Age 8: The Dolls' House

Rumer Godden was a gift given to me by my third grade teacher, Ms. Uyeda. At age eight, I read Godden’s book The Dolls' House obsessively. I loved to read about the painstaking restoration of the titular dollhouse—two little girls named Emily and Charlotte scraped a hundred years of “London grime” from tiny walls with a bristle-boar nailbrush; sewed real lace curtains for tiny windows; sanded tiny furniture; and embroidered tiny upholstery. And I loved its little doll family, who communicated with their human caretakers through silent wishes. Emily and Charlotte would look into their dolls’ faces and intuit all the feelings, wants, and needs that the dolls hadn’t the tools to express. Why couldn’t parents do this? Why couldn’t everyone?

My favorite character was Tottie, the resilient little farthing doll made of strong, “good wood.” I wished to be like her. But when I reread this book recently, I was drawn to the father doll, Mr. Plantaganet. He is so human and so heartbroken, and his description, when I reread it, was vividly familiar, like something I myself had once written. Previously owned by careless children, Mr. Plantaganet was abused and thrown in a cupboard before the story’s heroines rescued him and restored his dignity. “He did not seem to belong to anyone,” Godden writes. “His eyes were full of dust.” These may be the saddest lines in all of fiction.

More tragic still is the story’s climax: the self-immolation of the mother doll, Birdie, who throws herself on a candle flame and is instantly obliterated. This scene did not make me cry (I never cried from books), but it did fascinate me, and made me hum all over with a delicious kind of sorrow.