Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

I am probably going to be flayed alive by fans of this classic bit of kiddie lit, but I didn't love it. As a matter of fact, far from wondering what it would have been like to have grown up in their family, I was beyond grateful that I didn't. Usually I am all for daydreaming and inserting myself in the appealing, old-fashioned world but not in this instance. I do understand that writing this book was probably a labor of love on Gilbreth and Carey's parts. And I am quite certain that they would be horrified to know that I found their father, at least as depicted here, to be an unpleasant sort. The idea of running a family as a factory or business might seem quaint and entertaining from a distance but it struck me as distasteful. I was particularly interested in the assertion by the authors that he respected children and that's why so many children liked him. Then, completely without irony, they said that he would cut off their dinner conversation by declaring it "not of general interest" and go on to expound on whatever had fascinated or consumed him that day. Respectful? Wow. That's not my understanding of the word.

But the look at the times and the inner workings (even if unusual) of a large family was interesting. Mother Lil was really rather marginalized in this book but I suspect she takes center stage in the next book so perhaps the pair are intended to be seperate portraits of their parents in the milieu that the children knew them best: the family. It is also worth noting that there was only about one year in which all 12 children were at home since the age span between the first and the twelfth is great enough. And since Frank Sr. died when the youngest was merely two, his jovial response to people's wonder at so many children that they come cheaper by the dozen was really only true at the very tail end of his life. The book is almost episodic in nature, with the interesting bits recounted, leaving the narrative flow a bit choppy. And figuring out who all the children were? Don't count on it as they aren't described distinctly enough to differentiate amongst them. But this is a classic and people do love it so perhaps I was just in a terrible mood or completely missed the elusive something that draws readers to a book. The family antics were occasionally entertaining but I had a hard time getting past my dislike of the not quite so genial patriarch. Heresy, but I prefer the movie versions.


  1. I like the book, but I read it as a bit of a horror show. I thought it was fairly clear that actually being in the family would be very rough. Also, there never were 12, because one (Mary?) died young. But living in fear your sibling would catch up in school? Getting smacked on the head for mistakes in typing? Ick.

    Belles on their Toes (which I read for my first fifteen years as Bellies on their Toes, a much more surreal image) has more characters. Their life after their dad's death was less dramatic but more charming.

  2. I haven't read this in years! It was one of my Mom's favorites, and we all cut our teeth reading it--it was considered a 'grownup book' so we fought over whose turn it was.

    It's right up there with two others (wonder if they're still around) "Chicken Every Sunday" and "My Family, Right or Wrong". The latter is the hilarious (or so I thought 50 years ago) story of John Philip Sousa.

    These are the Ozzie and Harriets of mid-20th century memoirs.
    Thanks for the memories.

  3. I liked this book, but I agree that life in this family sounded like a bit of a horror show. :-)


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts