[REVIEW] Cheaper By The Dozen, by Frank B Gilbreth Jr. & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

A Black woman's hand(my hand) holds a Kindle displaying the cover of Cheaper By The Dozen in front of a sleepy residential street lined with autumn trees

(Buy it on Bookshop here.)

I rarely review “classic” books on here because a)I don’t read them all that often and b) I find it kind of tiresome that whenever I say I focus on diversity in my reading, people expect me to spend all my time making angry posts about old books written by dead writers who were complicit with the injustices of their time. To be 100% honest, when it comes to yelling at the ghosts of racists past–I really don’t care. I’d rather uplift and elevate the spirits of diverse writers present.

That said, I’m still reading everything I can get my hands on with a Massachusetts connection. When I came across this memoir of a family of twelve children raised by a pair of married efficiency engineers in the early 1920s, I realized I’d read it as a kid and had really fond memories of it. Lots of people do–it’s been adapted for the stage twice and for film three times, with another version coming next year.

It’s easy to see why–the Gilbreths are funny, loving, and headed by a pair of whip-smart parents–overbearing, jocular Frank and genteel Lilian. Despite their weirdly overmanaged, hyper-efficient way of life and general annoying precociousness, the Gilbreth household seems like it would have been great to grow up in. The glimpses of life in 1920s New Jersey (the MA connections are Frank’s hometown and the family’s summer vacation cottage) are interesting because they’re not nostalgic–they’re just an ordinary backdrop to the family relationships and endless shenanigans. It’s a lovable book with lovable moments despite itself.

But…

But the family has a Chinese cook whose accent is reproduced in a cringy, racist eye dialect, and the children play cruel pranks on him that result in a serious injury…

But one of Frank’s ways of entertaining his numerous children on the cheap is to do a blackface minstrel show, which is written for unapologetic laughs much like the Chinese cook’s misfortunes…

But Lilian uses a slur for Indigenous people as a euphemism for anything she finds offensive or vulgar…

*sigh* I’m not a crusader. I’m really not. But when I revisit the books that must have shaped my thinking as a kid unconsciously, the ones that are mostly enjoyable but are marred with remnants of the backwards, self-centered thinking that America is still deciding whether or not to atone for and grow past–I realize that the books I tend to read and highlight now are actually a pretty big deal, not only because they present such a different picture of the world and the way we interact now, but because they exist at all.

I also realize why it’s so hard for some people to let go of America’s falsely great past and embrace the truth of our history fully. Hear me out on this one.

So I read this book as a kid and I remembered the family, the jokes, the love. I’m sure I metabolized the racism on some level but I didn’t remember it as anything but a family story. Coming across these passages some thirty-odd years later was such a shock–how did I ever like this book? Why didn’t this bother me then? (I was probably 7, that’s why.) I was just so…disappointed. Disappointed in myself, in my memories, and in the Gilbreths, who were clearly smart enough to do better but applied their intellects to machines and systems instead of people and history, and were part of the general current of White supremacy that was washing over the country at the time in addition to being a loving, fun family with a great story. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and that’s hard for some people to understand.

Now, I’m obviously Black and have spent the overwhelming majority of my life around other Black and Brown and Asian people. Racism is no surprise to me. I know it exists, and to some extent, I expect it from certain eras and communities no matter how good or nice they might seem. While I relate to the family aspects of Cheaper By The Dozen, I don’t really identify with their East Coast, moneyed, summer cottage life and it’s easy to denounce and critically discuss certain details in their story–for me. But I could see how, if you’re from a community similar to theirs or have a deeper level of identification with the family or are more invested in the idea of meritocratic success that underpins the whole thing–well, then I could see how it would be easy to dismiss the uncomfortable parts of this book, gloss over them and just say it’s a nice story about a hardworking man and his many eventually successful children and anything else is just dramatics and meanness, so that you can continue to see the best in yourself through them, and not have to reckon with the worst.

I’m not rating Cheaper By The Dozen. I don’t think it’s a terrible book, though. I also don’t think the offensive parts should be edited out, just addressed in an editor’s note, perhaps. I think that parts of the book are still fun and as a whole, it’s a marker of its time. I think the fact that it’s never gone out of print and has been made into a half-dozen sanitized, cutesy family values stories without addressing its problems is a marker of the current times. Now, let me get back to reading diversity and minding my business.

(You know the drill, beautiful people. This is where I remind you–efficiently, in homage to the Gilbreths–that this blog has affiliate relationships and if you click and purchase anything from here, yours truly might make a little money with which to buy more books.

That’s all. Really. This time, anyway. Visit the Bookshop page, and go read something good. Peace!)

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