Five Little Peppers Midway by Margaret Sidney
Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: 1890
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
This is Book 2 in the Five Little Peppers series of nineteenth century children's books. Book 1 is Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.
I was delighted to discover I could instantly download to my Kindle what I presume is the Project Gutenberg free version of this children's classic. The formatting is not the most presentable I've ever seen in an ebook, mostly due to missing tabs and hard returns that are crucial for distinguishing paragraphs from each other. Fortunately, though, there are few typos, so the this version of the book is readable enough that I donated my paper copy to the library as I am gradually moving almost entirely to ebooks since I got my Kindle a year and a half ago.
This book contains more adventures of the Pepper family of five children and their widowed mother, whom they call "Mamsie." We are told it is five years after Book 1, however, given the fact that Phronsie is only eight, in reality it is more like four years later. Mrs. Pepper has been working in these intervening years as housekeeper to rich Mr. King, whom we met in Book 1. He has adopted the Peppers informally and the five Pepper children call him "Grandpapa." The Peppers have been living in the King family's Boston mansion in wealth and splendor, but the high life has not spoiled them.
Polly has been taking piano lessons, and because she practices constantly and is passionate about her music, she has become quite proficient. Even though this is an era in which upperclass women did not work, presumably because Polly was not born upperclass, and her mother works at a job, Polly's goal is to have a job when she grows up, too. She very much wants to be a piano teacher.
In spite of her humble beginnings and life goals, Polly has plenty of society girlfriends. Many of them are arrogant and condescending to the rest of the world, but they are good to Polly because they adore her. Mainly because she is creative in many ways. She is great at coming up with stories, plays, making costumes, and generally keeping everyone--no matter the age or background--fully entertained. In addition, she is a born peacemaker and is generally accepted as the leader of any group of peers she is part of, and often even of adults, who frequently come to her for assistance. Mamsie has trained all her children to work hard and do their duty with good cheer, but Polly and Ben have been the most fertile ground for her teachings. Polly passes on these teachings to anyone who comes into her sphere.
Though the story reads like an historical novel to modern readers, it was actually a contemporary novel when it was written in 1890. There are horse-drawn carriages instead of cars, gaslight instead of electric lamps, no running water, no refrigeration, and no central heating.
The Peppers frequently recall fondly their "little brown house," which still belongs to them and is maintained by Mr. King, who hires Badgertown locals to care for it. During this book, "Grandpapa" takes all the Peppers, Jasper, his daughter Marian and her three boys, Percy, Van and Dick (who is a year older than Phronsie) to visit the little brown house (it is never spelled out, but I assume Badgertown is in Connecticut). There are many other adventures as well, including burglars, a snooty visiting relative of Mr. King's who sneers at the Peppers, and Phronsie, the adored pet of the whole family still, getting lost again (as she did in Book 1, but in a different manner). Mostly, though, this is a book that provides the reader with quiet enjoyment of the ambiance of the nineteenth century and the warmth of the Pepper family.
As the title of the book states, all five Pepper siblings appear in this story:
Ben (Ebenezer) is very likely 16 since Phronsie is eight. Ben, like Polly, doesn't want to be beholden to generous Mr. King, who would gladly send Ben to boarding school as he does the younger boys. Instead of going to school, though, Ben is already working at a job at some kind of business firm. (It is unclear, because no backstory about the intervening years since Book 1 is provided, if poor Ben at least had a tutor.) The owner predicts to Ben that he will advance into a comfortable, lifetime position--though not, the man says rather condescendingly, in management because Ben is a steady plodder, not an innovator or leader. He is instead hard-working and reliable, just as he was as a child. In addition, Ben remains utterly loyal to and affectionate toward his family, especially Polly.
Polly (Mary) is now presumably 15 years old since Phronsie is eight and she is seven years older than her sister. However, since Polly has her fifteenth birthday during Five Little Peppers Abroad, she is apparently 14 going on 15 in this book. Polly and Ben have much less need to act as second parents to their younger siblings than they did when living in poverty during the events of Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Polly doesn't have to cook and clean and babysit anymore. She studies with a tutor, practices her piano, and spends pleasant time with her friends and family. She is less the major player of this book than she was in the first book. The story's focus is spread over the whole family.
Joel would be 13 based on the ages of the other children. He has the same passionate, impulsive, choleric disposition he did as a child, which means it continues to be difficult for him to maintain the uncomplaining, sacrificial attitude Mamsie has worked hard to instill in her children. That approach to life comes with no effort to Ben and David, very little effort for Phronsie, moderate effort for Polly, and huge effort for Joel, who wants what he wants this instant. Joel continues to loudly express his disappointment if he doesn't get his needs met. In short, he's a normal, boisterous boy in a family where the norm is to be a docile gentleman. Fortunately for excitement in the story, Joel's passion puts the house in an uproar from time to time, in no small part because his two housemates Percy and Van (who are around 14 and 12 respectively) delight in tormenting him. Fortunately for Mamsie's hopes for Joel, he has a warm heart and, as in Book 1 when he was a young boy, he continues to be readily brought into line with a judicious application of maternal or sisterly guilt. As stated above, he and Davie (as well as Percy and Van) go to boarding school and come home for visits during school breaks.
Davie (David) is now presumably 11 years old. He continues to have a mild disposition and remains in Joel's shadow as a person and as a character in this book.
Phronsie (Sophronia) was four at the time of the last book and, as stated above, is described as being only eight in this book. Though she is indulged by everyone as both the adored baby of the family and because she is an angelically beautiful, blond child, she still has a remarkably unspoiled disposition, and her generosity and kindness instantly inspires worship in every man, woman, child, dog and crotchety old lady who meets her.
Jappy (Jasper) King is now presumably 17 (a year older than Ben). He is not at a university, though he is presented in Book 1 and this book as intelligent and well read (and we learn in the next book that he speaks multiple languages). During this book, Jasper doesn't have a job yet, and he is not longer under a tutor. He and his father, "old" Mr. King, mostly hang around the mansion living a life of leisure. It is never fully spelled out in this book, but my presumption is that Mr. King, who is a very arrogant, demanding man, doesn't want Jasper to go away from home, not to boarding school as the other boys do (and which was common for the upperclass then--and often these days, too), or to university, which Jasper is certainly old enough to attend. Davie is only 17 in Five Little Peppers Grown Up and he attends university with Joel. As a matter of fact, I am quite amazed, given how possessive Mr. King is of Jasper, that the old man actually allows Jasper to get a job in Connecticut as an adult of 22 in Five Little Peppers Grown Up. However, in that book Mr. King does continue to demand absolute obedience at all times from Jasper--something that Polly encourages Jasper to go along with as his filial duty.
Speaking of Mr. King, his source of wealth isn't mentioned in this book any more than in Book 1, but we learn in Five Little Peppers Grown Up that he inherited his wealth and has never worked a day in his life. It may strike a modern reader as odd that Mr. King is referred to constantly in Book 1 and this book as "old." It certainly made me curious enough about his age to try and calculate what it might be. In Book 1, Jasper's sister and only sibling is obviously much older than he is, since her oldest child is 10. Assuming she didn't get married any younger than 18, she would be around 29 to 31 in Book 1, and at that time Jasper is 13. Mr. King is unlikely to have had her earlier than age 20, and more likely he would have been at least 23 or 24. This means that in Book 1 he is between 49 and 55. He is presented as having ill health in Book 1, but since he completely perks up after Phronsie comes into his life, it is obvious he is merely suffering from the boredom of a non-productive life. He certainly remains quite lively and physically strong, without a hint of ill health, in this book and all of the first four books of this series (see list below), even though chronologically at least 15 years pass and he would be as much as 68 years old at the time of Five Little Peppers Grown Up.
It is possible that the author refers to him as "old" in Books 1 and 2 when he is still in his late 40's or early 50's is because to young people the age of the "five little Peppers," anyone over 25 might seem "old." Or the author might possibly have seen Mr. King as "old" herself even at that age since the average life expectancy at the turn of the twentieth century was little more than 40, and often people in their 50's in nineteenth century novels are labeled by the authors as "old."
Prince, Jasper's dog from Book 1, is missing in action here, oddly enough, but the bird, Cherry, that Jasper gave Polly in Book 1 appears several times.
Margaret Sidney was the pseudonym of successful, American children's author, Harriett Mulford Stone Lothrop, who was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1844 and died in 1924, eight years after writing the last Pepper book. She began her writing career in 1878 at age thirty-four by publishing stories about Polly and Phronsie Pepper in a Boston children's magazine. She married the magazine's editor, Daniel Lothrop, who began a publishing company and published Harriett's "Five Little Peppers" series, starting in 1881. Here is a list of the twelve Pepper books by date written, which were produced over the course of thirty-five years:
Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881)
Five Little Peppers Midway (1890)
Five Little Peppers Grown Up (1892)
Five Little Peppers: Phronsie Pepper (1897)
Five Little Peppers: The Stories Polly Pepper Told (1899)
Five Little Peppers: The Adventures of Joel Pepper (1900)
Five Little Peppers Abroad (1902) Five Little Peppers at School (1903)
Five Little Peppers and their Friends (1904)
Five Little Peppers: Ben Pepper (1905)
Five Little Peppers in the Little Brown House (1907)
Five Little Peppers: Our Davie Pepper (1916)
Margaret Sidney originally had no plans to write more Pepper books after the fourth book, "Phronsie Pepper", was published in 1897. She stated this firmly in her introduction to that book. However, over time the pleas of avid fans from all over the world caused her to give in and write eight more Pepper books. The events in the last eight books take place before the events of the third book in the original series of four books. If you would like to read the six main Pepper books in chronological order, rather than by publication date, this is the ideal sequence:
If you read all the Pepper books, you will discover that the author did not take great care as to continuity in the later books, perhaps because so many years passed between writing these books.
The Pepper books are products of a much slower-paced era, and I personally find it relaxing to experience that approach to children's fiction while being warmly enfolded into the loving Pepper family.
This book, and all the Pepper books, are strictly G-rated, and the values they show (not tell through preaching) are very useful ones for any child to be exposed to, including loyalty, civility, kindness, consideration, keeping commitments, not betraying confidences, accepting difficult circumstances without complaint and forging through them, being organized, thinking before acting, and not taking one's anger out on others.
I highly recommend this book for all ages.