Gemma (by Noel Streatfeild)

I discovered Noel Streatfeild as a child, and collected as many of her books as I could. They are mostly heart-warming stories about ordinary families, usually including at least one exceptionally talented child. Her best-known book is probably the classic Ballet Shoes, but the ones I liked best, and re-read most frequently, were the four stories about the Robinson family.

The first of these is ‘Gemma’; my copy tells me that I acquired the book when I was 11, in 1971, and that I last read it (along with its sequels) in 1984. I was startled to find that it was so long ago, but I read it so many times in my teens that I still recalled most of the story. It was written as a contemporary novel in 1968, and it very much reflected everyday life as I knew it, as a child in that era.

The Robinson family, when we meet them, are struggling financially. Philip, the father, has had to give up his position as first violin in a top orchestra, due to rheumatic pains in his fingers. His wife, Alice, has started a part-time job, and his three children are told that they must give up their various ‘extras’. Lydia, the middle child, is a typical Streatfeild ballet dancer with a great deal of determination and considerable ‘promise’. Robin, the youngest, tries for a scholarship with a cathedral choir school and Ann, the 11-year-old sensible eldest, sighs as she realises that she must put off her dream of singing and piano lessons until her father is better.

Into this family arrives cousin Gemma, who has had a very different lifestyle so far as a child film star. She has no siblings and her parents are divorced; she has never been to school, and has been showered with every luxury. Now her mother is going abroad and Gemma is at the wrong age for films… so she feels very low, and has no desire at all to fit in with the cousins she has never met, in the house which she perceives as small and poky…

Of course, things work out; Gemma, at heart, is much nicer than she first appears, and the Robinsons are a warm and mostly contented family who do all they can to welcome and accept her. It’s a nice tale of maturing friendships and self-discovery, as Gemma finds that there are more important things in life than money and nice clothes. Not that any of them despise money: there’s a delightful interlude in the middle of the book, which I had forgotten about, when Gemma’s mother pays for them all to take an idyllic three-week holiday on a farm in Devon.

Re-reading it in the last couple of days, I realise again that what matters most to me in any book is the characterisation. I could picture the whole family in my mind; I could almost hear their voices in my head. Streatfeild doesn’t weigh down her readers in descriptions, but the interactions between people feel realistic, and perhaps evocative of my own childhood. Admittedly such an excess of talent in three siblings - with a very ordinary mother - is unlikely, but that’s a premise we are given in the first chapter. The rest follows.

I know most modern children want faster-paced books with lots of excitement and suspense; but for those who are eclectic readers, enjoying the classics and mid-century novels of my own childhood, i would highly recommend this book. Ideal for fluent readers of about eight and upwards, or as a bedtime read-aloud. Or, indeed, for adults like me wanting a bit of nostalgia.

Highly recommended.

The 'Gemma' series was republished in 1999 in rather garish colours, as shown in the Amazon links above, with a change of name for the two final books of the series. While not currently in print, they can often be found second-hand in a variety of different covers.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews

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