How to Sum up the Year: Just an Ordinary Day

I’ve thought a lot about this entry because it falls on a calendar date of some significance.  Of course, calendar holidays aren’t usually the ones that make big dents in our memories (unless we’re talking about bicycle gifts for holidays or a wedding celebrated on Valentines).   The days you hold on to, good and bad, aren’t marked on someone else’s calendar.  And of all of the marked days, New Year’s Eve isn’t anticipated by loads of people outside of the liquor business.  Still, it has significance and so does the book, Just an Ordinary Day despite it’s title, because its author was no ordinary writer.

Just an Ordinary Day is a selection of stories written by Shirley Jackson.   Some of these are previously unpublished stories that seem to go back to her college years and the final one was published three years after she died.  She created a lot of material between those two events that fall into several different genres.  There are the psychologically disturbing stories that made her famous, the domestic ones that made her loved and several tales that resist categorization of any type.  As a guess, I suspect Ms. Jackson would like that.  Her stories tended to show the dichotomies of life.

For example, take the title story of the volume, “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.”  The central figure, a Mr. Johnson spends his day doing good deeds everywhere.   He smiles at people, looks after children and shares his peanuts and money.  He turns strangers into friends, helps the poor and directs the lost.  No apparent reason, no motivation.  He’s just a very kind, generous man.  At the end of the day he sees his wife, a smiling comfortable woman who reports on her day.  She accused an innocent person of shoplifting, sent three dogs to the pound and probably got a bus driver fired.  Is Mr. Johnson angry at his wife’s behavior?  Here’s what follows:

“Fine said Mr. Johnson. “But you do look tired.  Want to change tomorrow?”

“I would like to,” she said.  “I could do with a change.”

 In other words neither one of them is, by nature, good or bad.  Good and evil are behavior choices people make and the results of those choices make up the yin and yang of our lives.  Life isn’t one thing or another, it’s a bunch of things all mixed up together and so are most people.  Just like no ordinary day is really ordinary.

Think about it.  What was your yesterday like?  Was it good?  Bad?   Let’s say it was an ordinary day for you.   But yesterday (odds are) someone fell in love and somebody got married.   Other people fell out of love and someone got divorced.  A baby was born that was wanted.  Another unwanted one was too and we can only hope those parents change their minds.   Someone old died.  Someone young died.   Someone took their first step.  Someone probably took their last one.  It all happened yesterday, during your ordinary day.  A day that wasn’t ordinary at all.

That’s a bit far afield from Shirley Jackson except her stories make a person comfortable with profound thoughts.  Those stories had the habit of standing some ordinary convention on its head so the reader could look at it in a different way.  If the reader didn’t like what he or she saw,  well, maybe the convention needed rethinking or the reader could shut the book.  What he couldn’t do again was accept the convention at face value.

So think about your last year with all of its calendared holidays and non-holidays with singular memories.  If you want, read some Shirley Jackson stories and remember life is varied and convention is seldom as it seems.  Share your peanuts or don’t but remember if you get tired of who and what you are, you are free to change tomorrow.

A favorite son and one loud-mouthed little girl: Addie Pray

Birmingham, Alabama has a favorite son and I’ll bet they’ve forgotten his name.  He was an editor and minister’s son, a foreign correspondence that parachuted into Normandy during World War II and a novelist.   Of all things, Joe David Brown was a very good novelist who invented a great loud-mouthed little girl.  Her name was Addie Pray.

Does that child’s name ring a bell?  Probably not if you’re less an 45 and that is your misfortune,  Miss Addie Pray is a pragmatic girl with a will of her own.  Book critics have called her a cross between Huck Finn and Scout Finch and they’re just scratching the surface.  Add that she shares the indomitable will of True Grit’s Mattie Ross and the picture becomes clearer.  Of course she can steal your heart but that’s to be expected.   Addie Pray is a trickster, a confidence kid and the heroine of Paper Moon.

Let me backtrack a minute.  During the Depression (before he parachuted into Normandy and won a chestful of medals) Joe David Brown was a reporter for the Birmingham News.  A police reporter, specifically.   Part of his beat took him down among those guests of the county who were awaiting arraignment or trial.   And he learned about confidence games.

A good confidence game rarely separates the victim from all of his money, just enough to keep the confidence man in business and the victim a little more watchful in the future.   Joe David Brown learned how con men audited the obituary columns and then showed up at the doors of bereaved widows, brandishing a cheap bible and a story about how the deceased had ordered it for her.  The widow is transported to hear of her late husband’s thoughtfulness and insists on paying a handsome fee for it.  The con man gets away with a bulky profit.

Or the con artist could make a killing selling fictitious crops to a dealer with a handful of the dealer’s tags and some “samples” he found blowing down the street.  (Anyone who has ever been in a cotton town during harvest will tell you small bolls escape from the truckloads of picked cotton and lay in the gutter looking like handfuls of dirty snow.  Clean up some of that gutter cotton up, blow off the dust and put it in a paper cone and you have yourself some decent samples.)  Joe David Brown heard all of the stories of obtaining unearned wages and he remembered them.  After winning his medals and serving as a foreign correspondence he decided to write one more book about Alabama.  The result was Addie Pray.

Addie is the daughter of Essie May Loggins, the wildest girl in Marengo County.  When Essie dies unexpectedly, Addie’s informally  adopted by “Long Boy” (Moses) Pray, a friend of her mom who finally realizes how the presence of “a little daughter” can help whenever he’s trying to look innocent in front of a mark or a judge.  Between “doing business” (their term from running a con game) and staying ahead of the authorities, they do pretty well traveling around Alabama  during the Depression.  You could say they kept the money in circulation.

This tale might sound a bit familiar.  Two years after Mr. Brown published Addie Pray, a film director named Peter Bogdonavitch turned it into a movie called “Paper Moon” that did a fair amount of business, enough to get Mr. Brown to republish his book with the new title.  Mr. Brown died shortly afterwards so there were no further adventures of Addie Pray. It’s a shame; you knew that young lady had more tales to tell.

The book is a delight, especially if you live in Alabama.  There are enough local spots mentioned that you can map out the adventures of Addie and Long Boy without any problems.  But Addie appeals to more than local pride.  She is a scallawag, a survivor, a fan of Franklin Roosevelt and a good heart who can pick out a mark at 30 paces. She’s one of a kind and I want to be just like her when I grow up.

A spell-binding voice of uncertain truth: Lillian Hellman

I’m a big believer in role models.  While we are growing up, we emulate the behavior of those we admire, hoping we’ll be admirable too.  Eventually we sort our our own priorities and personalities but until then, it helps to have someone to follow.  Given all that, I probably could have picked a better person to imitate than Lillian Hellman.  For one thing, Lillian Hellman was a professional dramatist and I don’t like her plays.  As dramatic vehicles they are “theatrical” pieces where characters quiver, thunder or plot but rarely come to any realizations and the plays are aging as well as my old Earth Shoes.  In other words, not.  So Lillian’s plays are out.  Her integrity was attacked often and well, most notably when Mary McCarthy said, “Every word she writes is a lie—including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”  Those who tracked down the details suggest there’s some exaggeration in Miss Mary’s statement but not enough to acquit Miss Lillian.  So she wasn’t a good example there either. Nevertheless, I was looking for a unique voice and shimmering images of words when I found Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman.  One role model, made to order.

An Unfinished Woman was popular around the time I started looking for complex characters.  Like many adolescents, I believed that  unhappiness and ambiguity suggested a more developed, subtle mind and I wanted to become a complex, challenging woman.  I found my heroine in Miss Hellman, a woman who rarely suffered fools and never took the easy way out of a difficult situation.  I overlooked the extra pain she brought to herself and her friends because of the brave way she sailed into each disaster.

If we stick to verifiable facts, it is clear that Lillian was “a difficult child who grew into a difficult woman.”  Smart, insecure and argumentative, she recognized the virtues and failings of her charming, faithless father, his shy, dominated wife from Alabama and the segregated South she was raised in.  Observant and merciless, Lillian could also be a gigantic pain but there’s something interesting about a person who never chooses the comfortable, easy roads in life and on that scale Lillian Hellman is interesting.  She rejected the triple play of  childhood-to-marriage-to-motherhood that most American women of her generation repeated.  She carved out a place for herself in a notoriously difficult industry.  She also found politics and unerringly sided with whoever antagonized the most people in power.  If the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee didn’t trust her judgment, at least two friends did.  Both Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker trusted this woman’s angry judgment enough to make her their literary executor. If she made mistakes discharging those duties, (and there are those who suggest she made many) the errors were made in favor of guarding the privacy of her dead friends not enriching herself.   In those ways she could be seen as  trustworthy.

Eventually I read An Unfinished Woman as a memoir instead of a manifesto or guidebook and I’ve never developed Ms. Hellman’s tension or work ethic.  To tell you the truth, I don’t want to be that angry. I still admire her uncompromising battle with life and I appreciate her illuminating prose.  I just choose which battles I fight.  Which, come to think of it, is exactly what she did.

When a book turns your world around

I still remember the first day I saw it, upright in a metal paperback stand in my English teacher’s class.  Because I recognized the author’s name, it took me a week or two before I asked about the paperback; I was already a dweeb to the other students and I didn’t need that image underscored by carrying around this book.  The teacher probably guessed I was interested but he played it cool saying the books in the rack were for borrowing as long as we wanted to keep them and didn’t say a word about the author.  That’s all it took.  One reading lead to another and another until I had to replace the disintegrating paperback.  I’ve read a lot of books that achieved a new point in literature but few things have amazed me as much as Woody’ Guthrie’s Bound for Glory.

Before I picked up this autobiography, my thoughts of Mr. Guthrie were tagged to grade-school sing-alongs of “Roll On Columbia” or “This Land is Your Land.”   I appreciated the simple lyrics and catchy melodies but I really didn’t know anything about the man other than he was from Oklahoma, like my dad’s family.  His autobiography was a revelation.

First, there was his writing style. Woody’s formal education ended before high school and although he read everything he could find, public libraries weren’t as common or stocked as they are now.  You would expect his prose style would either be hideously limited or an imitation of what he read in “important” books.  It’s neither.  Although Woody keeps the optimistic low-key vernacular found in his song lyrics, his sentences have an immediacy and drive that put the reader dead center in every scene. There are a lot of professional writers who can’t write this well or this way.  Woody tells the story of his life as if each scene is happening in front of his eyes and that’s how you see it too, partly because he doesn’t pull any punches about what he sees.

The second thing is his emotional honesty.  Woody writes like his priority is to tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts.  As an adolescent, he watched his mother’s mental and physical deterioration from what would later be diagnosed as Huntington’s Chorea (the disease that eventually killed him.)  He describes her slide into insanity in these unforgettable lines:

‘She would be alright for awhile, and treat us kids as good as any mother, and all at once it would start in something bad and awful something would start coming over her, and it would come by slow degrees. Her face would twitch and her lips would snarl and her teeth would show. Spit would run out of her mouth and she would start out in a low grumbling voice and gradually get to talking as loud as her throat could stand it; and her arms would draw up at her sides, then behind her back and swing in all kinds of curves. Her stomach would draw up into a hard ball, and she would double over Into a terrible-looking hunch and turn into another person, it looked like, standing right there before Roy and me.

I hate a hundred times more to describe my own mother in any such words as these.  You hate to read about a mother described in any such words as these.  I know. I understand you.  I hope you can understand me, for it must be broke down and said.

Woody doesn’t spare words in Bound for Glory, on himself or anyone else.  This is his life, the way he saw it.  That level of integrity, despite the pain, moves me.  It makes me want to tell the truth.

When other people sing the phrase “Bound for Glory” their emphasis is on the last word, as if they’re saying, “I’m going to be star.”  I would say becoming a star was the last thing on  Woody Guthrie’s mind.  He walked out on auditions, played for no money and always managed to irritate the right people.  Instead, Woody’s emphasis was on the first word in his title not the last.  He was headed in the right direction, on his way and the journey was more important than the destination.  As long as the train was still moving, Woody Guthrie was on it and searching for a better place.  In the meantime, he left us behind, sadder for his absence but more articulate because of his words.

So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
So Long, it’s been Good to Know You
It’s a long time since I’ve been home
And I’ve got to be drifting along.

The place where they take you in and the courage to endure

My mother loved historical romance novels.   These tales were the “chick-lit” of her day, usually set in an era of voluminous skirts and low, square necklines (which looked good on the cover) and centered around headstrong, resourceful heroines who caused scandals and made mistakes until circumstances or the right man came into alignment and the heroine became a part of history.  Mom’s favorite writers were Norah Lofts and Anya Seton, two authors who made a point of researching the background of each book for accuracy.  I know because I read every book in her collection.  (This was before before YA books really came onto the scene and I will read the back of bug repellant bottles if nothing else is available.)   My favorite was an Anya Seton story set in 19th century Massachusetts and it’s a little bit different from the rest.  It was called, The Hearth and Eagle.

The Hearth and Eagle is (in the story) a historic tavern in Marblehead and the daughter of the tavern owner isn’t interested in history.  Hesper Honeywood’s dad may be fascinated by genealogy and poetry but his daughter prefers ready bought goods to home-made and the company of a young fisherman to tales of her ancestors.  Most of Hester’s life is spent trying to escape her family and the business/home that is her birthright; later, she uses the house and the balance of her energy  to help others find the wisdom and the courage to endure through their own setbacks and disappointments.  Hesper’s great gift is realizing that while generations arrive and depart, the home that shelters them all is a constant if cared for well.  The inn, like the pre-revolutionary 17th century andirons it shelters, is the symbol of home, everlasting.

A few years before she died, my mother sent me a package of books to add to the library I was assembling.   In the package was The Hearth and the Eagle.  “I remember you always liked this one,” Mom wrote on an enclosed note.  I was irritated at the time because I had definite ideas about which books should be on my shelves and I seldom agreed with Mom’s literary taste.  The fact is, we often argued and there were times I would have been irritated if she’d found a cure for cancer.  But The Hearth and Eagle stayed on my shelves and on nights like this one, I re-read it.  I like to think the book is like the strong and eternal house in it’s pages.   It’s abiding message of courage meant something to my mother and now it comforts me.  Future generations will probably overlook it but as long as there are omnivorous readers and copy of the book exists somewhere, someone else will probably find help in this story.  The Hearth and Eagle will endure.

Sweetly at Home

I’ve called this column “The Books that Follow you Home” and for these first two months I’ve focused on the books but during “this festive season of the year” to quote my hero, Dickens, I must admit I’m thinking about the other noun in the title, Home.  Home is, of course, a big part of the culture of  Christmas but it means different things to different people.  To some, home at Christmas is a decorated house, the bigger the better, that is bursting at the seams with family, friends and presents to mark the occasion.  To others, it’s a small place, where they live very quietly and alone.  Home can be an apartment, a ship, a trailer or even just a box but it’s as sacred and wonderful as Windsor Castle or The Breakers because it belongs to you.  In a scary, changing world, home is the place where you can be yourself without apology and there’s no reason to be  afraid because you are protected when you are between these walls.  When home is a good place the very walls seem to warm and comfort you like a comfortable sweater.  It’s when architecture becomes a friend.
All of this is the background in “Dulce Domum”, the Christmas chapter of The Wind in the Willows.  I should admit that this book meant a great deal to me when I was young and it was one of the first “kid books” I purchased for my library when I was old enough to start assembling one.  Of all the characters, Mole is my favorite and the story of Dulce Domum belongs to him.  It is Mole’s home the animals unexpectedly approach during a hike in late December and the memory of the place disarms him.  Until that point, Mole has been away, pursuing adventures with his friends, but the sense memory of his own home pulls him during the hike, reminding him of this one spot of earth that is his, this shelter he has cared for for so long that it now seems to return his affection.  With the generous help of his best friend and some caroling field mice, Mole is able to return to his home for the night and renew his connection to the place and possessions he loves so well.  Before drifting off to sleep, he realize why this is  spot is so important. 
“He was now in just the frame of mind that the tactful Rat had quietly worked to bring about in him. He saw clearly how plain and simple how narrow, even it all was; but clearly, too, how much it all meant to him and the special value of some such anchorage in one’s existence.”
 To any and everyone who reads these words, I hope you experience a loving and generous holiday season and that you find your way back to the anchorage in your existence.    May you always find a welcome at home.

 


The Greatest (unknown) First Line in the History of Literature

People interested in books are fascinated by first lines.  Their favorites usually include the evocative “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly”  and Orwell’s line about the clocks striking 13 and of course, “Happy families are all alike.”  These are great first lines.  Whether they fill less than an line (“Call me Ishmael”) or take the entire paragraph,  first sentences grab the reader’s attention and set the tone of the book all at once and they make the next line seem inevitable.  My favorite first line comes from a book few people know or love but for a rip-snorting, gut-grabbing sentence, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.   Let me clear my throat, I’ll share it with you….

Mister Deck, are you my stinkin’ Daddy?

That, ladies and gentleman was the voice of T. R., the heroine of Larry McMurtry’s novel, Some Can Whistle.  (You could tell the young lady was from Texas, right?)   This furious young voice is directed at Danny Deck, a failed novelist, and retired sitcom writer who is spending his middle years retreating from the active life that made him rich and unhappy.  Part of this retreat is fueled by overexposure to the Entertainment Industry but another part comes from Danny’s sad ablity to irritate women, any woman he’s known longer than a minute.  So he answers the demand with true Danny Deck caution: “I don’t think I stink…”   And the game is on.
T. R.  is Tyler Rose, the enchanting, demanding, daughter Danny’s ex-wife carried away at birth  and Mr. Deck’s second chance at real life.  Instead of spouting monologues to his former girlfriends’ answering machines and marinating by the pool in a kaftan, Danny has to run to keep up with Tyler Rose, her children, and the entourage of friends and lovers that follow her every self-confident step.  These two, who seem to have nothing in common but DNA, each need what the other can give.   While T.R. puts her father in a traveling maelstrom of crises, it is the shock he needs to begin living again.  And T.R. needs Danny’s help to broaden the life that has boiled down to waitressing at a Mr. Burger, raising two children by herself and avoiding the ex-boyfriend that’s threatening to kill her.
That’s just part of the book, Some Can Whistle.  With the crises and the jokes come pop culture commentary and a novelist’s love song to the City of Houston.  Like his creator, Danny Deck finished college at Rice University and there’s something that sounds like autobiography in those sentences of devotion.  
“I had come to it at the right time, as a young man sometimes comes to his ideal city.  In Houston I began to write, formed my first young sentences.  Its energies awakened mine; the ramshackle laziness of some of its forgotten neighborhoods delighted me.  I walked happily in it for years, smelling it’s lowland smells.  It was my Paris, my Rome, my Alexandria – a generous city.”
Kind of makes you want to visit doesn’t it?
You know, the internet has given many of us the chance to emulate Danny Deck.  With its electronic layer of detachment we can reconnect with friends while keeping them at arm’s length and visit anyplace on Google Earth without knowing what it’s really like to be there.  That’s life once removed and while it’s better than nothing, it isn’t real, it isn’t true, it isn’t T. R.  While you can, follow the brash young tunes that Some Can Whistle and be a part of real life.  Those are memories I don’t think you’ll  regret.

 

Not Your Typical Christmas Play

We all know the plays I’m talking about, right?  The characters are usually family or very close friends and they enter the play facing hardship or strife.  Conflicts may be aired but the True Meaning of Christmas finally gets through and everyone remembers the Reason for the Season and makes up in time to unwrap presents.  Cue the Figgy Pudding and Curtain, we’re finished. 

Well, those don’t do it for me.  I watched “Father Knows Best” episodes when I was a kid and those happy families on the stage only added to my confusion and neurosis.  I’ll take the dysfunctional Plantagenet family in “The Lion in Winter” for Christmas instead.  They show me I’m not  insane.

James Goldman’s”The Lion in Winter” is a fictional take on the real life Plantagenet family and their problems in 1183.  The patriarch, Henry had been King of England nearly thirty years by then and time was catching up to him.  It was time to reflect on his accomplishments, (he reigns over England and controls a good bit of France) think about retirement and (to quote Lear) ” shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths.”   At least that’s what his sons want him to do.

Henry’s three living sons, Richard (yes, the Lionheart) Geoffrey and John have gathered with their parents this Christmas to hear which of them will inherit Daddy’s title and real estate.  The original Heir Apparent has died and any of them could be named as next in line for the goodies. Naughty boys: they don’t want to share.   Add that Philip, the King of France, is also here to force Henry to complete a long-made agreement and you can see that there’s too much testosterone in the room.

Now this might make Henry prefer the company of his women-folk but not in this instance.  Henry’s wife is the incredible Eleanor of Aquitaine, a woman of power and looks who has been Queen of England and France in her time and holder of some of that prime French Real Estate her husband has covered with troops.  Eleanor has no qualms about disinheriting two of her boys; in her mind everything, including her holdings, should go to Richard.  Her source of irritation is her wayward husband who chased every skirt in Western Europe and caught far too many of them.  The latest skirt is Alais, Philip’s sister and Richard’s designated bride by treaty.  With Alais goes another section of French property, the Vexin.  As Henry points out, leaving everything to Richard is a guarantee England will be at war as soon as he dies:

HENRY: Once I’m dead, who’s to be king?  I could draw papers till my scribes drop or the ink runs out and once I died, unless I’ve left behind me three contented sons, my lands will split three ways in civil war.  You see my problem?

 The play is one giant chess game where any member of the family seeks to use the others as pawns to get their own way.  Henry is brilliant, tossing out tactic after tactic to keep everyone else off balance and make the ending come out his way but his match is Eleanor.  She’s outrageous, manipulative, witty, regal and of all the characters the saddest because her central motivation is the simplest: she wants her husband’s attention.  When it wanders, she acts out and by this time she’s behaved so badly that Henry has to keep her in prison, except for holidays; the last time she got loose, she manipulated the boys into rebelling against him.  Still these two grand rulers have great affection for each other that shows up when they’re not fighting.  They put the fun back in dysfunctional.

The play is a dream to read or to act; these are the parts thespians chew the curtains for.  (Incidentally, the play did not fare well until the 1968 film came out; since then it’s been a regular draw in stock and amateur productions.)  I’ll direct you to a list of quotes from the screenplay but I will say my favorite comes when Eleanor has seen all of her plans crash into ruin.  She stares at the mess life and Christmas have become and says, “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”  To someone who saw their share of Christmas dramas, that question unraveled a world of meaning.

Now my family didn’t play for regal stakes and we never approached this level of anger (neither of my parents attempted a coup d’état or imprisoned the other for the effort) but it was enough for the play to show me that people who loved each other could also inflict great harm.  We didn’t have to be the Cleavers and if we were a bit abnormal, so what?  Every family has its ups and downs.

To Walk Awhile in the Dark…

Years ago, when my sister and I were first getting acquainted as adults (a process quite different than growing up together) we discussed a book called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.   Barb and I agreed it was very good but my sister added, “It doesn’t compare to the author’s first book, The Silver Crown.”  I had missed that kid’s book and couldn’t imagine how anything could approach the charm of NIMH.  “Try The Silver Crown and see” Barb said.  “You’ll like it, it’s scary as all get out.”   As usual, my sister was right.
The Silver Crown is, I suppose, a modern fairy-tale.  A young girl, Ellen Carroll, wakes on her birthday to find a crown made of dense silver material beside her bed.  She takes the crown outdoors to enjoy some solitude and returns to find her home afire and her family gone.  As the day goes on it becomes very clear that the fire was the first step in someone’s campaign to capture Ellen and her crown.  Ellen has to run and stay one step ahead of her enemies in order to survive.  It isn’t easy.
The thing is, while The Silver Crown has some very disturbing elements, it’s told in a matter-of-fact manner that minimizes the traumatic implications.  Ellen sees someone murdered but the the incident is described impressionistically.  Someone wearing a green hood fires a gun at a man, the man’s face goes red and he falls.  Ellen  realizes what’s happened but because she doesn’t dwell on the violent aspects, the trauma doesn’t damage her (or the reader).  Far more fear is generated when Ellen sees the green hood in the glove compartment of another man who gives her lift down the highway.
That air of acceptance permeates this kid’s novel and allows the reader to accept a lot of statements at face value and get on with the story.  When Ellen first puts on her silver crown, it fits her head as if it was made for her and she accepts this because Ellen is convinced that in some reality, she is a queen.  Because Ellen accepts it, eventually the reader does as well.  Ellen is a queen and this crown suits her because it is her crown.  The crown has a power of its own, like Frodo’s ring, and Ellen must learn to wield it.  It helps that Ellen is one of the most self-possessed girls in juvenile literature since Sara Crewe or Alice in Wonderland.  Her character strength is the central appeal in The Silver Crown and what makes the book a good choice for childen to read.  By facing fear, Ellen shows her readers how to cope with it.
The book has been the subject of some controversy and when it was originally published in the U. S., a different, more conventional ending was added.  I prefer the British one.  It’s stronger, and more believable, if a bit sadder.  I believe it pays greater respect to the reader’s imagination, even if the reader is young.

After all, no matter what parents do, childhood holds no small amount of terror.   Children have no control over their lives and they face the unknown with each new experience, whether it’s a whole new environment such as a new school or home or it’s a new element in that environment, like a classmate or a stranger.  Books like The Silver Crown say it’s all right to be scared and that some fears are not groundless; even a queen must be careful when venturing out into the wide world.  The book also says that good sense and basic confidence can help a scared child and the world holds good people as well as bad.  So, despite the disturbing elements, child readers can identify with the heroine and use her example to face more pedestrian fears.   For that reason alone, I think The Silver Crown is worthwhile reading.  Yes, I’d prefer that all children know nothing but the joy and peace of spring and the sun, but they don’t.  And I believe no one can truly appreciate the sun until they’ve walked for a while in the dark.

Shutting Down the National Dream

I’m not an aeronautic groupie or a science nerd.  As a kid, I resented the moon-shot flights of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo for preempting my Saturday Morning Cartoons and although I appreciate their accomplishments, I still prefer reruns of Underdog.  Engineering advancements just aren’t my thing.  Nevertheless, I get hot under the collar every time I re-read Greig Stewart’s Shutting Down the National Dream: A. V. Roe and the Tragedy of the Avro Arrow and I’m not even Canadian.    It’s a little known story that should be memorized by everyone in the fields of science, business and government and kept in a folder marked, “Don’t Let this Happen to You.”  The Avro Arrow is a tragedy of waste.

It’s post World War II and most of Canada is getting used to the idea of the Cold War and their unenviable image as USA’s dull neighbor to the north.  A few Canadians don’t agree.  The most important of these is C. D. Howe, an engineer and businessman who became Canada’s “Minister of Everything” during World War II.  (Look up his biography in Wikipedia, the man was amazing.)  He talked Crawford Gordon Jr. into becoming the general manager of Avro Canada, the company that was supposed to manufacture airplanes and everything else.  These two men wanted the engineering minds at Avro to design a world-class supersonic jet.  Gordon and Howe lined up the manufacturing and money necessary to make their engineers’ design real.

The result was a plane for the future.   The engineers, headed up by Jim Chamberlin came up with a design even I can appreciate.   Go ahead, Google the CF-105 Arrow and look at the images, I’ll wait.  See, how sleek and modern the lines of it were?   They came up with that design when the rest of the world’s airplanes still looked like survivors of WWII.   That delta wing isn’t just good looking, it kept the plane stable during incredibly high speeds and provided the space needed for the fuel tanks.  The inside of the plane matched the outside, with state-of the art instruments and controls and the test results suggested Canada might have created the fastest jet at the time.  To me, the Arrow was an of the examples of when “form follows function”.  What didn’t follow was the future.

Between the inception of the 105 Arrow and the time it went into testing, the government changed and C. D. Howe was thrown out of his job.  The new prime minister didn’t like Howe, hated Crawford and he saw the Avro as “government spending” instead of an investment in defense and avionics.  He closed down the entire Avro program including the Avro hover cars that were in the design and testing stages.  (The next time I hear one of my friends say, “I was promised flying cars by the 21st century.  Where are my flying cars?” I’m going to reply, “In Prime Minister Diefenbaker‘s trash can.”) Diefenbaker’s order crippled the third largest business in Canada and put over thirty thousand people out of work.   Economic disaster.  The best and the brightest of those ex-employees (including Jim Chamberlin) found work in the USA, moving on to NASA, McDonnell-Douglas and the Concorde.  That action was called Canada’s “brain-drain” and it’s probably why the Arrow’s appearance is so similar of the Concorde’s.  Those engineers took the look of the Arrow with them when they left Canada forever.

They weren’t allowed to take anything else.  For reasons that still don’t make sense to me, the Canadian government ordered that all property of Avro Aircraft would be destroyed.  The government didn’t want the finished planes and couldn’t be bothered to recoup some of their money by selling or leasing them to anyone else.  Parts were demolished, plans were burnt and the expensive finished planes were cut up for scrap.  It wasn’t enough to kill the Arrow, someone decided.  They had to obliterate any sign it had ever existed.

There’s a lovely legend at the end of this tragic tale.   It’s whispered that once the order went out to destroy the completed Arrows, one pilot decided to rebel.  He took one of the eleven completed planes from the hangar, taxied it down the runway and flew it to an unknown place where it stays under wraps, protected from politicians and idiots.   The story’s probably not true but it’s lovely to imagine otherwise. 

And that’s where Avro Arrow stays now, in the imagination and memory of a few visionary people.  Unlike Apollo 1 or the Titanic disasters, the Arrow’s demise wasn’t caused by “failure of imagination”.  It came from a lack of vision, a failure of faith in the imagination.  And Canada has carried the burden of that failure ever since.