Family Sabbatical by Carol Ryrie Brink
Illustrated by Susan Foster
Every book is a product of its times and Family Sabbatical is quintessentially 1950’s. “”If I Russia, the Turkey might fall off the China into the Greece, causing loud Wales. Abyssinia.’” This is from George, the 10 year old middle child, who attempts to teach American colloquialisms (super duper, boy-o-boy) to Mademoiselle Beauregard, the dearly befuddled elderly governess. The family is Midwestern, the children kind-hearted, and the humor literate and corny – a slice of ‘50’s Americana.
Yet it all takes place in France, initially in Cannes, later in Paris. The Ridgeway’s are on sabbatical – the professor father is conducting historical research, the writer mother is working on a mystery, the three children are learning French. Thirteen year old Susan is the capable/competent eldest, George is the naturalist and rock collector, and 7 year old Dumpling is the linchpin, precociously grounded with the wisdom of youth. They live in the Grand Hotel Majestic et de l’Univers (known as the Grand Hotel and So Forth and So Forth), an edifice whose imposing name is insufficient to disguise aging decrepitude, eccentric bathrooms, and an erratically functioning gilt elevator.
But the second time they wanted to go up in the ascenseur, they saw that attached to the bird-cage door was a neat printed card which said: L’ASCENSEUR NE MARCHE PAS.
“But to marche means to walk,” said Susan, who was already learning some French.
“It means,” said Father, “that the elevator is not walking today.”
“But it means that we are,” said Mother.
Enter Mademoiselle Beauregard, the excitable spinster engaged to teach the children, a vehicle for the rich genre of humor that involves the French accent (think of what Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau was able to do with the words “room” and “phone”). “Shorsh” delights in leading her astray – his greatest coup is inducing her to substitute “shut up” for “will you very kindly make a leetle more silence if you please”, an expression she innocently uses on the Father, to his horror. Enter also Her Royal Highness, the Princess Adelaide Louisa von Mettnock-Hohenwurtzel (umlaut over the u), a fellow resident at the hotel, who turns out to be a kindly old woman rather than the golden-haired invalid that the children imagine. Enter Mme. Ernestine DuChamel, quickly nicknamed the Earnest Camel, the proprietress of the Parisian private school in which the children are enrolled. By the end of the first morning, Susan and George, with their rudimentary French, have been demoted to the first grade where they sit in tiny chairs alongside Dumpling. Set off by these memorable characters, the American children experience the simple adventures of childhood, all tinted by the exoticism of French culture.