Rereading: Thirty-one Brothers and Sisters

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, AltheaMy 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.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Rereading: Thirty-one Brothers and Sisters — 12 Comments

  1. I have that exact edition of A LITTLE PRINCESS (it’s dark blue, right? with one of the color paintings inset on the cover). It’s like time travel, returning to the exact old edition!

  2. This is a true problem of rereading, but what can you do? The only thing more annoying is handing a beloved volume to a child, only to have her retort, “Oh, Mom. These people are such dorks.” (And why didn’t Juliet just send Romeo a text?!? “Tking fk poisn, ttyl”)

  3. Sherwood: I was really anxious about re-reading this book because I was afraid it would be complacent/condescending (O! Look at the cute, exotic furriners doing cute, exotic things!) or otherwise lead-footed. I was much relieved.

  4. Brenda: I got in the habit of sort of putting a book down in front of the child and walking away whistling. If she likes it, I hear. If she doesn’t like it, we draw the curtain of charity over it. Though I am disappointed that neither of my daughters will read Red Sky at Morning, aka The Book That Got Me Through Adolescence. Ah, well.

  5. In one famous incident, my nine-year-old daughter selected THE WORM OUROBOUROS off the shelf. I said, “Darling, it’s rather -mature- for you.” Instantly she clutched it, snarling, “I am GOING to read it.” So she did. Later she admitted that it had been tough sledding.

  6. Dear Madeleine–
    Thank you! You found Nomusa in time for me to share it with my twenty-month old daughter. My search for the brown ink and orange hued drawings sent me ransacking through my father’s house all week. I absolutely think of her in the same breath as All of a Kind Family and cannot express my joy and gratitude for bringing her back into my life.

  7. Hi, Madeleine. My grandmother was Reba Paeff Mirsky and I was happy to read about your re-reading of her books. She also wrote children’s books about the great composers (Bach, Beethoven, Hayden, Mozart) . Thanks for your wonderful review.
    Melinda Goodman

    • Your grandmother’s books had a big impact on me. I learned so much from what she wrote, and it added to my interest in Africa and its cultures. I read them many times, and the characters were so richly written I could picture myself living in the kraal with them.

  8. Thanks for posting this! I read these books as well, and have been trying to get copies. They are so wonderfully written, and were always checked out of the library, so you sometimes had to wait to read it. Your description is as I remembered – a book that gives you a wonderful look into someone else’s life. Thanks for writing the review – I now have the author’s name so I an start hunting for copies!

  9. A comment thread on my hometown’s “remember when” Facebook page reminded me of this favorite from our old library in the 1960s. I loved this book and checked it out over and over again. So I did a Google search and ended up here (even though I remembered it as 21, not 31!). Anyway, I’m happy to know that this story has stood the test of time and really was as charming as I recall. I might try to find a copy for myself!