It goes without saying that we love the Melendys here at the House of Hope. Then There Were Five is the third of the Melendy Quartet, following The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake. This was our bedtime read-aloud for the past month or so, and it really makes a perfect bedtime read, excepting the fact that most chapters are pretty long. It’s another episodic story, revolving mostly around the things the Melendy children do as they’re left alone without Cuffy or father for several summertime weeks. The benignly neglectful (overgrown adolescent?) Willy Sloper is the only adult about the place, so Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver do pretty well as they please, which makes for some very entertaining times. This novel does have more of a cohesive storyline because of the introduction of an extra child–the fifth one indicated by the title–into the story. Randy and Rush meet Mark Herron when they’re out collecting scrap metal for the war effort one day and immediately strike up a jolly friendship. Mark’s a stolid, hard-working, yet jovial fellow, and the Melendys can’t help but love him. His situation in life isn’t good; his guardian is a relative, a mean old cuss named Oren, who works him hard with little to speak of in return, and certainly no warmth or affection. Due to a surprising turn of events in the story, Mark comes to live with the Melendys and is eventually adopted by Mr. Melendy at the very end of the tale. Thus, the very, very heart-warming and touching theme of family love is beautifully explored in the story. Given the light touch Elizabeth Enright employs through most of her stories, this unexpected (yet entirely appropriate, given the children’s ages) revealing of some very important issues in life is lump-in-the-throat inducing. I can’t say when I’ve enjoyed a story more, and I think my girls would agree.
I’ve shared one quote already, but as usual, I can’t resist sharing a few more:
This, from Mr. Jasper Titus, another friend Rush and Randy make on their scrap metal drive, reminds me of something out of a L.M. Montgomery novel. (In fact, the whole scrap metal drive reminds me of the episode in Anne of Avonlea (?) when Anne and co. are canvassing newspaper or magazine subscriptions.) :
Before they left Rush and Randy learned a lot about Mr. Titus. They learned that he was a bachelor whose only sister had kept house for him until her late marriage nine years before. Up to that time he had been a farmer, but now he rented his barn, meadows, and pastureland and lived contentedly in his own house, with his pets.
“Always was lazy, always will be,” he said. “Never did like heavy chores. Just did ‘em ’cause my conscience drove me. Yes, sir, drove me. And then one day it quit, just laid down quiet and gave up the struggle. Since then no more cows! No more hosses! No more blame chickens, only just enough to lay me a soft-boiled egg or two. No more hawgs! Nothin’ but small-fry pets to keep me company. No more long rows to hoe! No more corn! Just grow enough garden truck so’s when I want a mess of peas for supper I can pick me a mess of peas. Same with all the rest. Always did like fussin’ in a kitchen, too. Like to bake. Used to be ashamed of it when I was younger. But I ain’t ashamed no more. One of my marble cakes took first prize over to Braxton Fair last year. Yep. That’s what I like. Pets, and fussin’ in a kitchen, and goin’ fishin’. And by golly that’s what I do!” (34)
Cuffy gets all in a dither over how things will go to pot while she’s away:
“It’s not anything happening to you that I’m worried about,” sniffed Cuffy. “I’m only thinking of the state the house’ll get into with me gone. Rush will step out of his clothes every night, leave them on the floor, and step into clean ones every morning till they’re all gone and he has to go without any. Randy will leave paint water around in glasses till they make rings on the furniture, or someone drinks one of ‘em by accident and dies of paint poisoning. Mona will forget to make her bed day in and day out till I get home. She’ll get talcum powder into the rug, and her shoes will collect all over the house. She’s always taking them off and going barefoot nowadays. Shoes on the mantelpiece, windowsill, piano, everywhere. I know her. And nobody will wash the dishes!” (124)
One of Oliver’s passions is moths–catching the caterpillars, raising, them, and releasing them:
When the caterpillars had eaten several hundred times their own weight in greenstuff they began making cocoons. In each glass jar Oliver had put some earth or a strong twig, depending on whether the creature in question was a burrower or a weaver. Even Cuffy and Mona found themselves interested in the progress of the cocoons: they were so ingenious, beautifully knitted, and in some cases lovely to look at. The monarch caterpillar, for instance, contrived a waxy chrysalis of pale green, flecked with tiny arabesques of gilt. It hung from the twin on a little black silk thread, like the jade earring of a Manchu princess [. . .]
The nice thing about the monarch chrysalis was that the creature which emerged at the end of two weeks was as beautiful as his case. Orange-red and cream and black, like the petals of a tiger lily, he clung to the twig till his wings dried and widened, and then Oliver took him to the open window and deposited him gently on a leaf. Watching the butterfly fluttering away in the sunshine Oliver could not help feeling a little like God releasing a new soul into the world. (82-83)
Now for just one more, this time one that encapsulates in an exquisite word-picture the theme of home and family that is so beautifully depicted in the Melendy stories:
That night Mark got his wish. He slept in the cupola. The rain beat down on the little metal roof. It spattered against the four windows, and ran down in a long stream from the spout. The gutters tinkled and hummed. The thunder sounded as if it had been cut up into squares. It tumbled down the sky like giant blocks tumbling downstairs. Mark snarled himself into his favorite sleeping position an felt as if he had come home at last. [. . .] the violence of the last few hours [. . .] were thoughts too dreadful to contemplate now. A safety door in his brain locked himself against them, and soon he was asleep. (142-143)
Come back on Wednesday for our favorite excerpt from the whole book, one that made us laugh out loud.
So, what are you waiting for? Get thee to the library or the bookstore and bring the Melendys home with you. You’ll be glad you did! Highly, Highly (Highly) Recommended. (Macmillan, 1944)