30 October 2005

Books from the Past

I'm toying with buying (which means I'm nosing around E-bay) a set of the Collier's Junior Classics again.

According to this site, Collier Targets Children with Junior Classics, Collier's intended this set of ten books as a child's counterpart to the Harvard Classics (a.k.a. "The Five Foot Shelf," which figured in an early episode of The Waltons). The set I would be looking for would be 1960 or earlier, as after that, Collier redid the volumes and arranged the stories under different categories. I have a single volume from that later set, the holiday volume, which I do enjoy, but the older set has a nostalgic interest as well.

In my early elementary school years, my best friend was a girl who was also named Linda. She lived one street down and several houses further on. Her older sister was already married, but her older brother's room was upstairs across the hall from her. One of the fascinating things in his room was a set of these Collier's Junior Classics.

As I got into fifth grade, Linda's and my interests started to diverge, plus she made two friends I really didn't like all that much. When these two girls were around all they wanted to talk about were clothes and boys. I thought boys, at least in the fashion they were talking about them, were boring, and clothes even more so. I confess that more often than I should I would excuse myself to go to the bathroom, sneak upstairs, and filch a copy of one of her brother's Junior Classics volumes to read for a while to get away from the ordeal of frills and fashion.

It was in "The Animal Book" that I first read one of my favorite dog stories, Albert Payson Terhune's "One Minute Longer."

28 October 2005

Changing Tastes

If there's one thing interesting about reading old books, it's about how times and customs and even mealtimes have changed. Some of the changes are refreshing—it's nice to know we don't treat minority groups, immigrants, foreigners, or poor people the way we did back then. Other things just sound funny: girls wear kimonos, not bathrobes, folks go to "sleeping porches" in the summer to get away from the heat of the house, kids climb into "the tonneau" of the car, etc.

In Kit of Greenacre Farm (published 1919), our heroine Kit Bobbins, nearly sixteen, goes to live with her elderly reclusive uncle and his sister while the family house is being reconstructed (the oil stove caught fire and burned them out). Her scholarly uncle was expecting a boy (shades of Anne Shirley; Kit even has red hair), but Kit settles down much more quickly than Anne and is sent to a preparatory school for college-bound young ladies. She immediately befriends a French-Canadian "half breed" family, the Beaubiens, and sticks up for their daughter Marcelle when the other girls turn up their noses at this poor young woman coming into their school.

Kit and her friend Anne give a Founder's Day tea to see if they can get Marcelle properly introduced into the school's girlish society, and they will be serving six kinds of sandwiches. The menu is straight out of a 1920s cookbook: cheese with pimento sandwiches, cheese with chopped walnuts, lettuce and egg, chopped raisins with beaten white of egg, raspberry jam and cream cheese, and sardine on lettuce with maynonnaise and deviled ham. Macaroons, those cookies so loved in that era, are the sweet.

Can you imagine teenage girls eating anything like that today? The sardines would be enough to send most people running off posthaste, but they were extremely popular back then. Even worse, "chopped raisins with beaten white of egg"—basically a meringue sandwich! We would never serve anything like that today for fear of food poisoning.

(Does it strike anyone as odd that 85 years ago fresh eggs were okay to eat while today with all our health precautions we are afraid to each such things?)

18 October 2005

The Magazine Files, Part 2: Regular Reading

I mentioned in “Yet Another Journal” that I was cleaning out my three-year collection of Period Living and Traditional Homes. They’re from England, beautifully printed, and although fun to read about the old house restorations, were becoming too expensive for my budget and not really useful. I’ll keep the Christmas and New Year’s issues, though; they’re full of bright baubles and old-fashioned trees—heavens, some folks still use candles, which I imagine are gorgeous, but I’m too afraid of fire to ever do so.

This is actually when I do most of my magazine buying: in the fall and winter. I end up bringing home Country and Vermont Life and Yankee and even Midwestern Living and, this year, even Arizona Highways for the vivid and colorful fall photo shots. They are so beautiful I wish I could drink in the vibrant colors: the juicy reds and oranges and golds that look as if they taste of cranberry and orange and cherry. They remind me there is a civilized season behind the depression and energy-sucking heat of summer.

In the fall and winter I also purchase decorating magazines like Country Almanac and Country Decorating Ideas and Country Sampler because they have become warm and cozy instead of stuffed with a plethora of pinks and other pastels of the summer and spring issues. Each summer issue also manages to include an almost totally white room with filmy mosquito-net-like curtains dragging on the floor. If the curtains dragging on the floor isn’t bad enough, the monochrome white makes me want to run screaming from the house (who came up with this absurd notion of curtains getting all dusty on the floor anyway?). This is even worse than the spring explosion of cutesy flower patterns and ruffles everywhere—eeek! The only setup in the summer magazines that ever attracts me is the beach cottage look, with the beadboard and pale blues and nautical decorations.

I also pick up the October, November, and December Country Living each year half price with a Michael's coupon. They have some good articles but aren't worth full price. I actually prefer the British edition which I can't get half price but is often worth it at Christmastime: the British still remember the 12 Days of Christmas and while the American edition covers furnishings, plants, pets, and decorating in a country style, the British edition actually talks about really living in the country as well, with a regular article by a man who gave up a posh job to run a farm and other articles about real country living.

Once a year at Christmas I purchase Victorian Decorating because they’ll usually do an interesting article on scraps decorating and vintage ornaments, and look at one or two old homes decorated for the holidays. (Some of them are over-decorated, even for Victorian homes!) One year they showed the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, which we have visited and I can imagine how it would be to live in the beautiful place with sumptious holiday decorations. (This is supposing, of course, I had someone else to clean the sprawling footage! <g>) Any other time of the year the lace frou-frous in VD drive me wild. I have the same problem with magazines like Romantic Country or Cottage Style; just too many bows and ruffles and furbelows for my taste. I don’t like the cute or feminine country styles, but nice plain, sturdy ginghams and wood in Shaker or Mission fashion. (I’m also apparently the only woman in the country who despises teddy bears, whether dressed in cute little dresses or overalls or baby clothing, or even au natural. I had a teddy I loved as a child but the moment I outgrew him I never went back; even then I always preferred my stuffed dogs.)

At Christmastime I also like to pick up Early American Life, which just had its life restored by a new publisher. Apparently the old management was running this fine magazine into the ground. In fact, the last few issues have been so interesting I’ve occasionally bought one when it isn’t winter time. They’ve had some absorbing historical articles, including a couple about textiles that I didn’t think I’d be interested in.

Each month I purchase Quick & Easy, a British cross-stitch magazine, from the one Barnes & Noble in the area that stocks it. I started buying it almost from when it came out because it has small, simple but attractive designs. Well, it still has some small designs, but also too many these days which are neither quick nor easy and I wonder why they’re in the magazine when the slack can be taken up by a number of sister magazines: Cross Stitcher, Cross Stitch Crazy, The World of Cross-Stitching. I miss the little Jo Verso-like sampler-type patterns that used to prevail (Jo unfortunately died in a car accident some time ago). Another monthly treat used to be the British nostalgia magazine, Best of British, but no one here in Atlanta seems to stock it any longer. I got my last issue while in Rhode Island; dozens of articles in small print with lots of color pictures of old market towns, bygone British brands and vehicles, and stories from readers about growing up or joining the armed services or surviving the Blitz and rationing. I finally broke down and got Reiman’s Reminisce by subscription bimonthly (and of course now I find it here and there where I didn’t before) because I enjoy this nostalgia magazine so much: personal stories here, as well, plus old slide photos, old cars, and the monthly column “I Know…I Was There.”

James gets the bimonthly Cooks Illustrated and the new Cooks Country magazines, but although I like reading the recipes and tips my favorite part of the former is always editor Christopher Kimball’s column about his hometown. I wish they’d collect them in a book!

The magazine I bought the longest (and subscribed to) I no longer receive or read, which is Starlog. I had the complete set for the longest time, with the original issue one, which was printed long before it was a regular magazine, devoted to Star Trek (this was even before the films came out). (It was so long ago, in fact, that the lead character in George Lucas’ new space epic, Star Wars, was still named “Luke Starkiller.”) I loved reading each issue. Then I loaned out an issue and didn’t get it back so didn’t have a complete set any longer, then I noticed I wasn’t reading them right away and in fact finding them unread months later. Regretfully but not regretfully, if that makes any sense, that’s when I let the subscription lapse. I was tempted by one the other day with Harry Potter stories in it, but decided against it. No sense letting that get going again.

The Magazine Files, Part 1: Farewell to the Real TV Guide

I was in love with TV Guide from the start, but the first magazine “I remember liking that liked me back,” as Rhoda Morgenstern would say, was Jack and Jill. I saw very few of these as a kid because we didn’t have a lot of money, but I had the odd issue of J&J and also a couple of Humpty Dumpty that I treasured and read until tattered. There were certain J&J issues that had Lassie articles in them, but I never was lucky enough to get one.

TV Guide came into our house once or twice yearly. When we cleaned out the basement for my father to fix it up, we found a 1961 Fall Preview in a pile of newspapers that I had long-ago scribbled on in black crayon. It’s now in my small collection: small because Mom knew I’d keep every one of the darn things and forbade me to do so. Even when I subscribed I had to promise her not to keep all the issues.

Of course TVG was “a better place” back then. There were not only listings and a little gossip and some picture-stories, but solid reviews and thoughtful profiles of actors and hit series and even serious pieces about the effects of television on children, on politics, on newsmaking, etc. I still have their all-news issue that followed television’s coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination. But then Walter Annenberg aimed for a serious product in general. TVG only got really frivolous at Christmas-time, when folk song artist Allen Sherman wrote an annual tongue-in-cheek poem placing all the network series in rhyme (42 years later I can still recall “Let the kindly candle kindle with warm and mellow thoughts of Grindl...").

Well, all hail Annenberg, for TVG has finally gone down with a whimper: the magazine became bad enough when media bimbo-guy Rupert Murdoch took it over and filled it full of upcoming movie trash, big print, and fashion elements, but now it’s magazine-sized and the listings are gone. Hellooooo! What good is a guide to TV without listings?

A moment of silence for what was once a great magazine...

07 September 2005

It's Raining Estrogen

A few posts ago, I gave a glowing review to the first in a new set of girls' books called The Callahan Cousins. In The Summer Begins, 12-year-old cousins Hillary (the athletic one), Neeve (the well-traveled one), Kate (the friendly, rather ordinary one), and Phoebe (the bookish one) all gather at Grandmother Gee's sumptious summer home on Gull Island off the coast of New England, a privilege granted to all 12-year-old female cousins. I fell in love with the old-fashioned cover and found a good combo of old-fashioned girls' adventure and modern sentiments in the volume and was awaiting the next installment.

Boy, was I disappointed.

Home Sweet Home turns into an unbearable estrogen-fest which gets more annoying as the book proceeds.

Girls my age used to complain about the old books where the boys got to have all the adventures and the girls had to stay behind or do domestic things. Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden and their ilk were some exceptions, but the majority of adventure stories were testosterone-fests. The men and boys in The Summer Begins were clearly supporting characters, but had various roles that kept them well-rounded. In Home Sweet Home the boys are mostly relegated to being boyfriends and are barely heard from. So much for the author trying to be well-balanced.

The story's main mystery is Neeve discovering a wedding photo of her dad with a woman who is not her mother. This unnerving plot device is like those aggravating romance books (and movies) where the heroine discovers something bad about the hero and, instead of confronting him about it, just stews and ignores him until the situation is cleared up. All Neeve had to do was ask Grandma Gee about the photo. Nope, Miss Independence sits and worries about it throughout the book, snapping at her cousins before finally confiding in them (and none of them advise asking their grandmother, either) and even falling under the influence of snobby Sloan Bicket, the bete noire of this tale, in an effort to get information. In one absolutely astonishing chapter, Neeve finds out that the relationship between her dad and this woman "ended badly" and jumps to the conclusion that her dad killed the woman. Huh? Her dad whom she loves despite the fact that he makes the family move so often? I watched a lot of crime TV as a kid and would have never, ever suspected my dad of murder in such a situation. What goes on in this kid's head?

The rest of the book is a long tedious argument between Neve and Kate about their summer project: redecorating the Dorm where the girls will have the privelege of living for the rest of the time. Even with Neeve's supposed "creative input," the room turns into a confection of mostly pink. Note to author: not all of us girls like pink, particularly when we had another favorite color and got stuck in pink endlessly as small children. The room turns out as predictably as some fluffy little girl's decorating book spec. Neeve also has a long running conflict with Sloan about some photos which she has traded...her makeup bag for. She spends at least a third of the book trying to get her makeup back. Oh, please.

Gee continues to act more like a friendly older sister than a real grandmother (and I don't mean that she ought to sit around and knit and bake cookies—heck, she has a housekeeper for that). At one point in the book she teaches all four girls to drive. Yes, they are twelve years old. She wants them to know in case of emergencies. Wow. Talk about your dream grandmother. She already has a bottomless budget, a big house, a pool, a boathouse, the Dorm, and even a housekeeper so these kids don't have to do a lick of work if they don't want to, and she teaches them to drive, too. I wasn't aware this was going to be a fantasy series.

The next book isn't out until May 2006. In it Kate is on a campaign to become "cool." Groan. Maybe by next year I'll have the bad taste out of my mouth, but right now, I'll pass.

30 June 2005

Potty Over Potter

In preparation for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I have been rereading all the other five books of the series. I do this about once or twice a year anyway. It's hard to believe that back a few years ago I wasn't really interested in the series; I did like, it, but I was much too wrapped up in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to pay it much attention. I purchased the books when they came out in paperback, which, any Harry Potter fan can tell you, was a long, long wait because the Potter paperbacks did not come out the usual year after the hardback novel as other books did. Scholastic was really milking the hardback Potter mania to the full.

I realized I had become hooked on Potter when Goblet of Fire came out. At that time Michael's craft stores were selling the Potter novels as well as little Potter geegaws like the Bertie Botts' jellybeans and the Lego Harry Potter pen. On holiday weekends Michael's always has 50 percent off coupons, and one holiday weekend (I can't remember which) I just gave up and bought Goblet. Later on, after James had read the first four books, I went back and replaced my paperback copies of the first three books with hardbacks.

We had a grand time when Order of the Phoenix came out, as the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company got together and did readings from the first four novels at the Barnes & Noble store at Perimeter Mall on the evening before the official release. At midnight, when the book was officially "out," they had been given permission to read from the first chapter. It was great fun: the cast dressed up in costume and there were prizes and games.

They are doing the same thing this year, but we won't be able to go. Oh, well, maybe for the seventh book. But if you're in the Atlanta area on the evening of July 15 and you're a Harry Potter fan, do make the trip to Barnes & Noble. You'll enjoy it.

By the way, I'm having my usual hard time getting through Order of the Phoenix. It's not, as some people have complained, because Harry is so angry all the time in the story (heck, if I were Harry, I'd be angry, too). It's a superb story—but so many dark things happen. It's like rewatching the "Who's Scott Sherwood" episode of Remember WENN.

01 June 2005

Meet the Callahan Cousins

I picked up this hardback children's novel, The Callahan Cousins #1: the Summer Begins in Borders yesterday. I've never had any reluctance to pick up children's or young adults' books if they looked interesting enough, and initially, I fell in love with the cover of this book! It wasn't just the shore scene with the white-steepled church in the midst of it (which reminded me of Newport), but because it looked just like the books I grew up with, the inexpensive hardback Whitman books that were only 29¢ when my mom started buying them for me in the early 1960s.

To my surprise, I really enjoyed the story, although there were a few times that, to me, that the four girls didn't sound like they were only twelve years old, and Gee, their grandmother, seems just too good to be true! (As in all these books, everyone has plenty of money so there are always swell things in the house. Gee's "beach house" is huge, has terraces, a boathouse, a huge pool, etc.) And the girls' nemesis, a spoilt girl named Sloan Bicket, reminds me a lot of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter books. But these are very minor quibbles; it's very easy to like the characters and situations.

Hillary Callahan and her three girl cousins Phoebe, Neve, and Kate, are all spending the summer at Grandma Gee's house on Gull Island, a privilege granted to all female Callahan cousins when they turn twelve. Hillary's parents have just divorced and she is desperate to prove that she is still a Callahan cousin. So when she finds out her uncles had an old tradition of planting a flag on a small nearby island, she is determined that she and her cousins will do the same thing. As the girls learn about sailing, tides, boats, and navigation, they also learn about friendship and old rivalries. The girls are all very "today," but the book is very nostalgic, harking back to those great old series like the Timber Trail Riders, Trixie Belden, and others. The next one is due out in September and I'm looking forward to it.

28 May 2005

Gladys Taber Redux

I have written elsewhere in this blog about my love of Gladys Taber's Stillmeadow books.

They are helping me during a bad patch right now; I've had to fly up to my mother's house suddenly after she collapsed. She is terminally ill with cancer and up until now had been able to take care of herself.

I had to take a few St. Nicholas bound volumes with me; they are thick and "meaty" and would last me a while. But I needed some spiritual comfort and could either take a few of Madeleine L'Engle's nonfiction books or something else. I chose my three paperback copies (lightest) of Gladys Taber instead. There is something very comforting about her writing about her country house, her dogs (cocker spaniels and an Irish setter), cats, garden, and friends. Her prose is like poetry. It makes me feel as if I am wrapped in love.

09 April 2005

A Literary Treat

     "Mally...took down two sticks of dark gold paper.
     "Crunchie?" said Velvet, her face lighting...
     In the gold paper was a chocolate stick. Beneath the chocolate was a sort of honeycomb, crisp and friable, something between biscuit and burnt sugar. Fry's chocolate crunchie...It was their year's choice."
Enid Bagnold wrote this back in 1935, in National Velvet. I read it in the mid-1960s, in a brown-covered paperback with a drawing of blond Velvet and her piebald horse on the cover (a far cry from both Elizabeth Taylor in the movie and Lori Martin in the television series). The Brown girls' life next to the slaughterhouse was so different from mine that I was instantly fascinated, and I loved the differences in language and vocabulary. No effort was made to "Americanize" the descriptions or dialog, which I always appreciated. What then was "kedgeree" and "spawn" and what were "capers"? I was fascinated by their life by the sea and Mrs. Brown having swum the English Channel, by the racing information and the descriptions of the Grand National, and, especially since I had had budgies since I was a small child, Meredith and her canaries. (Those Grand National jumps have stuck in my head for years. When I go over speed bumps I think to myself, "Well, here's Becher's, and next is the Canal Turn...")

This description of the candy bar stayed with me for years, too. It sounded delicious. So when James and I went into the little Norcross shop "A Taste of Britain" today—this is a lovely store that stocks china teacups and little cottages, some British CDs, little things like statuettes and bumper stickers, and British foods (even some frozen ones like bangers and meat pasties).—and looked over their stock of British candies, my eyes alighted with recognition on a gold papered stick labeled "Crunchie" (although it is now made by Cadbury). I had to try it, even if the import prices are a bit high.

James took a bit and pronounced it too sweet. It was a bit sweet; it would probably cure a sugar craving for about a week. But I enjoyed the heck out of it anyway. It tasted just as wonderful as it did back when I "sampled" it virtually 40 years ago reading National Velvet.

06 April 2005

War is Swell?

I finished reading Thomas Fleming’s very absorbing Illusions of Victory: Americans in World War I a week or so ago. This is a no-holds-barred look at the politics behind and during America’s entry into the war in April 1917, including censorship of any anti-war sentiments (if you’re one of the folks at odds with the Patriot Act, this book might provide an eye-opener of how extremely restrictive the American government really can be).

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a completely unbiased look at this entire situation, be forewarned: this ain’t it. Fleming expends a lot of vitriol on personages on either side, but reserves his harshest criticisms for Woodrow Wilson. This is the flip-side to writings where Wilson comes off almost able to be recommended for sainthood.

I thought the portions of the book concerning how Americans against our entry into “the Great War” (including fiery Senator Robert LaFollette and Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin) were treated even more interesting because of my reading the old children’s/young adults’ series books from the early 20th century. I speak in several paragraphs on my St. Nicholas web page about how this one magazine threw itself into promoting the war effort to children. However, St. Nicholas was not a lone anamoly; in almost all the series books written between 1917-1920 (the Bobbsey Twins were a notable exception), the series’ protagonists, from the hiking and motoring Outdoor Girls and the close-knit Camp Fire Girls of Hildegarde Frey to the various series of Boy Scout books and other boys’ series books, all became involved in the war effort. The girls, of course, were relegated to serving tea and cookies at the precursors to USO halls or knitting for victory, but the older boys quit the Scouts, or whatever their organization, to join the Army or Navy or even the neophyte Air Corps to "join General Pershing’s forces in France and fight for Uncle Sam."

Ninety years ago these books were unabashedly patriotic and thus considered good reading for children. Today they are often absurd propaganda with plotlines full of violence and racial and ethnic stereotypes that make even students of history, who know this existed and aren’t shocked, laugh or cringe.

The latest of these epics I recently finished was H. Irving Hancock’s Uncle Sam's Boys with Pershing's Troops, or Dick Prescott at Grips with the Boche. Hancock’s hero Dick Prescott goes back many years to "The High School Boys" series, with "Dick & Co." as they are called in the descriptions, including Dave Darrin, Dan Dalzell, Tom Reade, Harry Hazelton, and Greg Holmes. Hancock then did a series portraying the boys in grammar school while also portraying their post-school lives: Dick and Greg go to West Point, Dave and Dan to Annapolis, and Tom and Harry become young engineers in three different book series. All or most of the boys (not sure what happened to Harry) then serve during World War I: Dick and Greg of course in the Army, Dave and Dan in command of escort ships, and Tom in the Air Corps.

With Pershing’s Troops actually opens in "Camp Berry, Georgia" where Dick and Greg, now young, manly, outstanding—all our heroes being manly and outstanding, of course—officers train with other "doughboys" for embarcation to France. While there they run afoul of not one, but two, German spies and a member of the Army who they suspect also is a spy.

In one absolutely jaw-dropping scene, Dick has to speak to three conscientious objectors. He pretty much views them as and then calls them cowards, and in persuasive arguments, actually convinces two of them that they can kill if their loved ones are threatened by German imperialism. The third he determines really is against killing, even in self-defense and finds a non-combatent role for him. But before this latter man leaves, Dick asks him to take his hat off and notes that it "has a pointed shape" and that he will remember what the head of a conscientious objector looks like!

Finally Dick and Greg are off on troopships and are fired upon by “the Hun.” Of all the ships in the Navy, guess who are captaining two small escort ships of their transport—yep, you guessed it, Dave and Dan!

Once in France they go directly to the front, met by fawning Frenchmen who thank God for Pershing and Uncle Sam’s boys. Although the French have been in these trenches for months, it is Our Hero Dick, during his first tour, who is the first one to notice one of the French privates is signalling the German line with little electric bulbs whenever an officer puts his head up! (Of course we readers should have suspected the French private was a bit "off"—he has a German name, Berger!) Through the private they find out one of the respected French officers is really a German and also a spy; when caught the scornful man makes a rich melodramatic speech about how he is proud of his German heritage and how German superiority will wipe out the French and the British and even the Americans…yadda, yadda, yadda.

Dick isn’t at the front for 24 hours before he’s captured by "the Boche," marched to a cattle car and taken away to a prison—and of course being Our Hero he is the only one with brains to escape when the train stops. He makes his way to a road where he is saved by a French farmer, who takes him to hide in a barn with another American soldier— guess what, it’s Tom Reade!

I don’t think I have to tell you Our Heroes get back to the Allied side eventually; these stories all end the same. The combination of adulation, coincidence, and jingoism is simply breathtaking.

But as counterpoint to Illusions of Victory, like Dick Prescott it can’t be beat as an illustration of how even the youngest citizens of the U.S. were shown the "right" side of the war in Europe.

15 February 2005

Ahhh, Linguistics!

I'm having a great time reading The Adventure of English, although I'd previously read a lot of the facts in my Mario Pei and other linguistics books. Melvin Bragg's writing style reminds me occasionally of James Burke: after a paragraph of talking about how pronounciations change, for instance from "coo" (still used in parts of Scotland) to "cow," and about the Great Vowel Shift, Bragg adds, "...but {linguists] can't say why the great shift happened; or whether it really was one large shift or two or more small ones; or why it happened less in the north (and, as we have seen, not at all to some Scottish cows)." A very Burke-ian quip indeed!

10 February 2005

Who is Edith Van Dyne?

Quiet Elizabeth "Beth" DeGraf is fifteen. She lives with her indifferent parents, a music teacher and an embroiderer, in a small town.

Glamorous Louise Merrick is seventeen. She and her mother, impoverished by her father's death, are living high in a nice apartment on the remainder of his life insurance payment rather than eking out a bare existence on the interest, in the hopes that Louise will make a good marriage to support them both.

Freckled redhead Patricia "Patsy" Doyle is sixteen. She and her Irish father, "the Major," live a poor but happy life with her as a ladies' hairdresser and him as a bookkeeper in a tenement house in the city.

At first glance the trio are a disparate lot, but what they have in common is Jane Merrick, a sickly, discontent, rude old lady who is their aunt. When Jane Merrick realizes she is dying, she sends invitations to each of the girls to come live with her for a month. She is planning to decide which of the three is the best heir for the sizeable fortune she inherited from her fiancé, who died on the eve of their wedding and left all his money to her. Dismissive Miss Merrick doesn't even consider it a possibility that the other heir to the estate might be Kenneth Forbes, her intended's nephew, whom she promised her fiancé she would care for if something happened to his mother. Ken is shy, rude, and mostly untutored, and he loathes his "almost aunt" as much as she loathes him.

These wildly divergent personalities come together in the 1906 book Aunt Jane's Nieces written by Edith Van Dyne, and appears typical in writing to the girls' series of the times, although Louise at first seems an atypical heroine for one of them as her character is closer to that of the inevitable opponents the "nice" girls have in other series stories. It will not be much of a spoiler to tell you that, despite the girls' wariness of each other at first meeting, they all are friends by the end of the book, since nine sequels were spawned, including the inevitable World War I era volume that had the three joining the Red Cross. (Almost all children's series fiction had a point where they halted between 1918-1920 and became obsessed with helping out the cause in the Great War, and many more series books were spawned by the adventures of boys who joined the Army and girls who became nurses or who deterred saboteurs.) Into the mix is also tossed the girls' Uncle John, who returns from "the West" rolling in dough from good investments he apparently makes accidentally, and who bankrolls the girls in all of their schemes in the later volumes.

Some of these volumes, however, didn't follow the traditional plots of most girls' novels of the times. Aunt Jane's Nieces at Work, for example, follows the girls as they help Kenneth–who has, under the influence of his now favorite "cousins," become a bit more agreeable–run for office. Politics was a strange bedfellow for three lively girls in that era when women still did not have suffrage, and indeed the pages were full of diatribes about evil grafting politicians and Democratic principals against Republican ones and vice versa. Indeed, several of the Nieces books not only seem to contain a small mystery, but rail against corruption in industry and politics, hardly the usual subjects in girls' books where clothing, society, and parties were the norm.

But then Edith Van Dyne's other books weren't on typical girlish subjects, either. The two volumes about "the Flying Girl," for instance, followed the adventure of a courageous young woman who learned to fly aircraft in the canvas-and-wire era. And the Mary Louise books follow the adventures of a girl who, in her first story, is pitted against detectives and the United States Secret Service (whose agents are portrayed as double-crossing and in competition with each other in an age where Government representatives were usually shown as solid, honest characters) looking for Mary Louise's beloved "Gran'pa Jim" to arrest him for treason! Strong stuff in those days for girls, but they sold well, showing that the young ladies of that day were eager for more than frills and furbelows in their literature. Indeed, Edith Van Dyne must have been a most progressive woman.

Not to fear, the mystery of Edith Van Dyne has long been solved: "she" was a he, in the person of Lyman Frank Baum–yes, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels. If you are interested in old girls' series books and would like something a little different from the norm, Aunt Jane's trio would probably suit you, not to mention the intrepid Mary Louise. Gutenberg.org has several of the titles, as does Blackmask.com.

A nice article/biography of Baum.

30 January 2005

Words That Sing

I can't remember not loving books, from the inexpensive little volumes my mom would buy at Woolworth's to the books of my own and books from the library. I love a good solid story in a smart narrative, but when I was small I didn't realize that good prose could have the voice of poetry as well. Then in a school reader we had an excerpt from Laurie Lee's memoir, Cider With Rosie (published here in the States as The Edge of Day). It was an astounding revelation. Lee's prose told a story, but wound in delightful metaphor that was poetry to read. I still cannot pick up the book without remembering that discovery of those joyful words.

Gladys Taber's Stillmeadow books are similar. Between the narratives of country living and recipes and the antics of the cocker spaniels and Irish setters that populate the landscape came turns of phrase that painted the countryside and its inhabitants in vivid language fit to be verse. (A travel book, Journey Through New England, has this turn of phrase in its descriptions as well and reminds me of Taber.)

I am reading yet another book with a similar blessing. Those of you who are fans of Mary O'Hara's Ken McLaughlin trilogy, My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming already know of her well-crafted stories and of the description of countryside and characters that makes them special. You may not know about what I consider my favorite book of hers, Wyoming Summer. This is an adaptation of the journal O'Hara kept of one summer at the ranch that was the prototype for the Goose Bar Ranch in those books, and of some events that became inspiration for them, but as an additional joy it also contains that type of prose that sings like poetry. Her descriptions of ranch life, of music, of musings about God and life, are a delight to read not just for the story but for the language. It never fails to send me soaring. This is a worthwhile book to find and to keep forever.

26 January 2005


One of the things I picked up last weekend was a bargain-priced "Disney Press" set of "Walt Disney's Annette Mysteries," containing four of the five books formerly published by Whitman in the early 1960s. (I have no idea why Annette: Mystery at Medicine Wheel isn't included in the set, but I could hazard a guess: it has a Western setting and possibly may no longer present an acceptable view of Native Americans or perhaps Hispanics—although the Hispanic characters in Mystery of Smuggler's Cove are presented respectfully.)

Annette McLeod, the orphan niece of brother and sister Archibald and Lila McLeod, was adopted by them when her father (Archie and Lila's brother) and mother died. The McLeods live in southern California and Annette owns every girl's motorized dream, a trim little white sports car she has nicknamed "the Monster." She and her friends attend high school, but we're never really certain what age they are (aside from the fact they can drive). The waters are further muddied by the fact that although on the book endpapers the Annette silhouette is that of the curly-haired girl as she appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club in the mid to late 1950s, the cover drawings are always of an older Annette with longer hair and a much more mature expression, the Annette of the "Beach Party" movies.

The Whitman book character, derived from a Mouse Club serial called...surprise!..."Annette," had a much longer and more curious bloodline than one might expect.

In 1950, Janette Sebring Lowrey wrote the novel Margaret, which opens in 1906 Texas and concerns teenage Maggie McLeod, who has lived all her life in the small town of Nichols Station with the family that raised her—Bonnie, a practical country woman, her footloose husband "Prince Albert" who spends most of his life away from home riding the rails, and Bonnie and "P.A.'s" cute but rather spoilt little girl, Lois—and her best friend, Michel.

Then Maggie receives a letter from her Aunt Lila McLeod in Ashford, Texas (the town is named after an ancestor of hers). Lila and her brother Archibald, a college professor, would like Maggie to live with them and become a part of the society that is her birthright. Bonnie thinks Maggie should get to know her father's family and insists the girl make the trip.

Ashford is a revelation for the small town girl. She is now called Margaret and welcomed by most of the boys and girls her age, including a country girl from outside town, Jet Maypen, and those in her social circle—but manages to make an enemy of the queen bee of the younger set, a snooty girl named Laura Rogan who sees Margaret as a hayseed. When Margaret becomes popular, Laura accuses her of stealing a diamond necklace that the wealthier girl removed at a party.

Disney reworked Margaret as a vehicle for Annette Funicello. Now entitled "Annette," the storyline is very simplified—entire subplots and characters vanish—but kept the same main plot for the television serial, although Ashford is now some middle American suburb and the time has been modernized to the 1950s. Annette meets the same characters (with their old-fashioned 1906 names intact), including Laura (played in delightfully bitchy style by Jymme Shore—Shore, as Roberta Shore, also played the girl in distress in Disney's The Shaggy Dog) and Jet (portrayed by TV's 1950s tomboy actress Judy Nugent), with Mouse Club regulars (and serial regulars) like Sharon Baird, Doreen Tracey, Tommy Cole, Cheryl Holdridge, Tim Considine, and David Stollery as the others. Richard Deacon, in his pre-buffoon Mel Cooley days, is Uncle Archie, and Sylvia Field, also Mrs. Wilson on Dennis the Menace, was Aunt Lila. The stigma of the stolen necklace hangs (pun intended) around Annette's head until the piece is found and everything ends happily ever after.

(Annette mentions Bonnie, but the character is never seen and she is only a shadowy influence in the girl's life as opposed to her major role in Lowrey's novel. Oddly, although the "Annette" timeframe had been advanced to the present day, Annette arrives in Ashford wearing a countrified outfit that Margaret would have felt more comfortable in. Even the updated Jet Maypen, also from "the country," didn't look that out of synch with time.)

The Whitman (now Disney Press) books dispose of everything except Annette, Aunt Lila, and Uncle Archie. Ashford is given lip service in the first paragraph of the first book of the series, Sierra Summer, in which it is revealed the McLeods have moved permanently to a house Uncle Archie owned in southern California to be closer to "his business." (????) Thus the books had the 1960s All-American sun-and-surf California setting and Ashford friends were forgotten. They are also set a few years later than the serial, since Annette suddenly drives and has a car. (Also, in the simple line illustrations of the day, although Annette looks like...well, Annette, her aunt and uncle no longer resemble the actors who portrayed them; Uncle Archie, in particular, is no longer bald and much younger.)

Today the stories are exercises in nostalgia. Annette's school life is cheery and fun except for tests: not a sign of violence, rapes, rebels, drugs, or drunkenness to be seen. A young character in one book has a father in prison, but of course it was all a mistake and one of the things Annette helps to do is clear the man's name. The mysteries themselves are about at the level of your typical Nancy Drew, or perhaps a little under—my main quibble is they build up and build up the suspense and then in the last chapter in about six paragraphs everything is wrapped up (the bad guy captured by the police, the misunderstanding resolved, etc.), and Annette is back in the Monster, tooling her way back to her aunt and uncle. Still, if you are of the era, they're a fun read and a great way to turn back the clock for a few hours to when everything seemed simpler.

Lowrey's Margaret is also recommended, especially if you've ever seen the "Annette" serial and want to see the derivation. The story stands on its own and the period feel is well done. BTW, if Janette Sebring Lowrey's name seems to stir some visceral memory, you're probably remembering her most famous work, the perennial Little Golden Book favorite, The Poky Little Puppy. Yes, Lowrey wrote this enduring kids' classic. Interestingly, both Poky Little Puppy participants had ties to Disney: Lowrey's Margaret turning into a Disney serial, and illustrator Gustaf Tenggren working for several years as a Disney animator.