Review of the Project Gutenberg Free eBook Edition of this nineteenth-century children’s classic
Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: 1881
Source: Kindle download
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
I was delighted to discover I could instantly download to my Kindle what I presume is the Project Gutenberg free version of this nineteenth century children’s classic. The formatting is not the most presentable I’ve ever seen in an ebook, due to missing tabs and hard returns to set off the paragraphs from each other. Fortunately, though, there are few typos, so the this version of the book is readable enough that I donated my paper copy to the library as I am gradually moving almost entirely to ebooks since I got my Kindle a year and a half ago.
This book is about the Pepper family of five children and their widowed mother. “Mamsie” ekes out a bare living as a seamstress in a small New England town (the state isn’t specified but perhaps is intended to be the author’s native Connecticut). Though the story reads like an historical novel to modern readers, it was actually a contemporary novel when it was written in 1881. There are horse-drawn carriages instead of cars, candlelight instead of electric lamps, no running water, no refrigeration, and no central heating.
The Peppers live in a “little brown house” whose furnishings are only lightly described. Perhaps this is because the house is mostly bare due to their extreme poverty, but it would have been interesting to know how the family acquired water for cooking and bathing (and how the family bathed), if they had a fireplace or a Franklin stove, or simply used the kitchen stove to heat the house in the winter. (The Little House books are great for providing these historically accurate details, but not this series.)
Mrs. Pepper was widowed when her English husband died presumable shortly before or after her youngest child was born. We learn nothing about the children’s father in this book as there is no attention at all to the family’s “backstory.” As the title of the book states, there are five siblings:
Ben (Ebenezer) is twelve years old. He had to be at least eight when the father died, but he has never gone to school–though somewhere along the way he and his sister Polly learned to read and write, probably taught by their mother since any school that the children might go to would cost tuition that Mrs. Pepper cannot afford. Throughout the story, Mrs. Pepper frequently frets over how she is ever going to get enough money to pay to educate her sons (there is no real concern about educating her daughters, perhaps because females of the working class were not commonly educated at this time). Ben augments Mamsie’s income by doing odd jobs such as chopping wood. Ben has a placid, phlegmatic disposition, plodding along diligently through life, sure and steady in all he does. He is utterly loyal and would make any sacrifice for his family. He and Polly are particularly close.
Polly (Mary) is eleven years old. She and Ben act as second parents to their younger siblings whom they refer to as “the children.” Polly has a nurturing disposition and is very motherly, but she also has a sensitive, imaginative disposition, which is a fascinating combination. She is the major focus of this book as she bustles about helping her mother with sewing, cooking meals for the family, cleaning the house, and caring for the younger children. She loves music and would give anything to be able to learn to play the piano. She adores any flowers that come her way, and the bane of her existence is the ancient wood stove she has to cook on which is full of holes that are stuffed with paper and leather from old shoes.
Joel is nine years old. He has a passionate, impulsive, choleric disposition. It is very hard for him to maintain the uncomplaining, sacrificial attitude Mamsie has worked hard to instill in her children which comes easily to all the Peppers except him. He wants what he wants this instant, and he’s very loud about his disappointment if he doesn’t get it–in short, he’s a normal boy who constantly puts the house in an uproar. Fortunately for the training Mamsie wants to instill in him, he has a warm heart and is readily brought into line with a judicious application of maternal or sisterly guilt.
Davie (David) is seven years old. He has a placid, timid disposition. He is Joel’s shadow and is ready to try anything Joel suggests.
Phronsie (Sophronia) is four at the time of this story and is the adored baby of the family. Though she is indulged by everyone, because she is a beautiful, blond girl, she has a remarkably unspoiled disposition. She is so angelically sweet and kind to everyone, she inspires instant love in every man, woman, child, and dog who meets her.
Though the family is barely scraping by, constantly on the verge of starvation (they live off whole-wheat bread, salted porridge, and potatoes), they have caring neighbors who try to help out when they can, which doesn’t amount to a whole lot since everyone in the town is poor in their own way, and Mrs. Pepper is too proud to accept outright charity.
Two big crises lay the Peppers low during the course of this story: all the children get measles, which almost makes Polly go blind, and Phronsie runs off with an organ grinder and his monkey, terrifying the whole village for her safety.
It is this latter event which brings Jappy (Jasper) King into their lives, the thirteen-year-old son of the very rich Mr. King, a crotchety “old” man staying at a local hotel to improve his uncertain health. (Note that what was considered “old” in the latter part of the nineteenth century is not what we would consider “old” today. The average life expectancy at the turn of the twentieth century was little more than forty, and often people in their fifties in nineteenth century novels were labeled by authors as “old.” Mr. King’s age is never given, but I tried to figure it out this way: Mr. King is clearly a widower. Jasper has a much older sister with three sons, the oldest of which is ten at this time, meaning she is at least twenty-nine, making Mr. King very likely fifty-five or sixty years of age.) Mr. King’s source of wealth isn’t mentioned in the book, and we never hear of him going to work, so possibly he has inherited wealth rather than holding a job.
Margaret Sidney was the pseudonym of successful, American children’s author, Harriett Mulford Stone Lothrop, who was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1844 and died in 1924, eight years after writing the last Pepper book. She began her writing career in 1878 at age thirty-four by publishing stories about Polly and Phronsie Pepper in a Boston children’s magazine. She married the magazine’s editor, Daniel Lothrop, who began a publishing company and published Harriett’s “Five Little Peppers” series, starting in 1881. Here is a list of the twelve Pepper books by date written, which were produced over the course of thirty-five years:
Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881)
Five Little Peppers Midway (1890)
Five Little Peppers Grown Up (1892)
Five Little Peppers: Phronsie Pepper (1897)
Five Little Peppers: The Stories Polly Pepper Told (1899)
Five Little Peppers: The Adventures of Joel Pepper (1900)
Five Little Peppers Abroad (1902)
Five Little Peppers at School (1903)
Five Little Peppers and their Friends (1904)
Five Little Peppers: Ben Pepper (1905)
Five Little Peppers in the Little Brown House (1907)
Five Little Peppers: Our Davie Pepper (1916)
Margaret Sidney originally had no plans to write more Pepper books after the fourth book, “Phronsie Pepper”, was published in 1897. She stated this firmly in her introduction to that book. However, over time the pleas of avid fans from all over the world caused her to give in and write eight more Pepper books. The events in the last eight books take place before the events of the third book in the original series of four books. If you would like to read the six main Pepper books in chronological order, rather than by publication date, this is the ideal sequence:
If you read all the Pepper books, you will discover that the author did not take great care as to continuity in the later books, perhaps because so many years passed between writing these books. I am currently re-reading the series and have just finished this book and the second book, “Midway,” and am currently reading “Abroad.” In “Midway,” the author states that five years have passed since the events of “How They Grew,” but no ages are given for any of the children except Phronsie. We are told she is eight, which is one year younger than she ought to be if five years have passed. In “Abroad,” whose events begin immediately after “Midway,” Polly has her fifteenth birthday a few months into the events of the book, when it ought to be at least her sixteenth birthday given that she was eleven in the first book and presumably already fifteen or sixteen in the second book.
The Pepper books are not concerned with edge-of-the-seat action, which is one of the things I personally like about them. They are products of a much slower-paced era, and it is relaxing to experience that approach to children’s fiction while being warmly enfolded into the loving Pepper family.
This book, and all the Pepper books, are strictly G-rated, and the values they show (not tell through preaching) are very useful ones for any child to be exposed to, including civility, kindness, consideration, keeping commitments, accepting difficult circumstances without complaint and forging through them, and so on.
I highly recommend this book for all ages.