Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holiday Nostalgia, Part One: Emmy Keeps a Promise

At least once a year I read through my favorite childhood book, Emmy Keeps a Promise, by Madye Lee Chastain, usually around Christmas because that's when the climax of the story takes place.

The book is set in the last four and a half months of 1850, and I know that because early in the story Emmy Thatcher (aged 11) and her sister Arabel (aged 19) go to see Jenny Lind's first American concert, which took place in September of that year. I don't think I knew it as a girl, but with all the talk of bandboxes, valises, poplin, satinet, and doing odd jobs for a few cents a week, I certainly knew we were talking about the 1800s. As the story opens, Arabel and Emmy are leaving their Aunt Hannah and Uncle Ben, and are off to New York; Arabel has a teaching job at a girls' school, and Emmy is going with her, because they've never been separated. Aunt Hannah asks Emmy to keep an eye out and see if she can find a nice man for Arabel, but Arabel is determined to be a success and pay back her Aunt and Uncle for all their support. In New York, the girls work hard, but also spend time with their new friends the Spenlows, who are wealthy and who include Emmy's best friend Lissa and her dashing cousin, Captain Andy (both of whom live with their Grandfather). The Misses Thatcher live in an attic room let by the Piddlebys, whose patriarch is in the clam business. All is going smoothly until Christmastime, when Arabel becomes deathly ill, and they are taken in by the kind Spenlows. I'm sure you can guess how the romance turns out.
I am not sure I could describe why this book touches me so. On the one hand, there is the marvelous scene staging, and I love the occasional references to fashion, the adventure of discovering 1850s New York, and the fun of the events described. But there is also a combination of simplicity and independence in the book that I love. While I was looking for the picture, I came across a few other pages about the book, and others have been just as obsessed as I am with it. It is, as one page pointed out, a romance, but its point of view from Emmy's perspective and the well mannered delivery of the story never fail to warm me, even while other romances fail. Every time I read it, I cry with Emmy's desperation to get help for Arabel, and at the book's happy conclusion. It always gets me in the mood for the Christmas spirit. It is a book that I can give myself wholly to as I read.
The copy I have is the copy I checked out over and over again from my elementary school library. The card is absent, but there's a sequence of dates on the date due slip from 87-89 that are probably all mine. That's how much I loved this book, and how pleased I was that they gave it to my Mom when they were getting rid of some things. I'm sorry that other little girls won't get to experience it...but not that sorry.


Susan said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Professor M. Hicks said...

Emmy keeps a promise was one of my favorite childhood books. My mother was a reading teacher and I used to sit in her room before and after school and read this book again and again. Until today, I had forgotten the title...I kept looking for "Emmy" or "Emma." Now that I know the title, I have to buy a copy!

meg said...

I loved this book too, as did my sister who loved it first.. She named her cat after Arabel.. I named my daughter Emmy..