Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: The Happy Orpheline by Natalie Savage Carlson (1957)

In an orphanage in a French village live the orphelines, a cheerful group of little girls who prefer to live with each other and their caretakers Madame Flattot and Genevieve than to be adopted by families. Brigitte, the happiest of all the orphelines is the one for whom the book is named, as most of the story occurs in her point of view. One day, while out on a group trip, Brigitte becomes separated from the  rest of the orphelines and finds herself in the company of a self-proclaimed queen. Brigitte just wants to go home, but the woman, who insists that her husband will one day assume the French throne, wants to adopt Brigitte and employ her as a servant. 

This delightful book is a true gem. It introduces readers to two settings that are not often represented in American juvenile fiction - an orphanage and France - and it portrays a surprisingly sunny view of life as an orphan. The large group of girls living together calls to mind the Madeline series (though Madeline is not an orphan), and I think this book would be a perfect first chapter book for girls who have loved Madeline during their preschool years. (The cover image shown here- which is not the cover on my edition - suggests the same thing!) The tone and quality of this book also shares much in common with short novels by Johanna Hurwitz, Beverly Cleary, Carolyn Haywood, and Maud Hart Lovelace, and the story feels timeless rather than outdated. 

Also noteworthy are the illustrations, which are done by Garth Williams of Charlotte's Web and Little House fame. His drawings give faces to the characters which perfectly match their personalities and they also provide much of the details of the streets of Paris that provide the backdrop for Brigitte's adventure. Among the best images in the book is the scene on page 63 where Brigitte rides on the back of the Queen's bicycle, her braid and limbs scattered every which way as she hangs on for dear life, while the old woman's face remains serene and slightly unbalanced-looking.  This illustration almost tells a story unto itself.

Girls with adventurous spirits will be pleased to follow Brigitte in her struggle to return home, and they will wish hard for a happy ending for her. Because of its almost exclusively female cast, this book would also make a possible good choice for a mother/daughter book club. There are a total of five books about the orphelines, but I only own three of them right now. Coming soon are my reviews of A Brother for the Orphelines and The Orphelines in the Enchanted Castle.

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