Kids don’t always understand why their parents do what they do. I have seen and vaguely enjoyed both Cheaper by the Dozen movies. After watching the remake of Yours, Mine, and Ours and reviewing Who Gets the Drumstick? last month, I was eager to read Cheaper by the Dozen, the first of two books featuring the Gilbreth family. I was most interested in reading about the daily lives of an intact large family, since reading about the process of blending the North-Beardsley family was so delightful. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
Cheaper by the Dozen is co-written by Frank Jr. and Ernestine, two of the twelve Gilbreth children (the oldest boy and girl). Considering my experience with Captivating, the dual authorship should have been my first sign that I wouldn’t like this book. Because it is written from the perspective of the children, there is less discussion of how the family became so big (the parents decided on their wedding day to aim for twelve children) and more discussion of the family’s everyday lives. I found the daily life episodes disjointed, though. The book is set in the early decades of the 1900s, so it is definitely dated by its references to “the war,” Victrolas (see illustration), and early automobile models. Frank Sr. specializes in motion study, the science of working more efficiently by reducing the motions required to complete an action. (Today, this would translate as learning computer keyboard shortcuts.) He tests his theories on his family, the size of which makes his sample size conveniently large, and he applies them to defense and production contracts he earns during “the war.” Some of the archaic references surrounding the motion studies and the family’s lives, such as adventures with film and typing and Morse code lessons, are just ludicrous enough to keep the humor going. Still, it was hard to keep track of what happens when.
In addition to being so dated, the book maintains a very loose chronology. The chapters are organized by theme rather than by time, so it was challenging to keep up with which children had been born at which point in the “story.” One child is noticeably missing from the vignettes; Internet reviewers allege that she died in childhood and wasn’t mentioned even among the family after that. I like stories too much to let biographies come too close to my heart, but I at least like biographies to attempt to tell a story. I’m not sure this one does.
I missed the opportunity to hear from the parents about why they ran the family as they did, but I appreciated hearing so many stories about daily life in the Gilbreth household. The authors share everything from the tonsillectomy disaster to their tricky management of houseguests. The authors point out that the parents “admitted the only guest who could possibly feel like a member of [their] family was a guest who, himself, came from a family of a dozen, headed by a motion study man.” There is no shortage of excitement in a family so large and simultaneously so singular. The method of storytelling may fall short of compelling, but the stories are humorous nonetheless.