Gemma and Sisters (by Noel Streatfeild)

Noel Streatfeild was one of my favourite children’s authors, and over the years I’ve collected most of her books. I still turn to them, from time to time, for nostalgia and comfort reading. They’re simplistic, in a sense, compared to today’s children’s fiction; yet her characters are sympathetic and believable, and her stories a reflection of positive themes and ordinary family life in the middle of the 20th century.

This particular series featuring the Robinson family is probably my favourite. It was published in the late 1960s and considered contemporary at the time, so it’s not as dated as classics such as ‘Ballet Shoes’. In the first book, ‘Gemma’, which I re-read about eighteen months ago for the first time in many years, we read about the struggles of the child film star Gemma Bow as she learns to integrate with her impoverished cousins, after being abandoned (in her eyes) by her rather selfish mother. Gemma discovers that her cousins are highly talented, in typical Streatfeild style: Ann is an excellent singer, Lydia is a brilliant ballet dancer, and Robin is a pianist and singer who already has a scholarship to a choir school. At the end of the book, their grandmother persuades Gemma to form a group so they can appear together in a fundraising concert - and so the idea of ‘Gemma and Sisters’ is born.

This book is a direct sequel, starting the morning after the concert, and follows them as the group develops through the next year. Ann is quiet and academic, and has to be persuaded to learn a bit of stage presence; Lydia has lots of confidence, but must learn to blend in, and think of others. Gemma is a good producer but nervous about her own singing; and she doesn’t want to spend too much time on their family group because she’s been given a very important role in a school play about Lady Jane Grey.

The story isn’t all about this group, however; it focuses on the Robinson family and their day to day life, as the parents struggle somewhat financially, while raising their three very different children and providing a home for Gemma. Lydia learns a difficult lesson in this book, and there are some quite moving sections when her future career hangs in the balance due to her own negative actions.

I like this book very much, but as I read it - in just a few hours - I found myself confused by the chronology; the first part of the book takes place in the Autumn, with mention of Christmas holidays and concerts, and then there’s a brief interlude when the family celebrate Christmas, and have a peaceful day. Shortly afterwards, however, it becomes apparent that the storyline has moved backwards we’re in early December once more, and there’s another day set aside for Christmas. It’s not a major problem, and I don’t think I ever noticed it before; I can easily understand how it might have happened while writing the book, but am surprised the editor didn’t pick up on it!

That apart, it’s a very pleasant book and makes an excellent sequel to ‘Gemma’. There are two more in the series, but this one ends in a way that could have been final. Ends are tied up perhaps a bit too neatly, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a children’s book. What matters is the characterisation and development, and Noel Streatfeild manages those expertly.

Fluent readers of about eight or nine and upwards would probably like this; Lydia is nine in the book, and Robin a bit younger, though he doesn’t have much of a part to play, and the book would be likely to appeal more to girls than to boys. I don’t know that it’s particularly useful from the social history point of view as we don’t read much about current events, or anything much outside the lives of the people concerned; still, that means that it feels less dated than it could have done.

It’s not necessary to have read ‘Gemma’ before this one, but it helps with the continuity.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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