I just have to start this review by saying that I LOVE these books. It had been a while since I had read them (a common theme lately, I know!) but I enjoyed every page of both of these books.
For those who may be unfamiliar (or who have only ever watched the movie… ugh), both these books are actually memoir-types written by two of the siblings of the Gilbreth family, which consisted of their dad (Frank Sr.), their mother (Lillian), and twelve (!) children. Married in 1904, the Gilbreths first child was born in 1905, and their youngest in 1922. Cheaper by the Dozen covers a lot of that time period, especially from 1910 until the death of Frank Sr. in 1924. Belles on Their Toes picks up the story immediately following Frank Sr.’s death, telling the story of how Lillian pressed on to raise her family on her own.
These are genuinely excellent books. The chapters tend to be a bit episodic, but it works for the way the story flows. Despite the genuinely tragic death of their father, these books are lighthearted and funny, the story of a large family with a good sense of humor and a great deal of love and affection for one another.
When I was younger, I enjoyed these books because of the entertaining stories; as an adult I find myself intrigued by the Gilbreths. Frank Sr. was a mediocre to poor student who ended up basically self-teaching himself to become a motion-study engineer. Raised by a single mother after the early death of his father, money was always tight growing up, and Frank started work at an early age. Lillian, in contrast, grew up in California, raised by her well-heeled, genteel family. She not only attended college, she obtained a degree in engineering and a doctorate in psychology. She and Frank worked together in a field that they practically invented – motion study – which observed the methods that a task was being accomplished, analyzed it, and determined more efficient methods to obtain the same result. Lillian also did work studying the “human factor” of work – many of the whys behind what a person was doing in his job.
These books touch on these factors lightly, as background for the way the family operated. Both Frank and Lillian had wanted to have a large family, and they implemented many of their motion-study techniques to help keep their own household running smoothly. Frank was a charismatic, intelligent, confident man who was clearly loved by his children. Lillian was quieter, but still had a strong sense of humor and worked hard to let her children know that she saw them as individuals and not just a unit. I love the dedication in Cheaper by the Dozen – “To Dad, who only raised twelve children; and to Mother, who raised twelve only children.”
Like I said, the tragedy of this story is the early death of Frank in 1924, at the end of Cheaper by the Dozen. It makes me cry every single time. Long troubled with heart problems, Frank’s death wasn’t completely unexpected, but that didn’t make it any easier. Somehow, Frank Jr. and Ernestine manage to make their story stay more sweet than bitter, possibly because their love and respect for their dad really shines through.
Belles on Their Toes opens only a few days after Frank’s death. Before he died, he was getting ready to go overseas as a lecturer at a conference. In order to have a genuine chance at keeping the family together, Lillian decides to take Frank’s place – an incredibly difficult decision, as it means leaving behind her children and traveling to Europe alone. Although those weeks have to have been among the most difficult the family ever faced, Frank Jr. and Ernestine do an amazing job of balancing their grief with the adventures of everyday life in a huge family. The oldest child, Anne, is 19. Together, she and other older children work to keep everyone on schedule and on budget.
The book mostly is about the years when the majority of the children were home, but it does work its way all the way through the graduation of the youngest. Throughout, there is such much love and respect for Lillian, a genuine admiration for the way that she was able to hold her family together and become respected in a field dominated by men.
While I was reading the books this time I looked up a lot more information about the Gilbreths (as you may be able to tell haha) and discovered that Frank Jr. actually wrote a third book, Time Out for Happiness, which is more of a straight biography of his parents. I had never even heard of it, but have managed to get a copy from the library (it just came today, actually) and am genuinely looking forward to reading it. The reviews of this book mostly seem to complain that it’s not as full of funny shenanigans as these two books, but I’m okay with that as I’m really very interested in their lives.
Despite the bittersweetness of these books due to Frank Sr.’s death, I highly recommend these books. They are so funny and heartwarming. Everyone doesn’t get along all the time, but there is an obvious love within the family that comes through on every page. Highly recommended.