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Literature: The Velvet Room

The Grapes of Wrath for kids, but with a much happier ending.

A beloved children's classic by Zilpha Keatley Snyder written in 1965, this book tells the tale of young Robin, the middle child in a family of migrant workers traveling across California in their Model T during The Great Depression. Prone to wandering off in her own little world, intelligent but introverted, enamored of books and history but otherwise uninterested in life, she is suddenly thrust into new circumstances when her father is taken on as a mule hand and her family is hired as apricot pitters at the McCurdy ranch. Befriending Gwen the rancher's daughter and Bridget, a kindly old woman who lives nearby, she is given a key by the latter that allows her entrance into the old, abandoned Palmeras House, where she discovers the timeless, beautifully furnished library that she calls the Velvet Room. As time goes by it becomes more and more of a haven for her—a place to read and dream, a place to bury her fears and doubts, to get away from the confusion she feels inside, a place to count on. Then she is abruptly faced with a critical choice...and must decide where she truly belongs, who and what is most important to her.

The book had been long out of print, but its fans, tired of trying to locate, trade, and buy used copies of the book, petitioned for it to be reprinted—and at last, thanks to the Author's Guild and Backinprint.com, their wish has been granted.

Absolutely nothing to do with the location of the same name from the Persona video games.


This book provides examples of:

  • Age-Appropriate Angst: On the one hand, it's quite understandable to the reader that Robin would feel torn between staying where she can have a stable life with a home, friends, and an education and going with her family—even without the Depression factoring into it, having your life turned upside down like that can be extremely traumatic for a child. On the other hand, the fact she comes to care more for the Velvet Room than anything else, and that she even uses the things a child her age should want (a home, friends, an education) as excuses to let her stay near Palmeras House, comes across as a bit of Troubling Unchildlike Behavior. Even the fact many children do latch onto things to an extreme degree and make them the center of their world seems a bit out-of-place here, since Cloud Cuckoolander behavior aside, Robin otherwise appears more mature and intelligent than many kids her age and thus presumably above such attachments. The dichotomy here is in fact a big part of what Robin has to resolve to grow up.
  • The Alleged Car: The Williams' Model T, which despite getting them through three years of traveling is prone to breakdowns—one kicks off the plot.
  • All Girls Like Ponies: Gwen and her horse Mirlo. Justified by living on a ranch, however.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Cary starts out as this but, as she starts seeing more and more similarities between them, he instead becomes something of a confidant and ally to Robin.
  • Armor Piercing Statement:
    Robin: I was just telling you all the reasons [for wanting to stay]. Aren't they good ones?
    Bridget: Yes, they are...If they are real ones... Do you see what my story has to do with you, and with what you've decided to do? When I was Bonita McCurdy, I had the Velvet Room, in fact all of Las Palmeras, but it didn't help me. I had to leave it all behind to find what was really important. Belonging to a place isn't nearly as necessary as belonging to people you love and who love and need you...people do need to count on other people, Robin, no matter how frightening and dangerous that seems at times. If you give up on people, you're giving up on life.
  • Barefoot Poverty: Obligatory for the period and circumstances. Much focus is actually given to Robin's being perpetually barefoot (or at most in particularly ragged and tattered shoes), especially in contrast to the rich surroundings she finds herself in around Gwen.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Plenty of Spanish words and phrases are used throughout the book, and while most are translated, some are not. To anyone familiar with the language, the use of bruja when applied to Bridget would have told what the locals thought of her long before it was defined for Robin.
  • Born in the Wrong Decade: Robin thinks this about her father to some degree, and every once in a while so does he, regarding the fact that the death of his father and later the Depression have caused him to work in menial labor that isn't good for his health and doesn't fit his literary and intellectual sensibilities. Bridget and Mr. McCurdy agree, which is significant.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A number of hints are given as to Bridget's identity if the careful reader is paying attention, such as her reaction to being asked if she lived in Palmeras House, her rather careful Exact Words when asked if Mr. McCurdy gave her the key, her extreme interest in the history of the McCurdy family "more than the McCurdys themselves", and the similarity in description between her face and Bonita's in the tintype. Also, Fred Criley's interest in the items in the whatnot cabinet foreshadows his eventual actions during the climax.
  • The Clan: The Williams family—Rudy, Theda, Robin, Cary, and Shirley. Robin, naturally, suffers from Middle Child Syndrome. Nowhere is their clan status more lampshaded than by Dr. Woods when he comes to check their health:
    Dr. Woods: You the last one, or are there five or six more around somewhere?
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Everyone, even her own family, thinks Robin is this thanks to her "wandering off" and seeming to live in her own little world. She is neither crazy nor particularly eccentric, but she does often have her head in the clouds, so to speak.
  • Coming of Age Story: A somewhat inverted example—thanks to her circumstances, Robin is already Wise Beyond Her Years so in that sense she doesn't need to grow up but instead re-learn what should be important to a child her age—her family, and trusting in people. At the same time she does mature in other ways, mostly related to her selfishness and her detachment from the real world.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The book starts with one, with the Model T's tire blowing at just the right time for it to crash into one of the pillars at Palmeras House's gates, forcing Mr. Williams to go to the ranch for help, where he is instantly able to get a job because one of the permanent hands had just quit that morning. The book ends with one too, with the robbery of Palmeras House happening the same night Robin learns Bridget's story and decides not to accept the McCurdys' offer, with her actions that night indirectly leading to her father's new job on the ranch and them all getting to stay after all. But this is actually justified: the reason Criley and his friends waited until that night was because they needed the cold weather to break so the smudging crews wouldn't be in the orchards and see them, and it was that same cold weather that made Mr. Williams agree to stay to help on the smudging crew before heading to Uncle Joe's, thus enabling Robin to be there at the right time.
  • Cool Old Lady: Bridget. Aside from her independence and self-sufficiency, her wisdom and literary knowledge, and how she acts as both mentor and close friend to Robin when she desperately needs it, there's her incredible range of interests—California history, ranching and apricot pitting, tarantulas and many other animals, and even water pumps.
  • Crash into Hello: Variation—Gwen and Robin first meet when the latter almost gets run down by the former's frightened horse.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Although the book was not one of those by this author to be nominated or win the medal (probably because no one actually dies in it), it has all the hallmarks of a winner—a young protagonist dealing with painful, difficult circumstances, trying to balance selfishness and independence, learning to mature, and then facing a trial regarding their family that will prove how much they've truly grown.
  • Diary: Robin finds Bonita McCurdy's in the Velvet Room, which only hastens her fantasies about Palmeras House and the past, but also proves to contain clues that later resolve the subplot of Bridget's identity.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Although not quite the wringer as most examples of this trope, Robin does go through the resurgence of her father's illness, the sudden prospect of being wrenched away from her friends, school, and the Velvet Room by Uncle Joe's letter, the offer from the McCurdys to stay with them and Gwen, and the robbery of Palmeras House before she finally decides to stay with her family...and then gets to stay at Las Palmeras with them.
  • Eating Lunch Alone: Robin is reduced to this while Gwen is away on vacation, thanks to Gwen's rich friends wanting nothing to do with her and the poor kids of the village rejecting her too for supposedly selling out to join the popular crowd.
  • Expy (in-story): Gwen's flights of fancy, imagination, and excitement about having a best friend live with her for her to take care of and have adventures with is mirrored by Bonita's best friend Mary Ortega who was only too happy to help her escape the supposed clutches of her murderous aunt and uncle and hide out in her attic, complete with conspiracies, disguises, and secret meeting places. Similarly there are many parallels between Robin herself and Bonita in their appearance, their love of reading and education, and their feeling left out and unappreciated in their families due to hardship and tragedy—something Robin herself remarks on and which inspires her to often imagine herself as Bonita.
  • Freudian Excuse: Fred Criley has one, coming from a poor background himself and having to deal with the hunger and despair of the Dust Bowl as well as his own rather harsh father. It doesn't excuse him in the end.
  • Friend or Idol Decision: One which builds up slowly and subtly throughout the entire book, only to loom with incredible importance over Robin's life at the end: will she stay in Las Palmeras with her new friends Gwen and Bridget, live in a rich house, be able to stay in school and learn piano, and keep visiting the Velvet Room...or will she leave all that behind to stay with her family when they go to a steady job in the dismal company of her miserly, misanthropic uncle? Shockingly, Robin actually chooses the idol. At first. And then she gets to have both.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Bridget. Not only does she have a cat, a goat, and a mockingbird, she has tamed a raccoon and a hummingbird. The fact she's been able to do this so that animals which normally wouldn't get along live together peacefully is why the children of the village think she is a bruja.
  • The Golden Rule: Followed throughout the book by Robin, despite her moments of selfishness, and always repaid—helping Bridget with her animal friends and spending time getting to know her is rewarded with the key to Palmeras House; saving Gwen after scaring her horse leads to Gwen helping out later when she twists her ankle, and to their friendship; and it's helping to save Palmeras House from robbery and arson that, indirectly, leads to the McCurdys hiring Mr. Williams as its curator, thus giving him the kind of job he truly needs and letting the family stay.
  • Grass Is Greener/Wanting Is Better Than Having: Very much Robin's mentality throughout the book. She is explicitly described by her father as "a wanter", though for a feeling, a sense of belonging, an education and home rather than any specific possessions or luxuries. This not only leads her to "wander off", and is part of why she is drawn to Gwen as a window into a life she can't have, it makes her long for things from the ability to go to the library and a permanent school to a secret place of her own and even to a fantasy life of what she thinks it was like to live in the glamorized past. In the end, after thinking she has to leave all this behind to go off to her Uncle Joe's, she is suddenly offered everything she wanted: a rich house to live in, best friends in both Gwen and Bridget, school and piano practice, and the Velvet Room...only to realize that in many ways it wasn't what it cracked up to be, and particularly that the Velvet Room was "just a room". This is also lampshaded by Bridget when she reveals herself as Bonita—she had everything she could ever want when living in luxury at Palmeras House, but she wasn't truly successful or happy until she got out on her own, met her future husband, and began a life of wandering and adventure.
  • The Great Depression: Specifically, California of 1937.
  • Haunted House: Palmeras House is reputed to be this thanks to a combination of the mysterious disappearance of Bonita McCurdy and the natural phenomenon of wind whistling through the roof tiles, but once Robin learns the truth behind "La Fantasma" it serves only as a subplot to Bridget's identity. Until, that is, Robin makes use of the haunting story to terrify Fred Criley and his friends when they try to rob and burn down the house.
  • Hypocrite: Robin is quite quick to call out others for their selfishness, such as her sister Theda wanting beauty aids, but (unsurprisingly for one her age) seems unaware that she herself is selfish too—perhaps not as shallowly since her selfishness usually relates to wanting independence, time for herself, and the chance to read and learn, but she does desire luxuries the Williamses can't really afford, uses staking out Betty as an excuse to go to Palmeras House, and tries to claim she doesn't need a picking permit just so she can go explore the secret tunnel. Her father calls her out on her behavior to Theda, though, and by the end of the book she has actually become quite unselfish and mature.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Mr. Williams, weakened by his bout with pneumonia, now suffers from this.
  • In-Series Nickname: The Velvet Room of the title, which is Robin's name for the library of Palmeras House.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Between Robin and Bridget.
  • It's All Junk: Downplayed. Although Robin never declares the library or its books and furnishings to be this (and never would), she certainly comes to see by the end of the book that they are not as valuable as people, particularly her family. This stands in contrast to her original view that things like "books and music" were the "important things" that mattered, and is later modified by both Bridget and her father to the more nuanced and balanced view that they are beautiful and worth preserving and admiring, but only so as to be shared with others.
  • Jerkass: Fred Criley.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Despite being Spoiled Sweet, Gwen's characterization has some elements of this too—although she has plenty of friends at school, their shallow nature suggests she isn't actually close to them, and at home her father's work on the ranch and her mother's constant preoccupation with clubs and socializing leaves Gwen alone most of the time save for her maid Carmela. She seems almost blind to the riches of her surroundings, disinterested in her music lessons, and isn't even able to get through her reading material without Robin telling the stories to her to make them interesting. It's no wonder she is later desperate to have Robin live with her.
  • Loners Are Freaks: The kids at school very much treat Robin this way. To a certain extent, some members of her family think this of her too.
  • The Makeover: Although Gwen never outright subjects Robin to one of these, she does remark upon their first meeting how Robin "could be prettier" and "needed to do something with her hair". When she later invites Robin to live with her, she seems quite bent on making them as alike as possible, giving her a room right next to hers, planning to get her a horse too, and having them "be like real sisters and do everything together". It's sweet and her heart is in the right place, but Robin is made understandably uncomfortable.
  • Motor Mouth: Gwen is often this and is particularly prone to Brutal Honesty, sometimes to the point of seeming to have No Social Skills despite her upbringing.
  • Name's the Same: invoked The protagonist is named Robin Williams.
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used To Be: Mrs. Williams seems to have an idealized view of the family's past, since she consistently tells stories of their life on the road which Robin remembers as being not that much fun or which she's only remembering the best parts of. At the same time Robin has one for the past itself, since she romanticizes and glamorizes what it was like to be Bonita and live in Palmeras House, as well as things of culture and history in general. Bridget sets her straight on the former.
  • One Man's Trash Is Another's Treasure: Fred Criley decides to rob Palmeras House of the jewels, statues, and figurines in the library's whatnot case, ignorantly unaware that, as Mr. McCurdy says, "Some of the old books they were planning to burn up are worth a good deal more than the things they took." And the house itself had even more historical value.
  • Opposites Attract: In Backstory, this happened when the first Donovan McCurdy met and fell in Love at First Sight with the Montoyas' beautiful exotic daughter, Guadalupe Maria Francesca. It was also reflected in the house he built for them, one which incorporated the original Mexican adobe but added on a grand Irish mansion.
  • Passed Over Inheritance: Bonita's grandfather bequeathed Palmeras House to her, rather than to his son Francisco and his wife. Many believed at the time that they (especially the wife) were Inadequate Inheritors who, jealous and enraged, plotted to kill Bonita so they could claim the estate; this is in fact why her friend Mary helped her fake her death, then run away to start a new life. In the end, though, it wasn't true (though her uncle really wasn't cut out for ranch life in her grandfather's eyes and her aunt did actually suggest Bonita had manipulated her grandfather into naming her the heir), but lingering fears of this sort of resentment is why Bonita, returning years later as Bridget, did not reveal herself to her cousin Donovan, instead applying to be Gwen's nurse.
  • Plucky Girl: Robin. She's less optimistic than most versions of the trope thanks to her circumstances, but it can't be denied that for the most part she resists being broken by life and continues to soldier on, strong, opinionated, and outspoken.
  • Reading Is Cool Aesop: One of the more unabashedly played straight examples of this trope to be found in children's literature, from Robin's overall love of books, history, and culture to the specific example of the Velvet Room and its treasures. At the same time, the downside to the trope is not neglected, namely in that as cool as reading is, as wonderful as it is to care about the past and education, this can never replace or devalue the friends and family that you love.
  • The Reveal: Bridget is the missing Bonita McCurdy who, instead of being murdered, drowned, or running away to become an actress, fell off her horse the same night a storm washed out the bridge. After being rescued and hidden by her friend Mary for months, who was convinced her aunt and uncle were out to kill her, she was slipped away to San Francisco and finagled a position as a governess where she finished her education, met and fell in love with a Swiss artist, and started a whole new life for herself.
    • Amusingly and rather heartwarmingly, although when this information is given to Robin it is done in a suitable fashion and she reacts accordingly, the whole reason it was kept secret in the first place, Bridget's fears that the McCurdys would resent her if they knew her family status, turns out to be completely unjustified because they already knew, and were simply waiting for her to tell them.
  • Rich Bitch: Not Gwen, but Laura, one of her friends from school who is quite stuck-up and cruel to Robin.
  • Secret Keeper/King Incognito: Bridget. She is literally a keeper of the secret regarding the key to the underground tunnel, and once she passes it on to Robin she also acts as a guardian, keeping anyone from knowing of Robin's visits to Palmeras House. At the same time she's also the long-lost McCurdy heir, Bonita, although she has no designs on the land or inheritance.
  • Secret Underground Passage: Leading from the well into the adobe portion of Palmeras House. Justified by the dangerous times in Spanish and Mexican-owned California, when war, bandits, and Indian tribes could threaten the McCurdy family at any time. It even opens out through a latched bookcase.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: In a rather sad inversion, it's Robin who, thanks to having had to face the harshness of reality at such a young age, thinks her mother's stories are Nostalgia Filter and her optimistic hopes for the future are foolish dreams that will never come true. Ironically, she herself is still idealistic about the books she reads and the past she envisions for Bonita, but when it comes to life, she's very cynical indeed.
    Robin: You have to stop counting on people. They can't help you, and you can't help them. There's no way to help at all.
  • Spoiled Sweet: Gwen McCurdy. She has a gorgeous house and room, has had personal tutors and is intended for boarding school on the East Coast by her mother, has her own horse and piano teacher, and two doting parents. But she's also as friendly, open-minded, and good-hearted as can be, instantly hitting it off with Robin, letting her into her life without reservations, and remains her good friend when school starts despite both her rich friends and the poor children from Las Palmeras Village disapproving. She even has no problem getting down with the migrant workers and pitting apricots when her father suggests it as a character-building exercise.
  • Stepford Smiler: In some ways, this is Mrs. Williams—always determined to put on her best face, smile, be optimistic, think of the past only in rosy terms, and believe that the future will be better, all while she keeps to herself her worries about her husband and her own misgivings about going to live with Uncle Joe.
  • Sweet and Sour Grapes: Despite coming very close to losing her dream when Palmeras House is robbed and almost burned down, Robin finally decides in the end that she belongs with her family and will go with them instead of staying with Gwen. But then the near-destruction of the house gets the historical society to go forward on plans to restore it as a museum, and in the process of investigating what happened her father and Mr. McCurdy get to talking about the house and its history, thus leading to Mr. Williams being made the curator—something eminently more suited to his health anyway. So Robin gets to have her dream and stay with her family at the same time—though she does still learn several valuable lessons, so the Aesop isn't truly broken.
  • Thicker Than Water: What Robin realizes in the end.
  • Threshold Guardian: To some extent, Bridget acts as this, through her befriending and assessing Robin's character before deciding to give her the key to Palmeras House.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The main plot thread of the book is, of course, Robin fitting into her new surroundings, making friends, and then (through Bridget) coming to explore and become attached to Palmeras House. But there is also the subplot about the haunting, the missing Bonita, and her past, as well as her father's illness and their attempt to find a happy, stable life. All the plots intersect at the end.
  • Wicked Witch: What the kids of Las Palmeras Village think Bridget is, thanks to the look of her cottage, her being a Friend to All Living Things, and her living near the supposedly Haunted House. Even Robin herself, upon first seeing the cottage, thought of Hansel and Gretel.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: In many ways, Robin, particularly when she considers people, places, and situations from an objective distance.
  • X's Tale: "Bridget's Story".

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