06 February 2007

Old-Time Curiosities from Books

Reading all the "Five Little Peppers" books over brings one back to a different age. Imagine being so poor that you've never received a letter or a parcel, like Mrs. Hansell in Ben Pepper. Or a wonderful game for children being "playing company," dressing up and pretending to call on your own brothers and sisters.

Some other aspects of Victorian America emerge. For instance, in the second story ever written about the Peppers, little Phronsie celebrates a great event: getting her first pair of brand-new shoes! But even then Mrs. Pepper must cut corners. She tells Polly and Ben to make sure that Mr. Beebe the shoe-store man gives them "evens" so the shoes will wear longer. If you're familiar with the history of shoes, you know that they were originally made the same for both feet. Once on, the shoes then conformed to the shape of your feet. If the shoes wore unevenly on one side—I always "turned on my heels" and rounded out the outsides of them, so my mother had the shoemaker put rubber "taps" on those corners—you could swap shoes and thus "evens" would wear longer. (As someone who has trouble with shoes, I can imagine how uncomfortable that would be!) Around 1822, American cobblers invented the first "left" and "right" side shoes made from specific lasts (molds) of each foot. Some slippers and light women's shoes continued to be made on straight lasts by the turn-shoe method until perhaps 1870. Apparently if Mrs. Pepper was still requesting "evens" in a story written in 1887, either they still made shoes like that for children, who were so hard on shoes, or Mr. Beebe was a very old-fashioned cobbler.

In several of the stories, Mrs. Pepper or another adult applies something called opodeldoc to cuts or bruises. This was a liniment made from, among other things, soap and camphor. Wikipedia tells a little more about opodeldoc, including the origin of the name. It's hard to imagine a day when a simple broken leg was a reason to panic, but blood poisoning or crippling might be the result of the injury.

There's also what sounds like a strange sounding remedy for the bruises that result when Dick Whitney falls down the stairs: brown paper is soaked in vinegar and put on the swellings that result. Again, this is a homeopathic remedy still recommended today:

Put five or six sheets of strong brown paper into a pan and cover with sage vinegar. Place a lid on the pan and steam over a very low heat for a few minutes. The time will depend on the type of paper used. It should soften and absorb some of the vinegar without breaking or disintegrating. Remove the paper and wrap it in overlapping layers around the affected part. Apply as hot as possible and build up several layers. Cover with plastic wrap and bandage in place. Leave for four hours and reapply twice a day until the swelling and bruising have subsided.

This is an effective remedy enshrined in the children's rhyme "Jack and Jill" (Jack "went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper"). It is very supportive and strengthening for bruises and swellings.

01 February 2007

Books Read Since January 17

• A Hole in Juan, Gillian Roberts, the penultimate volume in her mystery series about Amanda Pepper, Philadelphia Prep teacher who gets involved in mysteries and her boyfriend-now-husband C.K. Mackenzie. This time a tough science instructor that the kids don't like is injured in a laboratory accident. Amanda is more upset than the rest of the instructors since before his accident the teacher confided to her that he was being harrassed by the students—and certain of her students are acting odd.

I was genuinely mystified by this one, but came out of it feeling depressed—are high-school kids today really that mean and petty? Did I just manage to avoid these poisonous creatures when I did the high school circuit?

• Mr. Monk and the Blue Flu, Lee Goldberg, another original novel based on the television series. Union negotiations break down, the police walk off the job—and Monk is reinstated as a detective. First on his plate: a killer who offs women joggers and steals only their left shoe. If you think Monk is crazy, the other reinstated ex-police officers who make up his squad are even more daft: a Dirty Harry-attitude cop with "anger-management issues," an elderly man, and a paranoid woman officer who believes aliens are listening to our every word via our computers. Will Natalie survive this without going nuts?

I enjoyed reading this one because Goldberg has all the dialog down pat (well, he has written several episodes of the series, after all), especially between Stottlemeyer and Disher. I could pretty much hear the actors saying the dialog he'd written for them.

• The other four Five Little Peppers books I had never read. I got them through interlibrary loan. Most of them sell for $$$ online because the later books were not reprinted and so are rare. The Stories Polly Pepper Told occasionally shows up in bookstores inexpensively, but I've never wanted it because frankly I wasn't interested in the little fairy stories Polly told to keep the younger kids occupied. However, I realized when I finally read the book that it also had framing sequences and stories about the family itself, so if I ever see it cheap again, I'll probably grab it. There's one story where we actually hear something about the childrens' father, and another where they are snowbound.

Writers sometimes get themselves into traps when they create a popular character. They have other ideas for other characters and stories, but people clamor for more of the popular character. Louisa May Alcott finally wished that the March family would be blown up in some cataclysm so she could escape them and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of course "killed off" Sherlock Holmes, then later "resurrected" him because of the outcry.

"Margaret Sidney" (in real life Harriet Mulford Lothrop) intended to end the Pepper saga after four books, but her readers kept clamouring for more. Despite her professed affection for "the Little Brown House" folks, it must have bored her eventually to keep filling in these minute details of life with Ben, Polly, Joel, David, and Phronsie, because the later books are full of contrary timelines, character names transferred to other characters, and other signs that Mrs. Lothrop was just writing because they'd asked her to. The Adventures of Joel Pepper (which I own) and Our Davie Pepper and Five Little Peppers in the Little Brown House (which I borrowed) cram little details in between the events that take place in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (Little Brown House does include the two original Pepper short stories written for Wide Awake!, a late 1800s children's magazine, which engendered the first book and eventually the series). Ben Pepper appears to take place between How They Grew and Midway—except that an event that happens in Midway has already taken place in Ben Pepper.

I wonder if Lothrop ever received letters from sharp-memoried fans who wondered why the Peppers' timeline was a bit warped the way people complain of inconsistencies on television series via the internet today?

Anyway, everything you ever wanted to know about the Five Little Peppers (and probably never wanted to ask) here.