Mrs Harris Goes to New York by Paul Gallico ~ 1959. Alternate title: Mrs ‘Arris Goes to New York. This edition: Penguin, 1984. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-001943-X. 168 pages.
My rating: 6/10
Cute story, but much too much “tell” versus “show”. And I suspect that unless you’ve already read the first Mrs Harris saga, you’ll be rather at sea as to why we’re supposed to be so fully on her side. In other words, it screams “SEQUEL!”
In the second installment of what would eventually be a four book series, sixty-one year old London charlady Mrs Ada Harris undertakes another major journey, and another major quest. (Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, her first journey and quest, to Paris for the purchase of an exquisite Dior party dress, is one of author Paul Gallico’s best-loved light novels.)
This time around it is the United States of America looming as the golden goal; the quest is to return an abandoned and neglected young boy to his ex-American soldier father. Luckily, coincidences again merge to bring the almost magical Mrs Harris’s plans to glorious fruition, though not without some glorious glitches here and there.
Eight-year-old Henry Brown has been fostered out by his feckless mother after her first wartime marriage to Henry’s father ended in divorce, and because her prospective second husband refused to have another man’s child under his roof. For a while all went well, with regular child support payments coming through, but eventually the monthly cheque ceased coming, and no one could trace the boy’s mother. She had obviously moved without leaving a forwarding address. It was then that Mrs Harris and her good friend Mrs Butterfield began to hear disturbing sounds coming from the flat sandwiched between their two independent domiciles. Young Henry was being regularly beaten and abused; he appeared increasingly pinched and obviously hungry; his uncomplaining endurance and sweet, unsoured nature under the burden of his sad fate endeared him to the two grandmotherly ladies, and they often mulled over just what could be done.
Then one day Mrs Harris had a brainwave. What about Henry’s American father?! If there was some way to notify him about his child’s plight, surely he would effect an immediate rescue? One small problem existed: no one knew exactly where Henry’s father now was. The child is, effectively, an orphan.
And then marvelous fate steps in. One day, at an employer’s flat, Mrs Harris stumbles upon what she considers a message from the heavens.
Left to herself, Mrs Harris then indulged in one of her favourite pastimes, which was the reading of old newspapers. One of her greatest pleasures when she went to the fishmonger’s was to read two-year-old pages of the Mirror lying on the counter and used for wrapping.
Now she picked up a page of a newspaper called The Milwaukee Sentinel, eyed the headline ‘Dominie Seduced Schoolgirl in Hayloft’, enjoyed the story connected therewith, and thereafter leafed through the other pages of the same instrument until she came to one labelled ‘Society Page’, on which she found many photographs of young brides, young grooms-to-be, and young married couples.
Always interested in weddings, Mrs Harris gave these announcements more undivided attention, until she cam upon one which caused her little eyes almost to pop out of her head, and led her to emit a shriek, ‘Ruddy gor’blimey – it’s ‘im! It’s happened! I felt it in me bones that something would.’
There among the wedding announcements is one for a Mr George Brown, described as an ex-soldier who had been stationed in England, and referring to the fact that this was Mr Brown’s second attempt at nuptials. What a brilliant flash of serendipitous luck this was! This must be young Henry’s father, for isn’t the groom’s father’s name also Henry Brown? And wouldn’t the little British-American baby have obviously been named after his paternal grandfather?
The wheels of Mrs Harris’s single-minded focus are suddenly set turning. If only there was a way to deliver young Henry to his father, then surely paternal love would instantly overwhelm the man, and he would cleave unto his dear son and rescue him from his current awful situation. And there is a possibility of actually bringing this about, for Mrs Harris is herself shortly to depart for a trip to America!
You see, another of her clients is the wife of a movies-and-television company director, and, upon a sudden promotion, the couple are to return to the States to allow Mr Schreiber to take on his new duties. Mrs Schrieber, a sweetly dithery, rather ineffectual, and continuously gently worried lady, is thrown into a state of absolute panic at the thought of having to establish a new household in New York, one which will require her to manage a number of domestic helpers, and to continually entertain her husband’s entertainment industry movers and shakers, and more than a few movie and music stars. What will she do? Could, would, will Mrs Harris come along, just for a few months, to help establish the Schrieber’s new ménage? Mrs Harris takes a deep breath and hesitatingly agrees, after arranging that her good friend Mrs Butterworth accompany the party; Mrs Butterworth being a skilled cook, and a definite asset to Mrs Schrieber during the “finding her legs” New York debut.
Now what if there was some way to smuggle young Henry aboard the bustling ocean liner Ville de Paris, ferry him across the sea, and reunite him with his father? Once they’re all in New York, surely a quick trip to Milwaukee will be easy to arrange…
If this seems to good to be true, of course it is. But the unlikely escapade starts off exceedingly well. Henry, a bright young lad, plays along most willingly, and his two sponsors get him on board and manage to keep his presence under wraps until mid-Atlantic, when it becomes apparent that getting the child off the boat at Ellis Island may prove something more of a challenge, what with stringent American customs and immigration officials examining every set of incoming papers with fine tooth combs and such. As for papers, young Henry possesses none. Gulp!
Ah, but again, kind fate steps in. Sharing the journey is a certain French diplomat whom Mrs Harris came to know well during her Paris stay. He and Mrs Harris have renewed their mutually affectionate acquaintance while on the journey, incidentally giving Mrs Schrieber something of a shock when she finds her Tourist Class charlady ensconced at the chief table at the First Class Captain’s Dinner Party. Gallantly stepping up when appealed to, the Ambassador temporarily adopts Henry as his grandson, and the latest disaster is averted. However, getting the child back from Washington, DC, where he has accompanied his “grandfather”, proves to be a bit more complicated…
And on and on it goes. Mrs Harris forges ahead, comes upon calamity, regroups (usually with the assistance od some random person completely won over by her twinkling eyes and sterling nature, etcetera) and trots along until the next hurdle pops up. Her creator treats us to occasional moments of musing, and throws a moral or two in as well for good measure, and to appeal to our sentimental natures. The ending is, predictably, a happy one, though not quite as Mrs Harris has envisioned it to be from her earlier altruistic schemings.
A light and completely impossible fairy tale is this one, though it touches upon some serious issues – child abuse, social class structure, discrimination, and the follies of celebrity worship. The Dior dress shows up again, with a rather good discussion of its symbolic significance. Mrs Harris is allowed the grace to realize that her impulsiveness is not always wise; in a real world she’d have been slapped down long ago, but because this is fiction of a particularly fluffy type she gets not just a pass but a promotion. Oh, and there is the teasing promise of a love affair for our Mrs Harris, too, setting things up, no doubt, for book number three.