Gladiola Murphy

February 28, 2020

Gladiola Murphy is an interesting book. The things it does, it does well, but some of them would be better not done at all. The author is Ruth Sawyer, who also wrote the Newbery Medal-winning Roller Skates. This is about a child too, in the early parts, but it’s not for children.

Gladiola is that classic thing in literature, the gifted child who springs forth from a terrible family. It’s not clear how much of their awfulness is due to her Native America forebears, but the implications are pretty bad. She spends the first ten years of her life hating the squalor she lives in, and then escapes to Boston. There she has a stroke of remarkable luck in running into Mary Page, a young woman who does settlement work. Mary and her housekeeper, Molly, take Gladiola in and try to teach her how to be a person in society without changing who she is inside.

It’s her insides–her pride and sense of justice and love of beauty–that lead her to make friends with Dudley Crane, a talented young sculptor. He hires her to clean his studio, but really he becomes another of Gladiola’s teachers, and he and Mary and Molly do a pretty great job of raising her, all things considered.

Dudley (inevitably) falls in love with Gladiola when she’s (uncomfortably) fifteen.

“Juliet was married before she was fifteen,” Dudley insists.

“I never knew a man yet who wanted to fall in love with a very young girl who didn’t drag Juliet in,” says Mary Page. Mary Page is pretty great.

Gladiola grows up beautiful and talented and attractive to more than just Dudley, but the one man who catches her attention is Dwight Richardson, a snobby aesthete who appreciates her beauty and talent, but isn’t as interested in her as a person. Everyone but Gladiola knows this is a bad idea, but at the same time you can see why she and Dwight like each other, and I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t going to work out.

Then we veer in the direction of melodrama, and Sawyer loses me a little, and I think that’s why I’ve written this much without really having any idea what I want to say. There are parts of Gladiola Murphy I liked a lot. There are parts I disliked. I would love to hear some opinions. And I plan to read more by Ruth Sawyer.



  1. HOORAY for Mary Page! That’s just such a great quote. I am not sure about the melodrama part, but I may give this a read…
    (I love Roller Skates, although it’s not one I’d hand to absolutely any child; a foreign jealous husband kills his wife! Ride with strangers and/or go into their homes while absolutely no one knows where you are, that’s a great plan! Etc.)(I am very much not on team “don’t ever talk to strangers” but I am sort of on team “don’t get into a car with a stranger, and don’t go into their homes.”)

    • I haven’t read Roller Skates since I was a kid; I should revisit it.

      Mary Page is the best. Sawyer appears to like Molly and Dudley better, but I was left wanting more about Mary Page and her life.

      • I just hit where Gladiola met Dudley, and it is… more creepy… knowing that he later wants to marry her [because: naked!] *BUT* on the plus side, when he realizes she’s older than he had thought, then he does not have her continue to pose for him even though it would be very valuable for him artistically. So, for now, points to Dudley, but I’ll probably swing around to thinking he’s a bit of a skeeze like Adam Ladd. (who really ought to have married Rebecca’s teacher: sympathetic interests, life experiences, good brain, imagination… also, not 20 years younger than he is!)

        • Okay, actually, I kept mostly liking Dudley; he actually *doesn’t want* to bend her towards him inevitably, once it has been pointed out to him as a possibility. And Dwight is just… no. I mean, there are a couple of not-bad points to him, but still: no. And then they only do get together when, really, she *is* mentally and technically of The Age Of Reason.

          So, yes, potentially-skeezy for wanting to woo her too young, *but* at least he does not want to wait, hovering over her and warding off all other men, and “pluck her at perfect ripeness” or something, and nor does he want to bend her to his will. He allows her to have agency, and recognizes it when she’s too young to make this decision yet (when Mary Page points it out to him, anyway – but props to him for recognizing it rather than closing his eyes to it or grasping at straws).

          Also, yes, the near-the-ending was quite weird. I am not honestly sure that there was another way out of that particular puzzle, given Dwight’s conclusions, although he could have simply had different conclusions [and also, I recognize that those conclusions and her bolting are a fairly solid way for her to face down, alone, the question of heredity and her past, which is maybe something nice to do in the book?]. I suppose he could have realized he was wrong about everything all along after he crossed the ocean, and sent a letter to that effect from Paris that got temporarily lost in the mail and arrived belatedly, but honestly him changing his mind after death makes more sense in some ways, given who he was, than changing his mind before death – it’s hard to imagine, if the grotesque sights of medical school didn’t change him, for the war to. So there is that.

          Anyway! Thank you for this book!

          • Yes, Dudley is maybe the least offensive grown man who falls in love with a teenager I’ve ever encountered in fiction. And Dwight…everything follows logically from his character, but his character makes him so stupid. I’m trying to think of what I would have preferred, and I suppose what would really help would be Gladiola deciding that she didn’t need Dwight’s permission–and dispensing with the whole brain-fevery thing.

  2. As a side note, I just gulped down Ruth Sawyer’s “Silver Sixpence” and it is delightful happily-ever-after fluff with just enough challenges in it to be fairly satisfactory (but one is not left hanging for long; this is nice in a book, sometimes, when the world is feeling rather chaotic and unpleasant). It is, however, unfortunately short.

    I found it on Hathitrust, having enjoyed all the (actual) Ruth Sawyer books available through Project Gutenberg (Leerie: half sanitarium romance/mystery, half WWI nursing tale; Seven Miles to Arden: a ridiculous but delightful farce; The Primrose Ring: halfway between Daddy Long Legs/Dear Enemy and Polly of the Hospital with a fairy tale mixed up in it as well; This Way to Christmas: sad boy who thinks he’ll miss out on Christmas finds it in making Christmas for others, although it is less sanctimonious than that perhaps sounds). (I say “actual” because there’s also something entitled “Drainage Modifications and Glaciation in the Danbury Region Connecticut” by Ruth Sawyer Harvey, and… I assume it is not the same person?)(At any rate, it is not Fluffy Fiction, although 1920 and thus *potentially* the same author – but I don’t *think* the fiction-author Ruth Sawyer had a PhD in that sort of thing and an additional last name? Probably?)

    • Those all sound fun, aside from the drainage. (and Ruth Sawyer’s married name wasn’t Harvey, so.) I’ve just been re-reading Roller Skates for the first time since I was a kid, and I liked it a lot, but didn’t love it.

      • I’ll have to re-read Roller Skates; I’ve got a copy, but haven’t read it for maybe a decade. (currently wandering through the Torchy books; I wanted some dependable reading)

        I ran across Ruth Sawyer in a weird place: someone sent out a survey to fiction writers and compiled their answers. For the authors I know, the responses are highly characteristic. It’s laid out in an annoying way, however, if you want to just read the answers for so-and-so, because each section has the question at the top and then the responses, alphabetized by author name, below. So if you do a search by author name, then you have to also skim up to find out what question So-and-so replied to simply with “Rot!” Anyway, if you want to know what a stack of fiction authors (including Samuel Hopkins Adams and L.M. Montgomery and Sinclair Lewis) think about various aspects of fiction writing, go to http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/61625

        (but yes, if you read Silver Sixpence or any of the others, I’ll be very interested to see your reviews! It is possible that being slightly desperate for distracting, cheerful, fluffy reading has skewed my opinion of them, though.)

        • I think we’re all increasingly desperate for cheerful, fluffy reading.

          • YES!!! Er, indeed, I believe you are correct that we may be desirous of cheerful, fluffy reading. :-)

            I was wondering if you might have a list of books where it is mostly just people being reasonably-believably competent? Or other just fluffy happy books with very little darkness in them? Pleaaaaase? :-)

  3. I love Roller Skates. It’s one of my favorite books, even though it still makes me cry every time I read it. I also LOVE The Primrose Ring. Sawyer wrote a sequel to Roller Skates called A Year of Jubilo, and I hated it! I might give Silver Sixpence a try.

    • oh, tell me why you hated the year of jubilo. I was thinking about reading it.

      • I wanted to like it; really I did. It’s been a few years, so I’m not sure I can be super specific about what I didn’t like. The country setting after all the excitement of a child loose in New York; the family’s reversal of fortunes; her relationship with her siblings. I noticed on GoodReads that more people like Jubilo than Roller Skates, But I’ve been reading Roller Skates every couple of years for more than 40 years, and I adore it. So maybe the sequel was just a let down for me. I felt the same way after reading Pollyanna Grows Up after loving the original Pollyanna (and no, I haven’t read any more Pollyanna books after that).

  4. Just finished ‘Leerie’. My first Ruth Sawyer. Actually, I skipped the WWI chapters. Picked it up where it looks like hero dies.
    I’m glad you mentioned other books, as I was about to write her off.
    I’ll try Roller Skates and Silver sixpence if I can find online freebies.
    Thanks for helping me through two months of being my own best friend!

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