The book is a semi-autobiographical story of the author's tenth year. Lucinda is ten, and calls herself a "temporary orphan" while her parents are away for a year in Italy. She stays with two ladies (one of them is a teacher at her school) and with a very few ground rules, is basically allowed to do as she pleases for the year. It's the 1890s, she's in New York, and the world is her oyster!
What does she do with her time, you ask? She makes friends. She makes friends with Mr. Gilligan the cab driver, who is from Ireland and invites her to tea so that they can have griddle cakes "cut pie-wise" and tell stories and sing Irish songs (Mrs. Gilligan is Irish too). She makes friends with Tony, an Italian boy whose father has a fruit cart. She makes friends with Trinket, a little girl who lives upstairs. She makes friends with the police officer whose beat is on the way to school. And Alena, a girl who lives with her grandparents who are in the theater. And Mr. Nightowl, who writes for a newspaper and twists his hair up into owl horns when he introduces himself. And Princess Zayda (Lucinda's name for her), an "Oriental" woman who hires Lucinda to give her English lessons. I could go on.
The whole book feels like a lark - there are no rules, and everyone is interesting, and Lucinda's intentions are pure gold. But she's *alive*, too, and can't always control her tongue, which gets her into trouble with her Aunt Emily*. And the world is not always kind, even to spirited ten-year-olds. There is pain in the book, too, which I think is part of why I love it so much. Lucinda is a happy girl, but has real feelings. She revels in feeling "wanted" (she was the fifth child in her family, and never made much of), and feels about ready to explode when winter drags on and she can "feel the lid closing on her" after days of snow and not being able to skate or run outside. There are two deaths in the book, each of which requires its own sort of dealing-with. And at the end, there is a feeling of things changing, and not being able to keep things forever, nor people, nor time. It's not exactly a happy ending, but that just adds to the genuine feel of the book.
Now, on to its accessibility for modern young readers. One review I saw mentioned that readers who liked Little Women might be able to put up with its long descriptions. I didn't mind the descriptions at all, and found it FAR less tedious than Little Women (this coming from someone who read Little Women as a kid and actually kind of liked it). There are some words that would need looking up, but none of them get in the way of understanding the story. I'll spare you the trouble of a couple: pongee is a sort of light cloth, guilp is a kind of ribbon, and pettyjohn is in the oatmeal/cream-of-wheat/other-porridge family. And there are the kinds of un-PC references that you're likely to find in a book of this era. Tony's family is forever having new babies, the cook is referred to as "Black Susan", and so on. All are portrayed in a very sympathetic light, but it can be condescending.
And there's a random murder. If I were assigned the task of editing this book for a modern audience, I might leave in a lot of the un-PC parts and explain them away with a discussion of "it was a different time", but I might seriously consider editing Princess Zayda out. Lucinda never even mentions her to her caregivers, as she knows they would forbid her to continue seeing her. We know that she is "Oriental", has a fabulous exotic room (with curtains, cushions, tapestries, and a jeweled dagger on the wall) in a hotel, and a husband who we never really meet, but who seems harsh, jealous, and possibly abusive. And then Lucinda finds Princess Zayda in her room one day, stabbed in the back with the dagger from the wall. Lucinda is told by the hotel manager to forget that she ever saw it, and to pretend that Princess Zayda had gone away, back to her country, and is happy and well somewhere. Lucinda consoles herself that she is probably happy, having finally escaped her husband. Not essential to the plot, and pretty weighty for a children's book, especially without resolution. That said, I don't remember it bothering me when I read it as a kid - I remember it feeling exciting, and part of a real adventure. Take that as you will. I suppose it's not worse than what's in a lot of movies kids see.
Overall this book paints a great, active, multi-colored, multi-layered picture of a year in New York in the 1890s. I don't think it's for every kid, but give them a some credit - there are a lot who would like it! And if you're looking for something a little different for yourself, it ages well and is a good, satisfying read for an adult too.