Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
Apr 22, 2015
And yet, with all that exposure, I never read it. I think this was because we didn't own a copy of it until I was a teenager, but I could be making that up. In any case, I'm going to maintain that as the reason for why all my brothers and sisters read it, but not me.
One of those siblings (my sister, Anna) was here visiting over the weekend. When she saw that I was reading this to the boys, she claimed she didn't remember much about it, but then proceeded to say, "Do the kids earn the money to buy Ginger by dusting the church? Oh, and is this the one where the father and mother met because the father tried to run up the down escalator and ran into the mother? And, I also remember that--what's the girl's name?--oh yeah, Rachel. Doesn't she say something like Boston was more important than New York because the two o's made it look more important?" Somehow she didn't convince me that she couldn't remember it. She also made me feel like I really missed out.
But not anymore. If Ginger Pye comes up in a conversation, I'll finally be able to hold my own with the rest of them.
The Speedy's dog had puppies, and 10-year-old Jerry Pye has his eye on one of them. If he can earn a dollar by Saturday, then Mrs. Speedy says it's his. Jerry and his sister, Rachel, wrack their brains, trying to come up with a way to make the money. Then, in a brilliant stroke of luck, Sam Doody comes by and asks Jerry if he wants to dust the church for him since he needs to go into town that afternoon and buy a new suit. He'll pay him a dollar. Of course Jerry says yes, and he and Rachel (and also Uncle Benny, who, although their uncle, is only three years old) dust all the pews in the church. It takes all afternoon, but they work fast and make it to the Speedy's before 6:00.
The puppy is theirs, and they are thrilled. They name him Ginger, and he turns out to be everything they wished for in a dog: playful, affectionate, loyal, and incredibly intelligent. But then, on Thanksgiving Day, Ginger goes missing. Jerry and Rachel can't imagine how he escaped from the yard, and they spend the evening searching everywhere for Ginger before finally coming to the conclusion that Ginger was stolen! And the only clues they have to go on are an old yellow hat and some mysterious footsteps.
Written in 1951, Ginger Pye felt very similar to another book we've read: Half Magic by Edward Eager, which was written in 1954. (Also, I always get Eleanor Estes' and Edward Eager's names all mixed up--too many E's or something.) We read Half Magic nearly two years ago, and at the time, it was just a little over my boys' heads. We still liked it, but I remember thinking the length of the chapters and scarcity of pictures made it hard for them to stay engaged. I think it took us about three months to read. Ginger Pye took us about three weeks, and reading it made me realize how far my kids' attention spans have come in two years. It might be time to read Half Magic again because I'm pretty sure it would be a completely different experience this time around.
We all really liked Ginger Pye. Bradley, who is three, usually has his own storytime with Mike while I read to the older boys, but even he got pulled into the story and sat and listened to many of the chapters. Aaron and Max liked it for its mystery and suspense and adventure, and I was surprised by some of the profound insights I gained from it. The boys' favorite character was Uncle Benny (they were so intrigued by an uncle who was younger than his niece and nephew), and my favorite character was Sam Doody (I told Aaron and Max I want them to be just like him when they're teenagers).
(Spoilers ahead! Read further at your own risk.)
Maybe I'm reading too much into it and pulling out meaning where there isn't any, but I was struck by how Jerry and Rachel's sadness over losing Ginger mimicked the pattern and cycle of grief. At first they were supported by many friends who helped them look for Ginger, "but after a while [those friends] grew tired of the same old search. Though they all promised to keep their eyes open for the man whose pictures they had examined at the Town Hall, and his hat which Jerry described, one by one they dropped off. Then, only Jerry and Rachel looked, either together or by themselves."
Ginger is gone for many months, and as the days pass by, normal life resumes for Jerry and Rachel (just as it moves forward for anyone who is grieving). In some ways, they are able to find joy and excitement even without Ginger (some of their best adventures (East Rock and West Rock, for example) happen during this time). But always, always, Ginger is at the back of their minds. Jerry keeps a continual lookout for him, both with eyes and ears. And sometimes, they are gripped with a sharp pain of sadness because they miss him so, so much. And some things do not go back to normal. For example, Jerry and Rachel have this long-standing tradition of making up stories about Martin Boombernickles when they go to bed at night, but when Ginger disappears, so do the stories. They just don't have it in them anymore.
I also kept thinking about this line after Jerry and Rachel realize that the thief is Wally Bullwinkle (a fellow classmate of Jerry's): "'We didn't know Wally was a thief and he didn't look like the picture we drew of the unsavory character. We didn't know an unsavory character could be just a boy in my class,' said Jerry." We didn't know an unsavory character could be just a boy in my class. Jerry says that line at least three times. He just can't believe that Ginger was so close all along, and he never guessed the thief could be someone he knew (although the reader can figure it out very early on). So often we make quick and hasty judgements that end up hindering us in the long run. If Jerry hadn't assumed that the "unsavory character" was some villainous looking man, he might have found Ginger much sooner (and you also have to wonder (at least, I have to wonder) if maybe a faster discovery would have helped Wally Bullwinkle out of a bad situation as well.
The ending made me want to cry. Having Ginger reunited with his family was touching and tender, yes, but there were some hard truths beneath the surface . . . such as that Ginger was most likely abused during those many months; such as that Wally Bullwinkle had a hard home life that he was not rescued from; such as that for all that time, Ginger was desperately trying to get back to his family. It kind of hurts my heart to think about him in the Bullwinkle's backyard, listening to Jerry and Rachel's calls, straining at his rope, but unable to get to them (I loved Mrs. Pye's surmise that hearing them "helped [Ginger] remember [them] and keep [them] in mind until the right moment came for his escape.'")
This review turned a little deeper and darker than I was planning on, but I have to say that while all those elements were there, the overall tone of the book was light and happy and hopeful. I don't think my kids were too young to listen to it, and I think it's a book that will grow with them. They can reread it in four or five years and pick up on some of those things they were too young to understand this first time.
Did you read Ginger Pye when you were a child? Have you read it to your kids? What was the most memorable scene for you?