On the day when Mr. Melendy is having a tremendously important meeting, he is interrupted by his youngest son, Oliver, bringing a dripping fish into the room to detail precisely how he caught it; by his oldest daughter, Mona, wandering through the room practicing Ophelia’s mad scene from “Hamlet”; by his youngest daughter, Randy, coming in to give a detailed explanation of her difficulties with knitting (like Ulysses’ wife continually ripping out her stitches, only without the suitors); by the two family dogs chasing each other around the room; and by the sounds of his oldest son, Rush, trying to learn how to walk on stilts.
These interruptions are completely representative of the Melendy family as a whole and of the four delightful books that tell their story. They even end up having a positive impact on the results of the important meeting.
The Melendy Quartet (“The Saturdays,” “The Four-Story Mistake,” “Then There Were Five,” and “Spiderweb for Two”) by Elizabeth Enright, are still among my favorite books to read and reread. I don’t care to revisit most of the books I loved when I was 11 years old, but the Melendy books never lose their fresh charm, wit, and intelligence. They were written in the 1940s with all the depth and innocence of most books written for youth in those days, by a woman who knew children and young teenagers and knew how to write from inside their heads, intelligently and hilariously, never making them young and silly, only young and creative. You can almost imagine that she’s writing about her own childhood, or her own children.
“The Saturdays” introduces the four children, Mona, Rush, Miranda (Randy), and Oliver. And it details their creative idea to pool their allowances and let one child take the whole pot each Saturday to have an outing in New York City, their hometown, something that none of them would have been able to afford on one allowance.
Randy, age 10, a budding artist and dancer, goes to an art gallery and meets an elderly lady who ends up becoming something of a fairy godmother to the whole family. Rush, 12, a budding composer, goes to the opera to see “Siegfried” and adopts a dog. Mona, 13 and a budding actress, gets into trouble by having all her hair chopped off at a hairdresser’s, but ends up looking like a princess. Oliver, a six-year-old budding engineer who is not allowed to go out on the town alone, quietly goes to the circus, gets himself sick and lost, and gets a ride on a policeman’s horse, the pinnacle of his young existence. In between their Saturdays, the children quarrel, play Bach on the piano, nearly die in coal smoke, nearly burn the house down, fall into a pond in Central Park, and exchange Shakespearean insults. They are children of the 1930s and ’40s, intelligent, creative, quarrelsome, and delightful.
In “The Four-Story Mistake,” my favorite of the four books, the family moves to the countryside to live in an old house that was supposed to have four stories but was built with only three and a cupola, hence the name. Mysteries, secret rooms, old-fashioned sleds, delightful neighbors, bike accidents, homespun dramatic shows to earn money for the war effort, and more Shakespearean insults ensue. “Then There Were Five” brings bootleggers, more Shakespeare, and a boy in need who becomes an adopted brother. “Spiderweb for Two,” my second favorite, caps the delicious creativity of the whole series with a year-long treasure hunt created for Randy and Oliver by the older children and various adults in their lives, to console them for the loss of the older children to boarding school.
I don’t see how the Melendy Quartet could fail to captivate any preteen who reads them, even after a diet of “Star Wars” and Harry Potter; and having read them as preteens, they can hardly fail to continue to be captivated by them again and again into their 30s, as I am. Certainly they’re quieter and less broadly dramatic than books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but they’re set in fully as foreign a world, the more innocent days of childhood without television, with nothing but siblings and creativity for entertainment. They have adventure (Rush nearly gets shot by bootleggers), drama (the saga of a girl who disappeared fifty years ago), trauma (an abused, half-starved boy), and mystery (will Randy and Oliver ever discover the pot of gold at the end of their treasure hunt?), and humor and creativity fill every sentence.
Few fictional characters have ever lived so fully for me as the four Melendy children in their four books.