I acquired this book the last time our school library discarded a huge quantity of books. They set them outside the library, free for the taking. Since most of them were vintage-y and marvelous, I staggered away under several armloads of books.
I did that several times--every time they would put out a new batch, I swooped in. I felt guilty about taking all this loveliness, but the one time I didn't go to the school to check, the librarian finally told my sister to tell me a new batch was out. Apparently no one else was as delighted by old worn kids books as much as I was.
Anyway, to get back to the book. I read this out loud to the kids and.... oh happiness. It was so sweet, so crystal clear, and achingly beautiful. Maybe it was just the mood I was in, but I don't think I have ever had such an immediate emotional response to a book before or after. I was Kate. I could feel the Northern California coast's wintry sunlight, the ocean breeze stirring my red braids.
Kate is a little girl in the California foster care system of the 1940's. Living without much constancy or affection in her life, Kate has learned to hide her emotion deep and in turn, has become amazingly sensible for a 10 year old girl.
The story opens with Kate waking up in yet another new bed. This time she has been placed with an elderly childless couple, the Tuttles. The Tuttles are very kind, but Mrs. Tuttle is brusque and Mr. Tuttle is very shy.
When she has a few free minutes, she sit by the water and enjoys the sparkling immensity of it.
"Kate felt radiant, too. Every inch of her tingled and a strange excitement flowed with the blood in her veins. It was all so big and sparkly! ...No one could be drab and listless in the presence of this."
As she sits there, thrilling, she meets Christopher, a struggling young artist. Kate introduces herself and says she is sensible. He is enchanted and tells her he hasn't a lick of sense.
Christopher takes her home to meet his wife, who, though brave and beautiful could do with a dose of sensible. Kate teaches Nora about cleaning and housekeeping and Nora teaches Kate about imagination and the delightfulness of nonsense.
Kate's first day at her new school was Valentine's Day. Since she was new, she was allowed to be the Valentine postman, standing at the front of the room, calling whoever had a Valentine in the mailbox. With only two Valentines left to deliver, Kate reads out her own name. Christopher and Nora had made sure she wouldn't go Valentine-less that first day.
Doesn't that make your heart squeeze a little bit at the niceness of Chris and Nora?
After school this day, Mr. Tuttle gives her a present for her new school. Kate has high hopes of what the present might be, but opens it to find a pencil box--something no one uses anymore. Kate is very disappointed, but as she is trying to fight back her tears, quiet Mr. Tuttle tells her how significant a pencil box had been in his childhood. In his kindness, he wanted to share that with her. This was one of the most emotional moments of the book for me. Reading as Kate reasons through her disappointment, Mr. Tuttle's nostalgia, his good intentions, the potential laughingstock she will make with a cedar pencil box at school, and finally her determination to accept his gift given in love and not worry about what the kids at school might say.
I still get a little teary, thinking about it.
She makes a firm friend at school, Vic. Here, she meets Vic's idolized older brother, a fisherman.
One Sunday, she and Mr. Tuttle bring home a new puppy from their Sunday drive and hope Mrs. Tuttle will take to it.
There is so much to this story of Kate finding her place in life; learning to enjoy the ridiculous, overcoming her envy of the most popular girl at school, and finding love and security.
This book isn't a syrupy sweet rendition of orphan-finds-forever-home. It has grit and sorrow mixed into the sweetness. Which makes the sweetness seem all the more sweet somehow.