“Tomas Takes Charge” and Cinnamon Sticks–A Childhood Memory

Back in the day, when I was in primary school (known otherwise as “grade school”) and was doing lots and lots of reading, I got a book as a gift.  Though I had received many books as gifts, other than “baby books” they were mostly soft cover; this one was my first “collector-grown-up book,” as I thought of it, because it was hard cover and yet still had illustrations to please my youthful taste.  The short novel is called Tomás Takes Charge.  It is by Charlene Joy Talbot, with illustrations by Reisie Lonette.  My twelve-year-old nephew gave me a new copy of the same book for Christmas last year, and though I have to say it has certain drawbacks to my adult taste, I still remember it being one of my first childhood exposures to those growing up in a different culture.  First of all, I came from a small town, and this book is set in the area of Washington Market in NYC.  As well, it is about a young Puerto Rican boy, Tomás Lorca, and his sister Fernanda.  To my adult perceptions, there is something not quite right in the almost stereotypical portrait of their favorite neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, and also in the fact that all of the people who help them out the most are Anglos.  But to a child, these matters are different, and I didn’t have as keen a view of such things then as I hope to have developed since.  Another part of this bookish memory is of course chewing on cinnamon toothpicks while reading the book, over and over, to such an extent that my tongue often burned and the places where I had marked my page with a cinnamon toothpick reeked of the spice to the extent that it is an indivisible part of the original memory.

The toothpicks were the province of the grade school girls, who, back in the days when grocery stores and pharmacies still sold one-ounce bottles of clear (top-strength) cinnamon oil, would make “cinnamon sticks,” so called because the boxes of toothpicks were soaked in a strong cinnamon oil-water mixture until they absorbed all the moisture, then dried and exchanged for favors and treats from other children at school.  I made my own like most other girls, but I always kept the strongest and most pungent for my private “stash.”  But enough of that:  suffice it to say that cinnamon sticks, so made, were my version of the madeleines made famous in Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.

In Tomás Takes Charge, Tomás and his slightly older sister, who suffers from agoraphobia, are left alone in their apartment when their father, their only living relative, is suddenly and unpredictably absent.  Mr. and Mrs. Malloy attempt to make sure that the two youngsters go to their “godmother’s,” a concocted story which Tomás produces in his fear of being sent to Welfare, but Tomás’s ingenuity is too much for the older couple.  He finds a way of housing himself and his sister in an abandoned top-floor apartment a few streets away.  The rest of the novel is largely taken up with showing the many and various ways that Tomás employs to feed them and keep them clothed and happy, even to the extent of finding an old discarded portrait of George Washington and a map of the United States to hang on the walls.  Though his sister is abnormally afraid to go outside, she coaxes a mother cat and kitten into their hideaway to help keep away rats, and she does the cooking and cleaning, leaving Tomás to play the conventional “man’s” role.  Tomás accidentally trespasses on an artist’s loft apartment, where he meets Barbara Ransome, who by his very luck happens to be a children’s book illustrator in need of a model.  This gives Tomás even more money to contribute to his little household, and all in all things seem set to prosper.  Nevertheless, the summer is drawing to a close, and Tomás and Fernanda are uncomfortably aware that they have no heat in their hiding spot; and then Tomás takes a tumble on the fire escape while crossing the roofs, and sprains his ankle, concerning the illustrator because she is expecting him to come the next day for work and he doesn’t show up.

Luck plays a large part in the children’s fortunes, but as it is a children’s story, this is perhaps appropriate.  On the same day that Barbara Ransome goes out looking for her little male model, having previously believed his tale of living with an aunt, she meets up with the Malloys.  When they compare stories, they feel sure (of course) that Tomás and Fernanda are hiding in an abandoned building somewhere in the area.  They go out to look; at the same time, Fernanda remembers what her brother has told her about Barbara Ransome’s skylight apartment and starts a smoking fire in the grate in theirs, hoping that Barbara will see it and come to their rescue.  Luckily, of course, Barbara’s brother is a psychiatrist, and as a doctor he goes with the firemen who are summoned (because others not connected with the story have seen the smoke as well).  There is just the matter of “setting the record straight” about Welfare, which happens when Tomás speaks with a representative and finds him nothing like the monster he had feared (this too seems like an apologia for the system, given all the abuses in children’s services which have been exposed in recent years, but this book is full of best-case scenarios, so one has to accept it for what it is).  The ending is the best it could be, under the circumstances:  they find out that the reason the children’s father has not returned is that he was killed in a car accident.  That is, he didn’t just desert them.  The Malloys knock down a shared wall between their apartment and the next adjoining empty room in order to make more space, and adopt the waifs.  And that is the basic story line.  I haven’t hesitated to give the full story without a “spoiler alert” because it is a children’s book, one a parent might have an interest in for a child, though as I have remarked, being written in 1966, and carefully slanted toward praising the system while also carefully attempting not to insult immigrant industry, ingenuity, and pride, the book would perhaps need a stream of ad libbing by an adult reader to bring it up to date (and children do get impatient with extraneous material, as I recall from trying to read The Secret Garden to a child a few years back, all the while giving a brief explanation of the British empire and class system).  Whatever may be the case now, when I was in grade school in the 1960’s, the book was progressive for its time and given its intended audience, though not as progressive as most adult liberal literature of the same time span.  And it is part of childhood memory for me, as I set sail upon the waters of fiction to a better understanding of others with different ways than mine.

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7 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

7 responses to ““Tomas Takes Charge” and Cinnamon Sticks–A Childhood Memory

  1. Richard Gilbert

    Loved this reminiscence, Victoria. Especially how you brought the ambiance, as it were, surrounding the reading experience. Those periods of immersion in books as a kid are so precious!

    • Thanks for reading, Richard, and for your encouragement. Yes, it was a real shocker to me to see the book again, looking exactly as it had before, to the extent that I even involuntarily lifted it to my face and sniffed, just to see if I could catch a whiff of cinnamon. No such luck, but I was delighted to re-read and see how my perceptions had changed. Funnily enough, I had been talking about the book and going on and on in the fall of last year to my nephew and brother, and it was then, while I was actually talking, that they sneakily took the opportunity to order it online for me for Christmas. I was so used to seeing them with a computer in front of them while they spoke that I didn’t even guess. Apparently, it’s also featured under another, less evocative name, something like “Children On Their Own,” or something else as desperate and less empowering-sounding than “Tomas Takes Charge.” Sorry, I’m being wordy. But it was a very wonderful experience, and I’m glad you enjoyed sharing the part of it I communicated.

  2. It’s always good to read reminiscences and makes me wonder about my own reading history. it is interesting to look back and see how some books have that agenda to steer a kid’s thought process. They seem to feel dated rather quickly in hindsight and of course that overly fortuitous luck would be lovely in real life.

    • Thank you, Ste J, for commenting and being so perceptive (which I realize is something that’s natural and not entirely in one’s own control, but also one cultivates such qualities in oneself, and I think you do). Yes, I read that book so many times over that it seems perfectly familiar in a way to see it again, and to live again in its pages; but I am aware of the “dated” quality due to things I’ve learned about life and literature since.

      • I’m all for cultivating, me! Sometimes dated is good, I like to think of the more innocent times in children’s literature back then, it’s like reading The Famous Five or some such, even if they were a little slow on the uptake with the blatant clues. Those memories of reading the books allow us to forgive them their flaws.

  3. D.J. Martin

    “Tomas Takes Charge” in hardcover was one of picks by the “Young America Book Club” which I was subscribed to as a child; later was reissued by Scholastic in paperback untle title “Children in Hiding”. Leafing thru both editions, I just noticed latter may have fewer or cropped illustrations.

    I’ve enjoyed re-reading “Tomas” many times, both as child and adult–I describe it as a sort of Robinson Crusoe adventure set on island of Manhattan. I relish author’s sensory descriptions of NYC of someone who lived there in working class neighborhood, not as a tourist.

    Talbot also has gift to convey her varied characters in just a few words of dialogue (tho appealing, the drawings are not needed to picture that dockworker who carries stove for Tomas 5 blocks is African-American, as is Edith, who takes Tomas to Fulton Fish Market to show him where to get free fish from a little old man who might be of Portuguese or Italian descent.

    I think you may be distorting the text in an effort to make a contemporary adult revision-re-reading. For example, other non-white adults who aid the children besides those above are the Salvadore & Perez mothers who hire Tomas to babysit, so he has money to buy things he can’t find for free.

    Market watchman–“a small, mean-faced young man” who is as close to a villain as the tale has for Tomas, seems to be white–at least, he doesn’t speak Spanish and “turns pink” in the face with anger. Barbara Rasome, the artist who hires Tomas as model, does speak Spanish, having visited Mexico for six months, and is planning to go to Puerto Rico.

    Your remark about “industrious immigrants” sounds rather inaccurate to me, at least if applied to Tomas–who was born in New York–and because his family who came from Puerto Rico, island that belongs to the USA (not a state, but a Commonwealth), so they were also American citizens.

    The Malloy’s (who eventually adopt Tomas & Fernanda), may be from family a generation away from Ireland (remember John F. Kennedy had recently become President, despite some voters concerns about his being Catholic).
    NYC in particular is famous for being a melting pot of cultures.

    There just may not be brief ways to label someone’s cultural background–in his thoughts,Tomas appears to say “Americans” eat raw vegetables like celery & carrots, while he prefers filling rice, pork and chicken. But when he models for Barbara as a rural boy for book set in Puerto Rico, it’s show by his reactions how foreign that life is to him, a boy NYC born and bred.

    I may be a bit sensitive about someones culture being judged by skin-color or accent. Recently on bus I was riding in California, young black man asked olive-skinned driver where her family was from, guessing Puerto Rico (She said from Central American).
    But he likely never would have guessed my family is from Puerto Rico, where I had lived awhile too–as am blue eyed blonde, descended from French navel officer who settled on the island. No Hispanic accent–even my female relatives were university educated, with one a Professor in the 1930’s. Just a reminder that word prejudice means pre-judging.

    BTW, author Talbot wrote another book in which Tomas briefly appears, 1974 “A Home with Aunt Florry”: two orphaned siblings from Kansas come to life with their elderly aunt and “find her life quite different from what they had known”. Like Tomas, she collects stuff she finds on the street, only takes it to extremes. I don’t care for it as much as earlier book.

    As Florry’s home is condemned as part neighborhood building project, the children have to help her realize she must move. From streets & landmarks mentioned in previous book, I tried to find location of Washington Market on old maps. Looks like area may have been eventual site of World Trade Center; I saw online photos of a Washington park for children. If so, firemen & police who come to help Tomas were unknowingly sort of prequel, a fitting tribute to those whose dedication became history of 9-11.

  4. Dear D.J. Martin, Thank you for your copious and well-considered reply to my post. Actually, I wasn’t claiming that Tomas himself was necessarily directly from Puerto Rico, but people I’m aware of descended from Puerto Rican roots generally call themselves “Puerto Ricans,” without being as specific as to call themselves “Puerto Rican Americans,” or “Latino Americans,” or any of the more specific, but let’s face it, wordier labels. Also, the people around him who help him out are seemingly from all different groups, with the Malloys being the ones a bit stereotyped, as I think I said. It doesn’t essentially matter whether they are first or second generation Irish, the stereotype exists. And as to whether a greater number of non-whites or whites help the children out, I think that though non-whites help them out such as you have described, they are more often neighbors known to the children (though not in every case), whereas the way the book is written, the people in the capacity to give the children the greatest or largest degree of help are whites, which I find troubling, as it seems to put them always in the position of being able to condescend. I mean, the neighbors are helping “across” to them, the whites are wealthy or aligned with the system, and are helping “down.” That’s what I meant. And that is not so much a revision as a revisiting of what I learned as a child with an adult reminder to myself that for all I know, these days especially, people of all different groups and descents may be firemen, artists, psychiatrists, and welfare workers, capable of helping lost children. I find especially your contribution interesting, that you are of Puerto Rican descent from a French naval officer, and therefore don’t fit the visual stereotype people might be expecting. This puts you in an excellent position to take on stereotypes of every kind relating to your land of descent. You have helped out my post by your careful research on the book, or your extensive knowledge. I was mainly involved with restoring a childhood memory, and with recalling the circumstances under which I read the book, the cinnamon sticks included. Still when I smell cinnamon, it seems to awaken in my memory a hot, city afternoon, though I have still not visited in NYC, except to pass through the airports at various times. This book also got read when I ate cashews at my grandmother’s, but cinnamon is more pungent, and sticks in my memory more. I got to admire Tomas’s DIY attitude so much when I was young, that I started to try to improve or build things myself for a while, until discouraged. It was a very formative book for me.

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