Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald

Jan 22, 2015

We have long been fans of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (click here for our reviews of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic), but did you know that Betty MacDonald wrote another book for children, not at all connected with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's cures and fixes? I certainly didn't until it showed up last month on Erica's list of Christmas Chapter Books to Read Aloud. I was intrigued and thrilled when our library had a copy (it helped that it was re-released in 2010) and immediately checked it out, hoping to have time to read it to the boys over the holiday break.

Although Christmas factors prominently in the story (that's how it begins and then ends, one year later), we weren't sad to have our reading of it extend into January. In fact, I think you could enjoy it during almost anytime of the year (although December is certainly the most magical).

Nancy and Plum (her real name is Pamela) are sisters and orphans. When their parents died when they were little, little girls, they were left in the care of an uncle who, unfortunately, knew absolutely nothing about children and was quick to pass them off to the care of Mrs. Monday, mistress of a despicable boarding house. Mrs. Monday is the quintessential villain: she feeds the children burnt oatmeal and prunes, makes them do inordinate amounts of work, and takes away any fun they are looking forward to. (One day, when my four-year-old was mad at me, he said, "You are so mean. You are even meaner than Mrs. Monday." It was the worst insult he could possibly think of.)

One day, Nancy and Plum find a box in the attic. It is addressed to them. Although it is empty, they can tell that it once contained two dolls--one blonde, the other dark. It seems suspiciously coincidental that Mrs. Monday's niece (the repulsive Marybelle) received two such dolls for Christmas.

But the ultimate injustice comes when Uncle John arranges a visit to the boardinghouse, and Mrs. Monday deliberately keeps Nancy and Plum away. The two sisters have had it, and they decide to take their fate into their own hands.

First of all, this is exactly the kind of book I would have loved as a child (forgive the italics--I'm currently reading Emily Climbs, and I just can't seem to help myself). The camaraderie shared by the sisters, Mrs. Monday's cruelty, the thrill of the escape, and the happy ending all would have spoken to the heart of my little girl self. So if you know any nine-year-old girls (or boys!), hand this to them immediately.

Aaron and Maxwell loved it. In fact, after the girls run away, there is a chapter called "Back to Mrs. Monday's," and the boys could hardly stand having to go to bed when it was obvious that something quite awful was going to happen in the next chapter. And when Plum dumps the goldfish bowl on Marybelle's head and then apologizes by saying, "I'm sorry I put that little goldfish bowl on your head. I wish it had been bigger and with a shark in it," oh, how they laughed. (I had to read it twice.)

Okay, now that I've spoken from the children's perspective, I'm going to give you the mom's perspective, which is this: Nancy and Plum are not all docile and innocent. They are feisty. There are several nods to Frances Hodges Burnett's A Little Princess (Miss Minchin and Mrs. Monday seem to be long-lost evil twins), but there's one major difference: Nancy and Plum do not have Sara Crewe's same respect for authority nor her same aptitude for kindness. 

They are kind to the other children (except Marybelle) and also the adults who show them kindness and love (Miss Appleby, Old Tom, the Campbells, etc.), but when it came to the difficult personalities, they never took the higher road. I was rather disappointed by that. I wanted them to stand up for themselves, but I wish they'd done it in a respectful way. There was even one character (Mrs. Gronk, their Sunday School teacher) who wasn't even mean to them--she was just a grumpy old lady with a cold--and they made so many rude comments behind her back.

I'm not saying they weren't driven to it a bit. Given their treatment, their actions were certainly justified. And I really did like their (especially Plum's) spunk. I didn't want to tamp down that indomitable spirit. But I think I kept wanting to cheer for them a bit more, and it was hard to do when they kept calling Marybelle names and complaining and saying other nasty things.

So that's my take on it. My kids loved it, and for the most part, I loved it too.

P.S. And if there were ever characters you just wanted to give a giant hug to, Mr. and Mrs. Campbell would be it. You should read the book just so you can get to know those two.


  1. I just want to say that I'm always happy to hear about boys enjoying books with girl protagonists. My kids (boys!) also enjoyed many books like these -- huge Ramona fans, loved Tamara Pierce, all time favorite read-aloud was The Witch Family. So many times people say that boys don't read books with girls in them, but I think it's just that people tend not to offer them. Which means the poor guys miss out on many great books.

    1. Beth - I agree!!! My boys are also Ramona fans (we're reading Ramona the Brave right now). I hope they don't outgrow it.

  2. I'm so glad your boys enjoyed it! Is it wrong that I laughed when you said your boy said you were "meaner than Mrs. Monday?"

    1. Not at all! I laughed too, and then I said, "Hey! That's not very nice!"


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