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.