Book Reviewed: The Doll Shop Downstairs – Yona Zeldis McDonough and Heather Maione, Viking, 2009
A visit to the doll hospital in New Jersey last week with my young adult daughter’s “Beth” doll from the Alexander Doll Company’s Little Women series sent me back to an underappreciated example of modern doll books. The Doll Shop Downstairs, as well as its sequel, The Cats in the Doll Shop, follow a familiar path in chronicling the attachment of children for their dolls. However, it also offers a charming and detailed introduction for elementary age readers to life in New York City during World War I, as well as the way that immigration changed the city. A blurb taken from Kirkus Reviews compares The Doll Shop Downstairs to Rumer Godden’s The Story of Holly and Ivy and to Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. Certainly, the happily resolved doll adoption theme of Rumer Godden’s book is in an influence, and the immersion in Lower East Side Jewish immigrant life immortalized in Taylor’s books is made available to a new audience. Zeldis McDonough even includes a helpful author’s note, glossary, and timeline to guide readers who are probably less informed than Taylor’s original fans.
By far the most interesting element of this novel is that it is based on the childhood of “Madame” Beatrice Alexander Behrman, a daughter of Jewish immigrants who became one of the first and most successful female entrepreneurs in the American doll industry, long before Ruth Handler created Barbie.
(Yona Zeldis McDonough has also edited an essay collection for grown-ups, The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty.) Berman Alexander’s father opened a doll hospital in New York City in the early twentieth century. At that time, Germany was the leading producer and exporter of toys and dolls; World War I put an end to that preeminence, and encouraged development of American companies. In 1923, Beatrice started her own company, which became renowned for a wide-range of dolls, including ones based on literary figures and international costumes. Sadly, the company, which had been one of the largest employers in Harlem, was closed, and production moved to China.
In The Doll Shop Downstairs, Zeldis McDonough creates a convincing portrait of Anna and her immigrant family, two loving parents and three sometimes competitive daughters. The author explains their Jewish customs, as well as their experience in public school and their friendly interactions with people of other ethnicities. Here she is definitely paying homage to the All-of-a-Kind books. The frightening arrival of war in Europe and its financial impact on the struggling family are described realistically, on a level that young readers can understand. There is a great deal of historical information seamlessly woven into the narrative, including the creation of nurse dolls, which the family markets to consumers deprived of European toys. The plot is relatively predictable, but the language has a certain simple poetry. Here are the girls rummaging through boxes of materials in their father’s shop:
‘But the very best things in the box are the glass eyes. Because they are so fragile, the eyes are packed first in tissue, then straw, and then finally in their own tiny boxes. Each glass eye is a hollow white ball with a different color in the center. Some are dark, inky blue, while others are sky blue, chocolate brown, amber, or green.”
The author describes the experience of a ride on the Second Avenue El as the family enjoys a trip to Central Park to celebrate the girls’ consecutive birthdays with a picnic. As the girls descend at Thirty-Fourth Street, Anna notes that midtown Manhattan is “a different world.”
“We have left behind the packed, narrow streets our neighborhood – Essex, Delancy, Orchard, Ludlow, Hester, and Rivington – that are crammed with shops, horses, wagons, pushcarts, and crowds of people. You can buy almost anything you want on those streets: poppy seeds and pocketknives, socks and soap flakes, buttons and bagels. And there are so many languages you might hear: Yiddish, German, Polish, Romanian, and Russians, sometimes all at once.”
Heather Maione’s black and white line drawings with shadings of grey seem cheerful even when the characters are worried. They capture the tone of the story, where people confront limits, and use ingenuity and compromise to resolve problems.
Back to the doll hospital. From very early in its history, The Alexander Doll Company sold dolls based on the characters from Little Women. For a relatively brief time in the early 2000s, they sold sixteen-inch size dolls of the characters, as well as clothing, accessories, and books known as Little Women Journals.
Recently, my young adult daughter realized that her “Beth” doll had become literally unstrung. I did some research and learned that, after the famed New York Doll Hospital on Lexington Avenue closed, there are few places to have dolls repaired. I found The Secaucus (NJ) Doll and Teddy Bear Hospital. Its location may not have conjured the elite level of health care of the New York shop, where, according to their website, the Secaucus chief doll doctor did his residency, but they fixed the doll promptly at a reasonable price. As in The Doll Shop Downstairs, the owner is an immigrant, from South America rather than Eastern Europe. That was one of the best parts of the experience, and just served to reiterate what young readers can learn from reading The Doll Shop Downstairs.