I was thrift-store shopping the other day, and I went into a dark, rather depressing junk store. Proceeds from the store went to support some charity. The books were in the back corner, in no discernible order, shelved on homemade shelves made of two by fours. I looked over the assortment of paperback bestsellers of days gone by and old college textbooks, and I found one book that looked as if it might be worth looking into: an old library copy of Pegeen by Hilda Van Stockum. The only reason I paid 25 cents for this book was that I had heard of the author; she had a book listed in my Sonlight curriculum, albeit one I hadn’t read.
Pegeen, published in 1941, was definitely worth the money and the time I invested in it. This children’s book tells the story of an Irish orphan girl, Pegeen, who loses her only guardian and the only family member she knows, her grandmother. She goes to live with friends while the village priest searches for her uncle who has emigrated to America. The O’Sullivan family of Bantry Bay take care of Pegeen in the meantime—even though Pegeen is a very naughty little girl. She likes the family she lives with, and they are good to her. However, Pegeen is a spirited young lady who manages to get herself into all sorts of trouble just by being herself. In fact, Pegeen is something of a wild thing who makes up stories and dances like a gypsy and gains the affection of the entire O’Sullivan family in spite of her irresponsible ways.
Hilda Van Stockum was an artist before she became a writer, and her illustrations for this book are beautiful, pen and ink drawings that give a lovely picture of Irish country life in first part of the twentieth century. Mrs. Van Stockum’s descriptions are beautiful, too; for instance, these are the opening lines of the book:
A late sunbeam struck the little whitewashed cabin that lay snuggled against the mountainside, and picked out the red flash of a girl’s petticoat. She was sitting on the doorstep, her chin cupped in both hands, wide eyes raised to the smoldering sky. Blue shadows stole up around her, hiding the shining playthings of the day; a sound of lamenting and weeping came from the cottage, where candles burned around a still, white figure.
I was so impressed with this story of a little girl who is not perfect at all, a family that has its tensions and problems, yet with faith in the Lord and patience with each other, they all come through the problems and manage to show real love for each other. The book isn’t didactic; rather the events in book demonstrate the meaning of mercy and patience and perseverance and joy. The themes and the stories that make up this little book are probably much too “precious’ for modern day sensibilities, but since my younger children, at least, haven’t been inducted into the cynicism and pride of our age, I plan to read Pegeen to my little Betsy-Bee and maybe to Z-baby.
Pegeen should be a classic family story ranked alongside All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor and Little Pear by Frances Lattimore. Hilda Van Stockum wrote at least two other books about the O’Sullivan family of Bantry Bay: Francie on the Run, which takes place before Pegeen and The Cottage at Bantry Bay, which I think is the third book in the series. I plan to find these and read them as soon as I can. It’s my loss, and now my gain, that I had never heard of these books until I came across my worn copy of Pegeen in the thrift store. You never know what treasures you might find in unlikely places.