24/12/2016

Ballet Shoes for Anna (by Noel Streatfeild)

I have loved Noel Streatfeild’s books for teenage girls since I was about nine or ten. She is best known for her classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, but also wrote quite a number of other novels which often featured talented ballet dancers. I’m re-reading my way, gradually, through my extensive Streatfeild collection and have just finished another.

‘Ballet Shoes for Anna’ is short book, rather different from others by this author, in that it starts with a devastating tragedy, set in Turkey. Three children, aged eight to ten, end up living with a rather unpleasant uncle, who believes in duty and efficiency beyond anything else. His mouse-like wife is a nice creation, if a little caricatured, but I never really believed in the awful Uncle Cecil.

Francesco, Gussie and Anna are thrown into a totally new way of life; they have travelled around in a caravan and are unused to being in a house, let alone a pristine one where noise is not tolerated. They have never been to school, but now they must. Worst of all, Anna, who is a very promising young ballet dancer, has to find a teacher. Uncle Cecil believes that dancing is sinful, so won’t help in any way, and the boys have to find a way of raising money to pay for lessons.

First published in 1972, not long after the UK adopted decimal currency, the book has several references to ‘new pence’, which is how people used to speak of currency in those days. Fifty ‘new’ pence for a lesson is seen as a vast sum; nowadays it seems like almost nothing. Still, that’s all that really dates the book, along with the lack of technology.

The children are likeable, Francesco weighed down by the responsibility of being the eldest in his family, and Gussie a classic mischief-loving middle child. Anna, at eight, seems rather young to be so dedicated to her dancing in a way that, at times, borders on selfishness, but her brothers don’t find anything strange about this. There are some other interesting characters too such as a market boy and his mother who befriend them.

It’s a good story about the difficulties of adapting to a new lifestyle; the children’s grief and culture shock is rather played down, but still leads to one or two rather moving sections that left me quite choked up. I wasn’t sure I quite believed in the atrocious grammar used by the children at first; their mother was Polish but their father was British, and they read a lot of books. But it made some good subplots, including the necessity of their unpleasant uncle to attempt to improve the children’s English.

There’s some high drama towards the end, in a scene that could, in real life, have been very nasty. But it works well in showing that some parts of UK life, even forty-plus years ago, were decidedly unpleasant and potentially dangerous. The ending itself is quite abrupt, as it somewhat typical with Noel Streatfeild’s books: the problems are solved, and the reader is left to imagine the tying-up of loose ends.

While I had remembered the basic storyline from my last re-reading of this book, in 2005, I had forgotten most of the subplots and very much enjoyed it.

Recommended for older children - boys or girls - and for those of us who remember this author's books with nostalgia from our own childhoods.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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