Sunday, 5 December 2010

Dancing Shoes (Noel Streatfeild)

--The blurb--
"When their mother dies, leaving them orphaned, Rachel and Hilary are sent to live with their aunt, who runs a troupe of dancing girls –‘Mrs Wintle’s Little Wonders’. Hilary, a talented dancer, settles there immediately and loves the chance to dance every day. Rachel finds it more difficult to fit in. She’s also got another worry on her mind. Her mother’s dying wish was for Hilary to attend the Royal Ballet School. But Hilary seems to have other ideas!"

--The review--
It is clear that following the success of her classic and arguably best-loved story, Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild (or her agent or publisher) decided that it would be a good idea to stretch the format for the American market in particular as far as was humanly possible. To an extent this was successful, with White Boots (also published as Skating Shoes) in particular enjoying similar popularity with the author's fans. However, is there such thing as taking a concept too far? Alongside these two novels, Streatfeild's back catalogue also includes - to name but a few - Tennis Shoes, Theatre Shoes (/Curtain Up), and Party Shoes (a.k.a. Party Frock; all yet to be read by me) as well as Circus Shoes (read; review forthcoming), and the subject of this review, Dancing Shoes. So is Streatfeild's breaking point reached here?

Arguably the answer is no: Streatfeild's stories often feature a "fairy godmother" style character who steps in to save the children from whatever happens to be threatening their futures, and in Dancing Shoes this is not the case. In fact, we are presented with the complete opposite; we have supportive adult characters, yes, but none with enough power to save the situation. Instead, we have the highly disagreeable aunt and her equally disagreeable and spoilt daughter Dulcie, and the trusted family doctor who rightly or wrongly believes that Hilary and Rachel's aunt is doing the best for them, rather than listening to Rachel's concerns. Rachel's misery is therefore rather a focus, and while it can make the story a bit of a plod to read, it does ultimately serve a purpose, as Rachel has to realise that people do not always want what we want for them - for better, or for worse. This is an important lesson to learn, and not one, to my best recollection, that appears elsewhere in Streatfeild's stories, where quite to the contrary children are propelled along by pushy parents.

Another important moral appearing in the story is the idea that whatever we are suffering is only for now; we are likely to have the power to change our situation later on, even if this power is out of reach at the time, and this is something that Rachel learns as well. This is not to say that we do not feel any sympathy for Rachel throughout the story - the aunt is so odious that we cannot help feeling for the little girl who struggles to fit into her new life on the death of her mother.

The story does suffer from some forgettable aspects: in the style of Enid Blyton, the children in Streatfeild's novels all tend to be of similar personalities and from similar backgrounds, and consequently only a month or so after reading the story I cannot say that I remember terribly well how it ends. This, perhaps is due to the cause outlined above: Streatfeild may have been under pressure to continue in the 'Shoes' vein to such an extent that many of the stories ended up merging together in an unoriginal vagueness. So while the stories are nice comfort reads that can be returned to over and over, on first reading they may not always stick. Dancing Shoes sadly falls into this category.

Other works by Noel Streatfeild
Ballet Shoes (1936)
Tennis Shoes (1937)
Circus Shoes [The Circus Is Coming] (1938)*
Theatre Shoes [Curtain Up] (1944)
Party Shoes [Party Frock] (1946)
Movie Shoes [The Painted Garden] (1949)**
Skating Shoes [White Boots] (1951)
Family Shoes [The Bell Family] (1954)
Travelling Shoes [Apple Bough] (1962)
*All of the titles mentioned here, with the exception of Ballet Shoes and Tennis Shoes, which only ever had one title, are listed under their published titles for the US market; their UK title is listed in brackets afterwards.
** Interested readers are advised that the American publication of this novel - Movie Shoes - is a significantly abridged version of Streatfeild's original work.

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