I thought this lesser-known companion to the popular Cheaper by the Dozen would suffer from Sequel Syndrome but it doesn’t–the stories it contains are funny, touching, and calculated to make even a cynical reader like myself wish the book were ten times longer. While the first book is dominated by the charismatic person of their father, this sequel is a tribute to the mother who somehow managed to keep the family together after her husband’s death, put all the children through college, keep up the family business and pioneer the male-dominated world of industrial engineering.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Cheaper by the Dozen.]
In contrast to the hilarious escapades and fascinating insights of her children’s book, Cheaper by the Dozen, this posthumously-published autobiography of their mother, Lillian Gilbreth, reads like a cross between a calendar of events and an address book. Several things about the autobiography disturbed me, but it was hard to tell which were down to poor editing, which to Lillian herself and which to the practice of the times. I’d guess that the book’s strange layout in disjointed paragraphs and the abundance of careless typos throughout the text were due to lack of editing. The off-putting use of third-person tense was presumably Lillian’s personal choice, and I assume the bone-dry, unimaginative, unsentimental, relentlessly factual writing style was, at least in part, a reflection of her personality. Since female academics and engineers were an oddity at the time, it is possible that she was used to being on the defensive and avoiding displays of vulnerability. Conceivably, this attitude could be the cause of the chilling lack of emotion, personal details, and believable portrayals of relationships in this account, clearly at odds with the Gilbreths’ success and the obvious value they placed on the other people in their lives (even neighbors who were the barest of acquaintances received a mention in her story).
I feel this book failed on two fronts: it wasn’t demonstrative enough to achieve the humanity of a successful autobiography and it wasn’t technical enough to engender any real understanding of the family business (scientific management and efficiency), despite providing exhaustive accounts of business trips, academic papers and books published, lectures given and contracts secured.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Cheaper by the Dozen very much and wanted to know more about the mother responsible for such a family.]
I can’t believe I didn’t get around to reading this classic until now. I think that I had a bad impression of it from my mom, who had a bad impression of it from the movie versions. At any rate, this book is hilarious and, to someone who knows big families or comes from one (like I do), it is utterly believable. It made me laugh so hard that I had to read a couple parts aloud to the family. It would make a great read-aloud book, by the way, if the reader can control the giggles. I’ve requested the much-less-well-known sequel, Belles on Their Toes, from the library, as well as an autobiography of the mother, so I have more Gilbreth escapades to look forward to in future.
[Why I read it: I wanted to find out why a couple family friends found it so amusing that I’d posted Morse code in the bathroom for the kids to learn. It seems Mr. Gilbreth had the same idea, though with a much cleverer execution…]