Skip to main content


December 13, 2014

Robin Antalek: ONLY DOLLIE and the Books That Stay With Us

Posted by Lincoln

Like many of us, Robin Antalek knows a good used book sale when she sees one. She has been sifting through secondhand books since childhood and, in her first Holiday Author Blog, shares the story behind one of her favorite finds. You can find Robin's own book, THE SUMMER WE FELL APART, on sale this holiday season --- and be sure to look for her forthcoming second novel, THE GROWN UPS, on January 27th!

Family lore has it that I started to read around the age of three and a half. The story is this: My mother’s younger brother was home from college for the holidays, I picked up his bag, loaded with textbooks, pulled one out, opened to a random page and began to sound out words much to the amazement of the room. 

I’m not sure whether there is an ounce of truth here or my mother has just willed it into the fabric of our story because it would be impossible to be a part of my family and not be an avid reader. My grandmother, who left Italy and the last of her formal education around eighth grade, had a leaning tower of books at all times next to her chair, and made a weekly trip to the library to refresh the pile until she died at 80. Before we could crawl, my mother instilled the love of used book shops, swap sales and libraries in my brother and me. Even now, one of our favorite things to do when we get together is discover new shops, reconnecting at the register with a stack of finds, blown away by the idea that someone could actually give up such a treasure.

In the home where I grew up, my mother’s books --- encased in a wood and glass mid-century piece that had sliding glass doors --- held an impossible allure. Nothing was off limits. I read my fair share of Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, John D. MacDonald and Jacqueline Susann before I really knew what I was reading. In our laundry room on a shelf above the washer sat a faded cornflower blue hardcover of WAR AND PEACE that my mother worked her way through a page or two at a time while she waited out the wash. 

A good Saturday was a trip to the paperback shop where you could bring in books for store credit and leave with armloads without spending a dime. A great Saturday was the annual hospital white elephant sale. Hardly anyone bothered with the boxes and boxes of books, so I was often alone, browsing through entire donated libraries, making towers that would barely cost a dollar. One sale yielded a book that I have carried with me for years. From home to college to a variety of apartments and houses, the salmon-colored book with pages the color of tea, the small, bell-shaped stamp on the inside back cover that read: Schwarz Books 3rd Avenue and 31st St. NYC, and glorious black-and-white illustrations of Victorian life, ONLY DOLLIE, by Nina Rhoades, has traveled with me.

Published in 1901, ONLY DOLLIE fulfilled every one of my adolescent fantasies in the vein of THE LITTLE PRINCESS and THE SECRET GARDEN. A motherless child, servant to a wealthy family and caretaker of their children, Dollie is a little girl who dreams of new hair ribbons and a family of her own. The story takes place in the weeks leading up to the holidays, and there hasn’t been a Christmas since I found this book at 10 that I don’t think of Dollie.

I had never researched the origin until I sat down to write this piece. To my absolute surprise, a Google search yielded a review from December 7, 1901 in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle under the heading "Books for Little People." The review of ONLY DOLLIE is as follows: This is a brightly written story of a girl of twelve, who, when the mystery of her birth is solved, like Cinderella, passes from drudgery to better circumstances. There is nothing strained or unnatural at any point. All descriptions of characters or portrayals are life-like and the book has an indescribable appealing quality, which wins sympathy and secures success

One-hundred and thirteen years later, I couldn’t agree more.