Every now and then, more or less out of nowhere, I remember a book I particularly loved when I was a kid. Edward Ormondroyd’s Time at the Top (time travel via elevator), say, or Lion (one of the Great Designer’s junior architects comes up with a great name for a new creature–designing the creature turns out to be the tough part), or the particular edition of A Little Princess that I was smitten by as a kid (one with fabulous tipped-in color plates by Ethel Franklin Bett), and am seized by a sudden passionate need to find it right that moment and read it.
As it happens, I was grabbed by one of these passions a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t even remember the name of the book. I knew it was the first of three books in a series about a Zulu girl in 1950s (?) South Africa, growing up in her father’s kraal. I knew I had not imagined these books–I have a very clear sense memory of holding the book in my hands while sitting in the library of my grade school on a dreary-gray New York City winter day. So I turned the the internet and asked if anyone else remembered these books, and of course, the internet (and my Facebook community, which contains multitudes) gave me an answer within minutes: Reba Paeff Mirsky’s Thirty-one Brothers and Sisters.
The South African veld, with its gentle rolling hills and soft green mountains watered by many streams, is the background for this unusual story about Nomusa, daughter of a Zulu chief.
Nomusa is warmhearted and generous and affectionate; she loves all her little brothers and sisters and enjoys helping to care for them. But she is strong and brave and daring, too; she feels that girl’s work is dull and boys’ work is much more exciting, and much more fun…
from the jacket copy for Thirty-one Brothers and Sisters
Shortly I had it in my hands: the slightly oversize book I remembered (minus the library cellophane binding on the slipcover). The text and illustrations (by W.T. Mars) were printed in brown ink (that in itself was pretty unusual when I was a kid). As I began to read, characters and scenes I hadn’t thought of in decades came back, familiar and enthralling. I tore through the book in an hour or so, and closed it feeling both satisfied and impressed.
I would not have realized it when I was ten, but one of the strengths of the book is the way it treats Nomusa’s world. To a kid in 1960s New York it was certainly an exotic setting; it is lovingly and sympathetically depicted, butthere is no condescension, no whiff of “isn’t this quaint.” The book was published in 1952, and the tone of childrens’ books at that time was not universally evenhanded, particularly across cultures.
Another thing I found that I missed when I was a kid: the book was published in 1952, which means that it takes place (or at least its two sequels, Seven Grandmothers and Nomusa and the New Magic) in the South Africa of apartheid. I was reading these books in the sixties, when the US was going through its own upheavals and changes about issues of race (and I went to a school that sent kids down south each summer to help with voter drives; what I didn’t know about South Africa I certainly recognized about my own country). And yet the books never gave me a sense that Nomusa’s options were limited. There’s the “you’re a girl, you can’t do that” stuff–though a particular act of bravery and cleverness persuades her father to let Nomusa go on an elephant hunt (in the place of her brother, Mdingi–the kind of dreamy kid who drives his father the chief a little nuts). Mdingi redeems himself in the chief’s eyes when he demonstrates a real gift as a storyteller/singer. The book, in other words, deals more with gender expectations than racial ones.
In the next two books Nomusa becomes more and more intrigued by the world outside her father’s kraal–in the third book, Nomusa leaves her father’s kraal to go to school so she can be trained as a nurse herself. I haven’t re-read that book yet, but my recollection is that part of what Nomusa has to learn is how to balance the traditions and beliefs of her childhood with the new things she learns and experiences once she leaves home. Which is a pretty universal story.
For some reason I’ve conflated Thirty-one Brothers and Sisters and its sequels with All-of-a-Kind Family and its sequels: stories about girls, with a strong emphasis on family, on domestic adventures, on faith, and on negotiating the rules of gender expectations. To my 10-year-old self both series had exotic settings: 1950s South Africa and New York’s Lower East Side in 1912. I shared the All-of-a-Kind books with my daughters when they were small; I wish I’d found Thirty-one Brothers and Sisters in time to share it with them too.
Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, just out from Plus One Press). She is also the author of a double-handful of short fiction, most available on her bookshelf. Her first Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, and The Heiress Companion, and Lady John are now available from Book View Café. She has just completed The Salernitan Women, an historical novel set in medieval Italy, and scheduled for release in winter 2013.