Friday, February 21, 2014

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Three orphaned girls make a vow to become famous without help from anyone else. Noel Streatfeild's classic story draws heavily on her own experiences as a young actress and performer. A cheerful and inspiring book with a feminist twist.

Noel Streatfeild started her career as an actress, but when she found the acting jobs drying up, she turned to her pen. Originally Streatfeild was writing novels for adults, but at the urging of her editor, she tried her hand at writing for children. Ballet Shoes was the result and Streatfeild never looked back. (It's interesting to note that Louisa May Alcott also had no intention of writing for children, until it was suggested to her.)

Like Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Ballet Shoes is suffused with a charmingly naturalistic style. Streatfeild spent 10 years working in the theatre as an actress, and also studied acting. Those long years of experience, the joys and the disappointments of being on the stage, inform much of the text. There is a realism in Ballet Shoes that comes through in the wonderful detail, and an intimacy, a love really, for acting and performing. The reader gets a well-rounded picture of what it must have been like to be a child performer in England in the 1930s. For example, child performers of a certain age had to save a certain percentage of their weekly earnings at the post office.

The story follows three orphan girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, who were discovered by their Great Uncle Matthew as babies, a globetrotting collector of fossils. Because of his profession, the girls decide to give themselves the surname Fossil. Pauline, Petrova and Posy are sent to live with Matthew's great-niece Sylvia, and her nanny, Nana, while he goes off travelling again. Uncle Matthew has left Sylvia a certain amount of money to live on, but after a time the money starts to run out and the girls must find ways to earn money.

Sylvia starts taking in boarders, and the girls start training at the Academy to become performers. Soon enough the eldest girl Pauline is earning money, and prospects are looking bright for the others. Much of the novel really concentrates on money matters, household management, female education and making it independently in the world. Early on the sisters make a solemn vow to make a name for themselves in the world, so people will not think it is due to the help of their great-grandfathers (we guess they mean figuratively, as they are orphans). Ballet Shoes, despite is wistful, dreamy title, you could actually describe as a bit of a feminist novel. It's a spiritual guidebook for young girls wanting to strike an independent course in life while also being useful members of society.

Naturally enough Ballet Shoes has a happy ending. The book is topped and tailed with a fanciful invention, the mad professor-uncle who gets the plot going and then brings it to a halt. Inbetween that we are given a riveting, blow-by-blow account of a troupe of young British girls making it on their own, without the help of their great-grandfathers. I enjoyed this so much I was sorry to see it end.

Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Collector's Library. ISBN: 9781907360855  RRP: $16.99