The Hundred Dresses

10May10

By Eleanor Estes

The Hundred Dresses tells of a little girl named Wanda Petronski who lives in a less affluent part of town called Boggins Heights with her brother and father. Wanda’s and her family, who are immigrants to the United States from Poland, are poor. This story is as much about the struggles faced by immigrants and their children in social settings as it is about those who are impoverished.

Estes’ word choice gives a quirky, yet charming feel to the story. For instance, girls are described as laughing derisively and a cap is described as sitting on someone’s head “at “a precarious tilt.” Estes creates emphasis and rhythm through the use of alliteration: “…on this kind of a November afternoon, drizzly, damp, and dismal.”

The prejudice held towards immigrants at this time and place manifests itself in the mockery that has been instilled in the town’s children’s towards foreign names: “Wanda Petronski. Most of the children in Room 13 didn’t have names like that. They had names easy to say, like Thomas, Smith, or Allen. There was one boy named Bounce, Willie Bounce, and people thought that was funny but not funny in the same way that Petronski was.”

Wanda is described as always wearing the same “faded blue dress.” Even those Wanda wears this dress everyday, she always comes to school with it cleaned and oddly ironed. We learn that Wanda’s mother is not around, leaving Wanda much to her own devices when it comes to matters such as ironing and dressing. At the crux of this story is a game that two of the girls at school, Peggy and Maddie, “play” with Wanda. They call this game the dresses game, is it starts by one of them asking, “Wanda, how many dresses did you say you had hanging up in your closet?” Consistently, Wanda always replies that she has a hundred dresses, all just lined up in her closet. At this point, the girls always laugh a Wanda knowing that she likely has little more than the same faded blue dress she has on.

In this story of the have’s, and the have-nots, Maddie fits in with all those that fall in between. Maddie realizes that this game isn’t nice, but is easily pressured by her desire to fit in with a popular girl like Peggy. However, Maddie isn’t just like Peggy in that she doesn’t all the nicest things and dresses, and in fact even wears altered old dresses of Peggy’s.  Maddie, like so many young people in similar situations, fears that if the taunting is not focused on someone else, the scrutiny may turn to them.

While reading this story, I initially thought it was telling Wanda’s story. However, the character who undergoes real growth during the story is Maddie. Realizing that treating people with respect and dignity and standing up for others is the right thing to do, Maddie decides to start taking a stand. After Wanda and her family move to somewhere where they will have an easier time as Polish immigrants, the girls learn that Wanda did in fact have one hundred dresses lined up in her closet – but instead of fabric dresses, Wanda’s one hundred dresses were beautiful dress designs on paper that she had created. In awe, and out of embarrassment for how they treated her, Maddie and Peggy write Wanda a letter as a way of making things right.

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