The One Western Everyone Loves

I grew up during TV’s golden age of westerns and I hated every minute of them.  Those were the days of three networks (four if the cloud ceiling was low enough to bring in PBS) and twenty eight hours of prime time programming every week. On the year I was born there were thirty westerns on television.  If you do the math and remember most westerns were an hour long, (except The Virginian, which was 90 minutes) you’ll realize that almost half of the shows aired during family viewing time had rifles, spurs and bonnets in every episode.  The Duke was still alive and the go-to movie actor for many dads and Lois L’Amour sold enough paperbacks to deforest a small continent.  We were flooded with westerns, inundated with the damn things and it’s probably why my friends became comic book and sci-fi fans.  We couldn’t take one more stone-faced guy blowing the black-hats away and then saying, “Shucks, twarn’t nothing, ma’am.”  It would take an incredible yarn to make us trade our phasers for a horse and a great story is what we got.  Everyone loves Lonesome Dove, and it is a western, but a western that breaks the rules.

Look at all those standard western heroes and what do you see?  Strong, silent, incorruptible white men who face the lone prairie with a horse and six-shooter that never needs reloading.  Now look at Lonesome Dove’s Hat Creek Company, the group that propels the story.  The leaders are two old guys, retired by nineteenth century progress and long past their glory days.   Augustus McCrae can be strong when the need arises but not silent; no one talks more than Gus and he prefers the idle life of whiskey, jokes, women and cards to work and cattle.  His partner Woodrow Call is closer to the stereotype but his successes are the result of endless worry, obsessive planning and avoiding the women he fears.  Call is at heart a shy man, as is his hired hand Pea Eye, and the women they encounter are forthright, a condition that makes many men seek open country.

These strong females are another departure from the standards set by Zane Grey and Owen Wister.  Clara Allen is the equal of any male in her acquaintance, including Augustus McCrae, and a much better horse trader than her husband, the nominal head of her business.  She does create a home and a family but the other female characters, Lorena Wood, Ellie Johnson and  Janey aren’t tied to traditional values or ambitions.  Each woman is driven by a defining need, whether it be vengeance, a new beginning or an old lover and any risk will be taken to achieve their ends.  If any character reaches the wordlessness of a traditional cowboy, it is Lorena Wood, driven to silence as her last shelter from the men who would use and abuse her.

Traditional westerns divided humanity into racial groups and assigned character traits accordingly so when children played Cowboys and Indians, no one wanted to be an Indian.  (Hispanics and black people weren’t even mentioned).  Lonesome Dove shows a world of good and bad people, some strong, some weak, some wicked and some kind but the characters are not defined by their background.  Dan Suggs is a sociopath and a serial killer and so is Blue Duck.  It doesn’t matter that one is the son of a Comanche and the other is Caucasian; what matters is what they do to others.  Jake Spoon ‘s weak character is his undoing, and Josh Deets holds the respect of others because of his strengths.  Ethnic background doesn’t matter nor formal education in this world.  What matters is how someone chooses to live.

Some books leave me satisfied with a story well told and I close the covers and smile. I’m sad when other tales have ended and I return to this world with a sigh.  Lonesome Dove  left me unable to return at all.  My emotions were so high the first time I finished the book, it felt like a part of me had been amputated when I closed the back cover.  I wandered into the living room, blinking at the light and full of thoughts about McCrae, Po Campo and the other members of the Hat Creek Cattle Company.  The world seemed out of balance and harsh with no story left to read and all of the characters gone.  These people were too vivid, too rich and real to die or be put away on pages and I couldn’t bear the thought of them gone.  I went back to the bedroom, re-opened the book and began the story again.  After fifteen pages, I could put the novel down, satisfied that the denizens of Lonesome Dove were alive and had a lifetime of adventures before them.  Then my life could go on.

I was raised in the West and grew up hating Westerns which gave my folks reason for pause.  But I love good books, stories so wonderful they burst from the pages and transcend their genres and that’s why I love Lonesome Dove.  If you haven’t read it, I envy the adventure you can find but take some advice from a fan.  Finish the book when you have time to open and re-start the novel again.  You won’t want this story to end.

Sophie’s Choice

Google remembered the liberation of Auschwitz today.  For those who grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, Auschwitz is the edge of a remembered nightmare, a disaster our parents and grandparents witnessed and passed in their memories to us.  My mother saw the newsreels of the liberation as a child and the images haunted her forever but some of my friends were even closer to the tragedy.  One college friend’s great-aunt was a survivor of the camps and when I met the lady, I marveled that this happy cookie-jar of a woman had faced such evil and still lived so joyfully, dancing with a tattooed number on her arm.  Another friend was the child of camp survivors who married after the liberation and their tenacity and PTSD were visible in her character.  Auschwitz left a lifetime of suffering and long memories in its wake and those of us not directly affected have been trying to grasp the motives and magnitude of the Holocaust ever since.  This is the role more and more of the world has moved into over the last seventy years and it’s a role William Styron talked about in his novel, Sophie’s Choice.

Styron understood the place of a third-hand witness to history better than most.  Son of a liberal southerner, he grew up ashamed of the history of race treatment in the South. As a Marine officer who never saw combat, he also understood how the lucky boredom of his own military service had been paid for with the blood of others.  A few years in New York after the war gave him the background to write of a young Southerner and perpetual witness to history and Sophie, the Polish, Catholic woman he meets who was pulled though the war into Auschwitz.

Sophie’s Choice is a novel for adults.  The story is incredibly varied with beautifully written passages of great humor as well as sorrow, anger and Eros and the characters are layered and complex, especially Sophie.   These individuals are human beings with strengths and failings, not cardboard cutouts who can be labelled “hero” or “villain” as need be and forgotten.  Sophie is a lovely imperfect woman whose actions aren’t noble but they are understandable, given the circumstances and her survivor’s guilt is well-earned.  Nathan is the brilliant, broken, American Jew who can’t reconcile the horrors of a war he never faced and his Gentile girlfriend survived while millions of others were murdered.  Finally, Stingo is the witness trying to care for himself and his friends in an unbalanced, out-of-control existence. If the outcome of their story is inevitable, it’s still a difficult account to read because, thanks to Styron’s skill, these are people we care about.

There’s no easy explanation some of mankind’s history or for Styron’s novel but Sophie’s Choice wasn’t written to give people easy answers.  Styron understood that we are, at best, complex, imperfect beings that need to be forgiven on a regular basis.  Those lucky enough to be “third-person” witnesses have the responsibility to learn from the experiences of others, to forgive the failings of people we love and to embrace the potential in each new day.  It’s a lot to do but a less difficult job than surviving a war.   And it’s an easier alternative than Sophie’s Choice.

The Lessons of Loss and Sid Halley in Odds Against

Most people think you can’t learn much from popular fiction. I disagree.  For one thing, so many of the “classics” people revere were popular tales in their day and for stories to sell, they must have an emotional appeal. Either story is sensational, in the titillation sense, or it resounds with the reader.  Since the thriller novels of Dick Francis weren’t exceptionally sexy or gory, there was something besides the entertainment of the stories that kept readers coming back.  One of the continuing themes in his stories was coming to terms with loss and because he wrote about this well, readers kept returning.  It was a subject Dick Francis could speak on with authority.

Francis had success as a jockey, although he lost his fair share of races, including the failure of Devon Loch in the home stretch of the Grand National.  To win so many races and ride for the royal family and then lose that race for those owners because your horse falls in the home stretch must be devastating. Not long afterwards, Francis retired from racing, still a young man but unable to pursue the career he loved because of one too many injuries.  These experiences became grist for his writing but Francis gave his hero, Sid Halley, losses that were worse.

In Odds Against, Sid starts at the bottom of trying to return to life.  As a champion jockey, he had learned to tolerate pain, failure and deprivation but devotion to his profession has cost him his marriage.  Then a racing accident crippled his left hand, leaving him without a career or the identity he created with riding.  Sid alternates between the self-pity and lethargy of deep depression until a crook’s misfire and his former father-in-law remind him there are still ideals and matters worth fighting for.  Sid has to learn the hard way that while every loss must be mourned, clinging to the remains of a shattered life is a recipe for ruin.  Halley’s gradual return to the world is a harrowing journey on every level and he encounters more devastation but after learning the lessons only time and experience can bring: that catastrophe can be survived, that regret serves no one and that even a disaster can be unexpectedly liberating. 

Odds Against was written in the mid 1960’s and a few references to the period date it a bit but the message is universal: loss is a part of life and how we face up to it defines a large bit of our character.  We can withdraw and mourn what we cannot regain or we can move forward toward survival.  It won’t be an easy trip but ease seldom creates success.  And surviving can be a success in itself, when you ride Odds Against.

When reading leaves you in need of a doctor.

I’ve said that books are friends that move with you and I’ve got a few that have  done that for years.  From high school to college, to the Air Force, then marriage and apartment to house, about 100 stories have followed me around the country in boxes and trunks. My husband swears they’ll get packed into my coffin.  That’s fine with me.  I can spend an eternity with M*A*S*H.

Okay, for anyone whose read this far, if you know the TV series M*A*S*H but not the book, withhold your judgment.   Same deal if you know the movie but never picked up Richard Hooker’s novel.  If you haven’t read the book, you don’t know M*A*S*H and you can’t really appreciate how the story morphed from one incarnation to the next.   I know all three and they are different.  I loved the series, I never miss a chance to re-watch the movie but the book….the first time I read it, I nearly ruptured myself laughing.

The time is spring of 1976 and I’ve just undergone an unexpected appendectomy.   My best friend had left me some post-op paperbacks to while away the recovery time with (those were the days when people recovered in the hospital) and the top one was M*A*S*H.  I picked up the story and fell in love with the schemes of Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke, a/k/a/ the Swampmen. When they noticed patients were more likely to survive when Chaplain Dago Red administered last rites, they incorporated the ritual into their surgical plan, and I managed to snicker.  My surgical incision snickered back.  Not good.  I kept at it until the Swampmen decided to thank Dago for his contribution to Public Health with a human sacrifice and kidnapped his Protestant colleague, Shaking Sammy.   I put the book down for twenty minutes and clutched my side with both hands while I laughed and wept silently, praying my stitches would hold.   Never before (and never since!) have I needed to laugh even though laughter caused incredible pain.  After half an hour I was sore but calm.  Only sixteen-year-olds are this stupid, I picked up the book again.

I got as far as Dago finding the triumphant Swamp Men lying drunk in front of an unlit bonfire and Shaking Sammy suspended behind them from a cross.   Then Trapper intoned his prayer.

“Whether it rains or whether it freezes, Sammy’ll be safe in the arms of Jesus”

 I  really don’t remember much after that.  I screamed from a combination of laughter and pain, the nurses came running and I got some extra sedation.  I think it widened the scar.

The thing is, the book came in handy a few years later when a bunch of us in college watched a horror film together.  We were all scared afterward and some of us (no names!) were afraid to go back to go to sleep.  Nothing calmed me down until I started reading M*A*S*H and, of all things, I went to the chapter where they were working constantly.  All the blood and gore that had frightened me in the movie were just exposed blood and guts now and it was the doctors’ jobs to put them back.  The killer with the knife was replaced in my imagination by doctors with scalpels.   It worked and I was able to get to sleep.  There’s nothing like real life trauma, even fictionalized trauma, to put demons to flight.

I can’t recommend the rest of franchise (yes, there are many sequels) because none of them achieve the same balance of zany behavior and serious medicine that the first book has.  Sometimes, lightening strikes just once.  Nevertheless I am glad I ran across this one, even if it gave me a wider surgical scar and another day in the hospital.  It’s a fitting souvenir for any book too funny to be read following surgery.

For those who love to read aloud…..

There’s something wonderful about discovering a new book.  It makes you feel like you have this great, golden, wonderful secret and you want to run up hill and down dale spilling the news.   At least it’s that way for me.  Nellie Forbush can sing all she wants about her wonderful guy but I need to start a parade:  I’ve found a wonderful book.   If you have children, go get this one because you’ll want it.   If you don’t have children, get it anyway and rent some kids to read it to because this book (besides being wonderful, scary, hilarious and thrilling) begs to be read out loud.   Seriously.   This is a fabulous read-aloud book.

Ready?

The Book is A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz and yes, it’s a salute to the Brothers Grimm.   As the narrator points out, fairytales these days have no resemblance to their dark and lovely ancestors once published by the Brothers Grimm.   Somebody else retold the story (and changed a few things) then someone else repeated the procedure, ad nauseum, ad infinitum until Disney got ahold of it and really turned the tale into literary pablum.   A shot of boredom, straight to the solar plexus and our current youngest readers nod off wondering why anyone bothered about Snow White and Rose Red in the first place.  The narrator here promises he’s excavated the real story of Hansel and Gretel and he’s willing to share it with you but as the story progresses, he keeps saying to get the kids out of the room.

Will you?

My sis (who knows about such things) turned me on to this tale and I’ll bet the next  mortgage payment that when she reads this warning aloud to her students they all shout her down and demand she keep on with the story.  I would.   First off, the the story is funny, laugh-out-loud funny in places.  In what other tale would Hansel sniff himself baking in the oven (Yup, in this version the kid spends time in the RadarRange) and think, “Oh no! I’m cooking!  And I smell delicious!”

You shouldn’t worry about Hansel.  He’s not really baking.  Not yet.

The story is a combination of wide-eyed fairy tale mixed with enough anachronistic humor to keep the adults grinning (my favorite supporting characters are three ravens who comment on the scene and finish each others’ sentences like Tweedledum and Tweedledee) and underneath it all a wonderful story about the mistakes everybody makes and how everyone needs love, forgiveness and understanding, parents included.  (Understanding here is so much more than comprehension and empathy.  This version says understanding means, I will literally stand under you and bear your cares and burdens like they were my own.   That’s more than empathy, that’s love.)  It’s an overwhelming book and the only warning I would give prospective parents is read the thing yourself first so you will know what’s coming and where you’ll want to take a breath when you read this thing out loud.  Because you will want to read it out loud.  The prose begs to be read out loud.  And listeners will love it when you do.

The best news is that A Tale Dark and Grimm is only the first of a series and while I can’t recommend those yet (I haven’t read them yet and I haven’t trusted an author on sequels since  Lemony Snicket) I will be reading them to see if the magic holds up.  In the meantime, does anyone have a batch of kids that need reading aloud to?  There’s a book I really want to share.

An Unflinching Look at Evil

Both psychiatry and religion care about the human spirit.  I know they have seemed like enemies at times and I doubt if the extremists in either practice trust the other but trust has never been high on any extremist’s list, so that’s not a fair comparison.  No, at their best, I believe both practices have overlapping interests but by tradition, they’ve rarely worked together.  In The Road Less Traveled, Dr. Scott Peck associated the spiritual growth demanded by faith with growing emotional maturity but these were positive associations.  To me, his more exciting, revolutionary work was chronicled in People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil.  In this book Dr. Peck suggested that evil could be cataloged and classified like any emotional illness and, more importantly, it could be treated.
Dr. Peck defined evil as when a person uses his or her political power to let some one else suffer, rather than face their own personal shortcomings.  The classic example is when one person lets another take the blame for his or her misbehavior.  Now, under that definition, everyone has committed an evil act at some point in their lives but committing an evil act doesn’t make a person irredeemably evil.   (If it does, I lost any chance at redemption when I let my folks believe my five-year old sister stuck crayons in the pencil sharpener.  I apologize, Sis.)  However, it does show both the callousness and the cowardice of the actor, in this case, me.  Callous, because I let my sister take my punishment and a coward because I wouldn’t tell my parents the truth.  Peck points out that fear is a central motivation of an evil person (that is, someone who is committed to a practice of avoidance and scapegoating others) and the evil doer often creates chaos to distract others from recognizing that fear.  Most of their conscious energy is devoted to competitions they’ve created and (often) only they are aware of, devising schemes to triumph in these competitions and avoiding the underlying conviction that they’re not very worthy human beings.  For all of the damage these inflict, that’s a sad, paltry existence, a half-life at best.  In a way, it fits.  Those who embrace evil as a way of life, face an existence of the damned.
There are several case histories cited in the book that illustrate the doctor’s point and not all of the patients improve.  However, like all patients in therapy, those who are willing to “do the work”  by facing and addressing their own character flaws improve.  Peck also points out that evil and good behavior have a tendency to grow.  Anyone who thinks evil isn’t a contagious disease, hasn’t studied history.  A single madman like Hitler could not have created the devastation of the Third Reich on his own.  He required the active assistance of his political aides as well as the acceptance or endorsement of much of the German population and other world leaders. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, ” Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.  However, if Dr. Peck was right, therapists can learn to recognize someone sliding into an existence of evil, and, (if the patient is willing) the therapist may be able to do something to arrest this condition and keep  it from growing.  That’s got to be reason for hope.
Much of the nature of evil is still a mystery and most humans are well-served to avoid it when possible because its effects are lethal.  Like all deadly diseases, it requires careful treatment by a qualified practitioner.  However, I hope Dr. Peck’s work will be continued by therapists and clergy alike.  We have been fighting against the better angels of our nature long enough.  It’s time to give the good guys a chance. 

Fannie Flagg and the All-Girl Filling Station

I saw Fannie Flagg when I was young.  Not as young as my husband, (who remembers her stint as the local weather girl) but in the early 1970’s, when Nixon was still president, my family got to see her on stage in a road-company performance of “Mame” with Bea Arthur supporting her as Vera Charles.  It was a night of transcendent joy.  Mame is a terrific show and Fannie took over the lead as if it had been written for her, my father forgot he hated all musicals and at the end of the performance the company got the longest storm of applause I’ve ever heard.   Seriously, we beat blisters onto our palms that night clapping for that flame-haired woman who insisted life was a banquet and most poor suckers were starving themselves to death.  That night, I decided no actress could inhabit Mame’s character well without understanding and supporting this philosophy.   Ms. Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion has me thinking I underestimated her years ago.  Fannie Flagg understands Everyone and Everything.

She certainly understands Sookie Poole, the central character and perpetual mother-of-the-bride in AGFSLR.  Sookie’s a member of the sandwich generation, still trying to fill the needs  (and put up with) her overwhelming mother, Lenore, while watching her own children step into their own lives.  Sookie can only define her self in terms of others (Earl’s wife, De de’s mom) and when life-shattering news arrives, Sookie is forced to  re-evaluate every part of her life, starting with the relationship with her mother.

Fannie also understands Fritzie Jurdabralinski, the pretty Polish-American girl from Wisconsin who wants a life as fast, free and fun as the guys in town.  Fritzie has the courage and drive of any boy her age and those traits come in handy during WWII, when all the adult males are called up for service.  A pilot already, Fritzie and her sisters join the WASPs,  a group of lady fliers recruited by the U. S. Army Air Force to fly planes on non-combat missions in the U. S. so the male pilots were freed for combat flights.  Fannie captures the war-time patriotism that brought out the best in so many people and the post-war backlash that forced independent women back into domestic roles. Fanny even understands Lenore and the demons that push a strong woman into a  the termagant.  Understanding, in the hands of Ms. Flagg, is the first step toward transcending the damage of childhood and enjoying a happy adulthood.

Maybe life is more than the banquet that Mame described all those years ago.  For The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, it’s a beautiful piece of music and all the living contribute a tune, be a polka, waltz or march.  It’s clear Fannie Flagg listens to all the singers and she loves the music she hears.

A Fiendishly Clever Book

I am not a Narnia nerd.  When my sister and I were young and used to arguing about everything  we would debate the literary merits of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels.  It was a war of worlds and words, the Chronicles of Narnia v. The Lord of The Rings.  (The things sisters argue about!)  Without angering the full and affectionate hearts of Mr. Lewis’s supporters (including my sister) , my estimation is unchanged: with its created languages,  and mythology, LOTR is a broader, more-original creation than the Narnia series.  That being said, I am a fan of the work of C. S. Lewis and my favorite is The Screwtape Letters.

Screwtape, if you haven’t heard of him, is a demon and mid-level administrator in Hell who writes to his nephew, Wormwood, a newly-minted, entry-level fiend, about the true tie that binds: their work on Satan’s behalf.  It seems Wormwood has been assigned to guide some human to despair and a rejection of faith and the rookie needs help from Uncle Screwtape.  Screwtape’s advice is sort of a theology in reverse because the guidance is to keep Wormwood’s “patient” from redeeming grace.  Screwtape suggests that  direct attacks against the human’s religion are inappropriate tactics because, “By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result?”   Instead, it’s better and easier to distract the human with “real” life, calling his attention to the newspaper headlines, the line at the bus stop and the behavior of the people at the next lunch table.  If you can get a human to accept that as  the “real”  and “important” existence, Screwtape suggests, he won’t think about about any other life.  The same goes for the pernicious habit of prayer.  If Wormwood tries to keep his human from prayer altogether, the human will realize he’s being tricked.  Instead, let him pray for his disagreeable old mother but suggest the prayers should be for her behavior (which irritates the human) instead of her rheumatism (which pains her).   In other words, whenever humans are obsessed with their own comfort, they are paving the way down to Screwtape and his boss.

It’s interesting to see what activities infuriate Screwtape’s boss.  Music is referred to as “that detestable art” and laughter, because it connects to fun and joy are looked down on (except when they distract the Humans from real problems) but, more importantly because music and laughter encourage people to live in the present.  This, according to Uncle Screwtape is a dangerous place.  Let someone live in the present and they accept life as it comes.   Get them to live in the future, constantly postponing pleasures and worried about possibilities, and they’ll miss the improvements they could make today, Screwtape says.  Let them focus exclusively on the rainbow’s end and all humanity will create is a mountain of regret.

There’s a lot to what Uncle Screwtape says even with the author’s reminder that, “the devil is a liar.” It’s a fascinating read for anyone, religious or otherwise because it speaks about humans and humanity.  Whether the devil exists corporeally or not is debatable; man’s inhumanity to man is not and those actions and inaction are what condemn us in the end, according to Screwtape and there’s reason to believe him.  However charming or clever Screwtape is, no reader can believe he has our welfare at heart.

As for me, Screwtape turned me into a permanent C. S. Lewis fan.  My own views may vacillate from time to time (a regular practice among humans, according to the demon) but this book acts on me like the song, “Walking in Memphis”  During the song, a gospel singer asks the observant Jew Marc Cohn mid performance, “Tell me are you a Christian, child?”  He replies, “Ma’am, I am tonight!”   When I read The Screwtape Letters, I believe in it all.

A voice from the recent past.

No one seems to recognize the name of Betty MacDonald any more.  When I was little, her humorous books had a place of honor on my mother’s shelves and her series of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books were staple of kid lit in primary school.  She was even responsible for a Hollywood film series.  These days only Google and Wikipedia can find her.

If you aren’t familiar with mid-20th century pop literature, Betty MacDonald was a phenomenon.  Her first book, The Egg and I (Yeah, I bet you thought that name only belonged to a restaurant franchise!) came out the year the war ended  and sold a million copies in less than a year.  It has the single greatest dedication I have ever read (To my Sister Mary, who always believed I can do anything she puts her mind to) and some seventy years later, it’s still good.  Not flawless, but very, very good.

The story is simple.  Betty Bard is raised in a family of fascinating people and learns her mother’s guiding principle for a good marriage is, “whither thou goest, I will go.”   When she was twenty, Betty married Bob, an insurance salesman twelve years older than herself.  Sometime around the honeymoon Bob told Betty he had a dream: instead of selling insurance, he wanted to farm chickens and sell their eggs.  Following her mother’s dicta, Betty followed her husband to start a chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

Now farming is a hard life, no matter what you raise or who you are. It takes a lot of physical effort,  the chores never end and you can’t count on a good result.  It’s a lot harder if you weren’t raised in a farm family, like Betty wasn’t.  It gets really hard when little things like electricity and running water are missing and it’s darn near impossible if, like Betty, you live for the Great Indoors, Office Jobs and Paved Streets.  Betty loved the glorious natural beauty of the area (she cites one profane, patriotic soul who insisted “Every #$*&!! thing in this @#$#*&!! place is purty!”) but loathed the back-breaking housework, the farm hours and the rotten, mean-spirited, foolish, quarrelsome chickens who behaved for Bob but pecked at and died on her.  Bob insisted Betty should perform autopsies on the stricken birds and keep records of her findings but he didn’t like Betty’s “cause of death” diagnoses like  Suicide, Eczema, and Chicken Pox.  After four years, Betty was finished.  She packed up their two girls, moved back in with her mother and filed for divorce.

I think it must take a real optimist to begin life over again at the start of the Great Depression but all of the Bards seem to be optimists and many of them became writers.   Betty’s mother wrote for publication and her sister Mary had a string of successful books.  During the Depression Betty worked at a bundle of jobs (memorialized in one of her other books, Anyone Can Do Anything), caught and managed to survive tuberculosis (recounted in The Plague and I which is far funnier than it sounds) and remarried, just in time for America’s entry into World War II.   One night at a party Mary told a publisher that her sister had a book finished and ready for publication (a HUGE lie) and Betty came up with a pitch for The Egg and I overnight to satisfy the publisher.  The book was a smash, staying on the best-seller list for three years and spawning a Hollywood movie, or rather a chain of them, but that only led to more problems.

Of all the personalities Betty threw into The Egg and I, none are more memorable than the Kettle family who lived down the road from Betty and Bob in Puget Sound’s version of Tobacco Road.  Mrs. Kettle may once have cherished the hope of living a gentler, more gracious life but she married Mr. Kettle, whom Bob described as “a lazy, lisping, S*B.”  The Kettles lived in squalor, their animals lived in squalor and the house was falling around their ears but everyone thrived on Mrs. Kettle’s brilliant cooking and her general philosophy of, “I itch, so I scratch; so what!”  Betty maintained the Kettles were creations of her imagination along with the rest of The Egg & I‘s characters but a local family named Bishop believed she was satirizing them, so they sued.  (By then Universal Pictures had started a series of Ma & Pa Kettle pictures and the Bishops may have been mad about the unflattering descriptions or they have believed they deserved royalties).  The Bishops lost.

 Betty wrote one more adult book (Onions in the Stew) about her life on Vashon Island plus her string of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books but died far too soon at the age of 50 and half a century later, her books are discussed by half a handful of individuals who probably remember their mothers reading the books aloud to them (my mother certainly did.)  Perhaps that’s reasonable; I’m not sure.  The book’s not perfect.  Betty’s observations on the Native-Americans in her area are (at best) dated and at worst, downright offensive.  I also know humor is the red-headed stepchild of the literary world and humorists, like Rodney Dangerfield, “Get No Respect.”  I know some best-selling books are not great and don’t really deserve to be remembered and some wonderful writers like Zora Neale Hurston live and die in obscurity and it takes a miracle like Alice Walker’s article to resurrect their literary reputations.  Life’s not fair.  Still, I will re-read The Egg and I and Betty’s other adult books for her glowing descriptions of the Pacific Northwest, for her affectionate view of the world and because she makes me laugh.  That’s what I expect of a humorous book and all I’m really due.  When the book’s done well, that is more than enough.

In praise of a class-filled society

It seems half the world loves Julian Fellowes.  A few mangy souls, like me, remember when he played Kilwillie in “Monarch of the Glen” but once he penned the screenplay to “Gosford Park” his acting days were numbered and his creation of of Downton Abbey and elevation to the House of Lords probably mean we’ll never see him in character again.  Oh well.  A wise person once wrote that authors, at their best, seem to pull back the curtain for their readers and introduce us to a world we wouldn’t otherwise know.   What Julian Fellowes reveals is the inner workings of the British class system and if you think that’s a thing of the past, you need to pick up his novel Snobs.   As of 2009 at least, the aristocracy still owns the most boring, exclusive club in town and the excluded are still trying to get in.

The plot is a simple one:  Edith Lavery is one of those very pretty British girls with a weathy, untitled father and a mother with social ambitions.  She makes the acquaintance of Charles Broughton, an unmarried earl and heir to the Marquis of Uckfield.  (That’s mid-rank in British nobility, lower than a duke but well over the knights, viscouts and barons.)  He’s attracted to her, and she’s been taught from birth to be attracted to his status and every thing that goes with it.   It’s all very exciting for Edith until after the wedding when she realizes she’s married into a rather insular, well-intentioned but dull group of people who live the same type of lives.  Once the novelty of being referred to as Lady Broughton wears off, Edith is ripe for some distraction.  This arrives (unfortunately) in the form of a good-looking actor whose film is being shot at Broughton Hall.  Edith falls from grace, then (socially) on her face when she learns that being an actor’s bit-on-the-side doesn’t carry the same social cache as a well-married countess.  Edith has to consider what her priorities really are and who will make her happy.   Now that that’s aside, here’s what Fellowes says is true of the blue-bloods, if you haven’t guessed it already.

1. Dreadful nicknames.  To the rest of the world, they may be Lord This-a-Whatchit and Lady Whoosis but amongst their own kind, the elite are known by the dreadful nicknames they picked up ages ago, at school.  Knowing and using those nicknames marks you as a member of the Inner Circle.  Imagine declaring your real friendship for a middle-aged Marchioness by continually referring to her as “Googie”.   Yeah, that works.

2. Hideous decorating skills. Part of the nice bit about being an aristocrat is supposed to be the generations your family has possessed titles, houses and the ability/money to furnish said houses but according to Julian Fellows, some of the nobility don’t feel really noble unless they’re surrounded by all the souvenirs their ancestors picked up through the ages.  If Lord Uckley’s great-great-grandsire sent home a frozen husky before he went off adventuring with Robert Falcon Scott, well the husky still stands mute and stuffed by the fireplace today even if the taxidermist didn’t do that great a job and the moths and cinders have made hash of the husky’s coat.  I’d love to see what Extreme Clutter could do with a house like that.

3. Questionable hospitality.  I live in an area where every person is supposed to be hospitable to house guests, even if your home is a rented single-wide trailer.  We create the best meals we can afford, serve the guests the tastiest parts of the chicken and put them to sleep in the most comfortable room in the house.   Not so in England, not if you’re staying with nobility.  This part, I’ll have to quote:

“I have been shown into bathrooms that could just about manage a cold squirt of brown water, bedrooms with doors that don’t shut, blankets like tissue and pillows like rocks.  I have driven an hour cross-country to lunch with some grand relations of my father, who gave me one sausage, two small potatoes and twenty-eight peas.”

Not what you expected, right?

Fellowes goes on to say that not every member of nobility makes their friends suffer like this, nor are they all idiots.   They’re just people who’ve been raised differently and if they’re not the brightest kids in school, they can still become decent, loyal friends.  In the end they’re like the rest of us, trying to do their best, even when they make a right mess of everything.  So try Snobs if you want something frivolous and fun that has just a touch of class.