Sunday, March 18, 2012

Reading Through History: The Moffats by Eleanor Estes (1941)

At first glance, The Moffats is a charming throwback to World War I America. The four Moffat children, Sylvie, Joe, Jane, and Rufus, live with their single mother in a rented house on New Dollar Street in Cranbury, Connecticut. Their neighborhood is idyllic, and the only true problem looming over their heads is the fact that their house is for sale, and eventually they will have to move to a new one. This set-up provides many possibilities for adventure in the kids' own backyard, and for taking readers on a journey to a time and place depicted as safer, cozier, and simpler. Unfortunately, while the book is a gentle, clean read, it's also actually pretty darn boring.

In this book, as in others of its ilk (The Saturdays, The Penderwicks, The Boxcar Children, etc.), lots of little, everyday things happen. The kids celebrate Halloween by frightening a bully. They ride on a trolley and witness a standoff between operators moving in opposite directions on the same track. They help a man from the Salvation Army bring his wagon to a revival. These are all good ideas, and they sound interesting, but their execution left me feeling disappointed. I usually love it when authors bring new life to everyday occurrences, but Estes just didn't do that for me. Everything started out ordinary and remained that way. Many scenes felt unresolved, or contrived in their resolutions, and I often got the feeling that the book was showing off its cuteness. I couldn't quite get invested in the characters because they never felt authentic. I was always aware, at every point, that they were fictional representations and never crossed over into believing they could be real people. Jane, especially, seemed impossibly young for nine years old, and Sylvie and Joe were almost irrelevant for how little they participated in anything.

I think, in addition to the shortcomings of the story, my reading experience was further destroyed by the fact that I listened to the audiobook. The full-cast recording was very distracting, and some of the kids' voices downright squeaky and ear-piercing. I liked the narrator's voice, and it completely drew me out of the story every time when dialogue was spoken by a different voice actor.

I recall enjoying Ginger Pye when I read it in graduate school, so obviously Eleanor Estes is a talented author. The Moffats, however, was too sugary-sweet and lacked enough conflict to keep me interested. I think I will pass on the sequels, The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Moffat Museum.

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