In search of a grandmother; A Grandmother for the Orphelines, by Natalie Savage Carlson. Illustrated by David White. New York: Harper & Row. $8.95.
This book tells the story of a small child's search for a grandmother to complete the family of orphans to which she belongs. Though the setting is a castle in 20th-century France, the atmosphere, supported by the black and white illustrations, conveys the sense of an idyllic Anytime. The tone, which is gentle, kind, and slightly detached -- qualities that seem fitting for the slight plot -- carries the sound and pace of a story told according to a well-loved formula.
What is absent from the book is the measure of intensity with which even slight stories can sometimes grip a child. The narrative keeps shifting the reader's attention from one person or scene to another until, at the end, the distance is confirmed in a final view, from the village, of the castle orphanage.
Yet there is no lack of feeling: Many tears are shed, but often in such profusion that the effect is comic. The central character, Josine, may have more substance for children who have read Carlson's previous books about these orphans, but the reader who meets Josine for the first time is mostly struck by her single-minded sense of purpose. For all her spunk and sweetness, the image that comes across is closer to Christmas card charm than to a portrait with depth and perspective. It is hard to resist comparing her to one of L. M. Boston's orphans, but then the entire thrust of Carlson's story is on a different level, one not intended to probe into the child's predicament and state of mind.
There should be time and room for a story like this. The theme of Josine's determined search for a "grandmother to help me remember things I never saw" has power to move the reader on from one small episode to the next. The humor acts as a true leaven, filling the story with lightness. A young child should be able to savor, with the help of a reading parent, the kind of remark uttered by the matron after Josine has created havoc in the castle: "Josine has never done anytihing like this before," she tried to explain. "She is a very reliable child sometimes."
Here is a book that parents and children can read together for the simple pleasure of storytelling at a quiet time.