky? I cannot count the number of books I’ve read in which some of the characters wrongly thought another had drowned at sea. And never do any of those supposedly drowned people send a telegram. Seriously.


  1. Another great read!

    This one brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my face. An idyllic childhood in many ways, but never felt too preachy or false to me. The only part I didn’t like as much was the Christmas play, which did ring untrue for me as coming from a child’s ideas (even ones as conscientious as those in this book). However, that was a minor quibble with an overall enjoyable book.

    One other aspect that moved me was Keineth’s concern for all the children who had actually lost their fathers at sea. Perhaps the sentiment was a touch unrealistic, but I appreciated it all the same. It felt true to her character at any rate.

    • I think the Christmas play might be my least favorite part too, but yeah, I love this book. You’re right about the lack of preachiness — I think that’s a big factor in why the book works so well.

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