Archive for March, 2014

The Town in Bloom Dodie Smith corsair editionThe Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith ~ 1965. This edition: Corsair, 2012. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-78033-301-4. 314 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

After my mixed feelings about one of Dodie Smith’s “other” (meaning not I Capture the Castle) adult novels, The New Moon with the Old, and my rather shaky introduction to this one (I quit early on the first time of attempting to read it) I was very pleased to find that I did like this one, after all. A whole lot. Now isn’t that interesting?

Three ex-actresses meet for their every-five-years reunion dinner, hoping that this year, the eighth reunion, the fourth of their friends, the elusive Zelle, may join them, but it appears that this is not to be.

It’s been forty years since vivacious narrator Mouse (we never learn her real name), placid Molly and sleekly beautiful Lilian were all thrown together in the lively heyday of the 1920s London theatre scene. They have all gone on to varying degrees of success and happiness, and by and large enjoy their reminiscences every time they meet, but there is a shadow lurking regarding the unknown fate of the fourth of their jolly crew, who vanished (voluntarily) from her room in the theatrical boarding house they all shared and hasn’t been seen or heard from since, despite repeated pleas to join the reunion published in the personal ads of The Times.

As the three friends chat after their window table lunch, Mouse becomes increasingly intrigued by an eccentrically dressed woman huddled over her drab knitting on a park bench outside, who keeps glancing at the ladies inside in a surreptitious manner. Could it possibly be…?

An attempt to intercept the maybe-Zelle fails, but Mouse has marked the house her quarry disappeared into for future investigation. Meanwhile, the encounter has triggered a flood memories of the summer in the 1920s when the four girls came together in their unlikely friendship, and which ultimately saw all of them launched on their forever-after paths due to decisions made in the passionate heat of those few torrid months.

I hesitate to go much further in my description of the plot, because I did so enjoy unravelling it all on my own, but I will say that it involves a whole lot of sex. Thinking about it, talking about it, plotting how best to go about arranging it, and of course doing it. There is nothing at all graphic, aside from some teasing reference –  “I should write down all the details in my diary but well maybe I’ll just let it live in my memory…” – but these girls are all, in their own ways, carrying on very active love/sex lives. Mouse is assumed to be the most innocent, due to her relative youth (she’s eighteen) and child-like appearance (she’s tiny and innocent looking) but she turns out to be nothing of the sort, absolutely throwing herself into the experience, and eagerly shedding her virginity with only a few meditative regrets:

I was very happy too – in a way; I am finding that out as I write. I am, somehow…exorcising the loneliness. It will pass, it will pass.

But with it will pass someone I shall be a little sorry to lose: myself as I was before last night. Aunt Marion had a book of poems by Charles Cotton which she bought for the Lovat Fraser decorations, and in one poem are the lines:

She finds virginity a kind of ware
That’s very, very troublesome to bear,
And being gone she thinks will ne’er be missed.

I think one will miss it, but only for a very little while. Soon one will forget that it ever meant anything. Perhaps it never did; already I can almost accept that. The great plane tree outside my window is just as beautiful it was that May night when I last wrote in my journal, though its summer leaves are a little less green than the leaves of spring…

Shades of Cassandra Mortmain, I believe I detect in these youthfully self-focussed musings.

The novel gives a fascinating glimpse of the world of the 1920s’ theatre, being very much involved with backstage life, and the details Dodie Smith gives are worth wading through the occasionally tiresome teenage angst of our narrator, and the annoyances that her full-speed-ahead-towards-the-goal persona occasionally engender.

The theatre scenes of the first half of the book are fascinating, though the focus changes (dramatically) once the love affairs start. I did feel that perhaps Mouse’s experiences in the theatre were a bit too plush-lined – she seems to end jam side up pretty well each and every time she stumbles, being taken in and indulged and helped and sheltered again and again and again, even by those she’s deliberately wronged. Rather special, is our Mouse.

I was relieved by the ending, which wasn’t as blissfully neat and tidy as I feared it would be, though it glossed over a whole lot of bothersome details, citing their unimportance due to the passing of four forgetful decades.

Dodie Smith gained my readerly good regard by her willingness to show that there were no fairy tale endings, or, more aptly, that there are really no endings at all (except the very obvious final final one); life does go on and on and on, with no attainment of a permanent goal, and, furthermore, it (life) can continue to be exceedingly interesting, no matter what your birth certificate lists your age as.

Much has been made in some of the other reviews I’ve read about the unexpected feminist elements and the surprising frankness regarding sex in this book, but I didn’t at all feel that these were unusually daring, because though the novel was for the most part set in the 1920s, it was written in the 1960s. Though our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers kept a discreet silence (for the most part) about their personal sexual affairs, there is no doubt whatsoever that their private lives were just as sophisticated as anything going on in this generation, so any sort of “Gosh! Golly! Gee whiz! These girls were downright modern in their escapades!” attitude gets nothing but a yawn from me.

To sum up, The Town in Bloom is a rather better book, in my opinion, than The New Moon With the Old, though I Capture the Castle still occupies a niche set well above either of these.

I have several volumes of Dodie Smith’s biography waiting on the TBR shelves, but I do believe I will investigate some more of her fictions first, if I can get my hands on them. It Ends with Revelations will be the easiest to obtain, and after that I’m not quite sure where to go. Possibly a play or two? Dear Octopus has been recommended to me as worthy of reading. And maybe a revisit to the juveniles, to dally for a bit among the Dalmations…

 

 

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please don't eat the daisies jean kerr 001Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr ~ 1957. This edition: Doubleday, 1957. Illustrations by Carl Rose. Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

I’ve had this book kicking around for years, as you can see from the sad state of its dust jacket pictured over there on the left (now covered with crinkly, shiny Brodart Just-a-Fold, one of my happier recent personal library improvement initiatives), and I re-read it with pleasure every so often. The only thing keeping it from a 10/10 rating is that it is too darned short; we never really get to settle down into it; it’s over and done with much too soon.

Jean Kerr lightly channels Shirley Jackson (the domestically-focussed SJ of Life Among the Savages versus the darker fictions, I hasten to add) and shines a cheerful and mildly sarcastic light on her own marriage and the goings-on of her four young sons.

Jean was always interested in the theatrical arts, and upon graduation from college, married one of her drama professors, Walter Kerr, who later became a prominent stage and film critic. The Kerrs dabbled in playwriting, producing a series of not terribly successful efforts, but having much more success with writing material for revues.

Jean Kerr did eventually have a hit, with the 1961 Broadway comedy Mary, Mary. She also wrote humorous essays which were published in various periodicals, such as the Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is a compilation of these essays, and was followed some years later by other collections: 1960’s The Snake Has All the Lines, 1970’s Penny Candy, and 1978’s How I Got to Be Perfect.

Somewhere in the middle of Daisies, the Kerrs buy a house. Not just any house, but an eccentrically designed and decorated Larchdale, New York mansion formerly owned by a compatriot of Henry Ford, one retired inventor, world traveller and stuff collector, Charles B. King. King incorporated such features into his “fairy tale home” such as carved ceiling beams and a dining room floor made of planks from a retired paddlewheel steam ship, the door of ST. Gabriel’s Church, a clock tower, and a thirty-two bell courtyard carillon (connected to a clock in said clock tower) which played the duet from Carmen every day at noon.

The Kerrs found the house bizarrely irresistible, and persisted in their efforts to buy it from the trustees of the King estate, who could not agree on a reasonable asking price, until a fire destroyed one of the wings, and the price dropped to a level the Kerrs could manage.

For anyone interested in taking a peek at the house of the book, here is a link to an article and a slide show of a tour of the building prepared when Jean Kerr’s sons put the building up for sale in 2003, after it had been in the family for 58 years:

http://larchmontgazette.com/2003/features/20030318kerrhouse.html

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies caught the spotlight in 1960 as it was used as the basis of a romantic-comedy movie by the same name starring David Niven and Doris Day, and then a 1965-67 television sit-com based very loosely on the Kerr ménage and their unique home.

While I enjoy Jean Kerr’s on-page persona as a harassed mother of many (she eventually had six children, including one set of twins) I think my favourite essays in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies are the parodies of literary works. Stephen Vincent Benét’s sombre poem John Brown’s Body is presented as a readers’ theatre piece entitled Don Brown’s Body (starring Mike Hammer and set amongst the gangsters), while Francoise Sagan’s  A Certain Smile inspires Jean Kerr’s brutally funny mockery, Toujours tristesse. These two essays make the book for me; the Kerrs’ revues, if they were anything like these, must have been an absolute joy to attend.

A very clever lady, behind that “I’m just a harried mom who happens to write on the side” literary disguise.

 

 

 

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case of the shoplifter's shoe erle stanley gardner 001The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe by Erle Stanley Gardner ~ 1938. This edition: Pocket Books, 1945. Paperback. 230 pages.

My rating: 6/10

Checking out several of the websites dedicated to Erle Stanley Gardner and his lifework, I made a quick count of the Perry Mason titles listed and came up with an incredible 85+, dating from 1933 to 1969, with several published posthumously – ESG died in 1970 – all with names prefixed The Case of –  the Fan Dancer’s Horse, the Black Eyed Blonde, the Drowsy Mosquito, the Crying Swallow, the Vagabond Virgin… you get the drift.

Add to these the numerous other short stories published in the pulp fiction periodicals of the first half of the 20th Century, and the books written under various pseudonyms – A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Les Tillray, Robert Parr – plus various novelettes, compilations and non-fiction articles, guides and memoirs, and suddenly the designation “prolific” seems to not be quite accurate enough. This guy was hyper-prolific.

And with that comes the all-too-understandable label of the “formula” writer, which there is no doubt applies accurately here.

I had once or twice dipped into ESG’s mysteries – or perhaps more accurately, “procedurals” – but they never really took. However, using the excuse of the Century of Books project and the serendipitous acquisition of this wartime issue Pocket Book – “Share this book with someone in uniform” requests a blurb on the back cover; “Books are Weapons in the War of Ideas” on a front endpaper – I decided to give Gardner one more chance, to see if I dismissed him too readily before.

Nope. Still not a fan. Though I can see the appeal, and it wasn’t a chore to read, exactly. Just a bit boring, and not very “deep”, even for something of this “light entertainment” genre.

Here’s the plot description of this particular episode in the ongoing adventures of Perry Mason, lawyer and self-styled investigator and champion of the wrongly-accused:

Perry Mason’s chance encounter with the benign looking, white-haired shoplifter, Sarah Breel, involved him in one of the strangest murder cases of his career. The mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Breel’s brother, of five valuable diamonds, and then of Sarah Breel herself, set Mason to some investigating that didn’t please the police. Then Mrs. Breel reappeared, victim of an automobile accident, with an unaccounted-for blood stain on her shoe, and a gun in her bag. When Austin Cullens, who knew about the diamonds, was found murdered by a bullet from this gun, the police discovered that in addition to a broken leg, Mrs. Breel was suffering from amnesia, and Perry Mason became attorney for the defense with a client who could not – or would not – give him any clues at all.

Luckily Mr. Mason has a wide circle of dedicated helpers who are willing to go to any lengths to assist our fearless investigator, such as his luscious secretary Della Street, pet detective Paul Drake, and tame doctor Charles Gifford, all of whom go above and beyond at the mere crook of Perry Mason’s finger.

Several bodies pop up, a hysterical woman or two, a cool sophisticate with a secret, stray gamblers and jewel thieves, to supply the story with a lavish amount of pinkish herrings and some sketchy side plots which are never really developed. It all ends in a big courtroom scene, where Perry Mason hypnotizes his opposition with his keen wit and suddenly revealed secrets.

Yawn.

I’m sticking with Rex Stout and his creations Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin for my fallback formula mystery/investigator stories. (And even those are rather uneven, I’ll readily admit.)

The Perry Mason saga has its merits, not least of all the snippets of period detail, the slang and the clothes and the food and the drink and the MANY references to tobacco products throughout – these people went through a lot of the Demon Leaf – no wonder the men all have hoarsely sinister voices and the women husky whispers.

I had a giggle at the descriptions of the meals, too, and a bit of a blush for Della Street’s forthright concern for her lovely figure. Here are Della and Perry bantering as they sit down for an unplanned lunch at a department store tea room, where they’ve gone to shelter from a sudden rain storm.

“Well, Mr. Mason, since you’re buying the lunch, I’m going to make it my heavy meal.”

“I thought you were going on a diet,” he said, with mock concern.

“I am,” she admitted, “I’m a hundred and twelve. I want to get back to a hundred and nine.”

“Dry whole wheat toast,” he suggested, “and tea without sugar, would…”

“That’ll be fine for tonight,” she retorted, “but as a working girl, I know when I’m getting the breaks. I’ll have cream of tomato soup, avocado and grapefruit salad, a filet mignon, artichokes, shoestring potatoes, and plum pudding with brandy sauce.”

And she does.

Aha! – that’s it! Nero and Archie have rather better sounding food!

Now I’m just being silly…

Well, that’s that for Erle Stanley Gardner. I doubt I’ll be seeking any more of these out, though I’ll happily read them in anthologies and if stuck somewhere with no other reading matter handy.

Onward.

One last thing. Here is the page scan from my old Pocket Book with the publishers being all clever and smugly humorous about their best-selling author:

case of the shoplifter's shoe author bio erle stanley gardner 001

 

 

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the murder of my aunt (v2) richard hullThe Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull ~ 1934. This edition: Pocket Books, 1946. Paperback. 184 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Absolute piffle, but great fun. If I might be so bold, I propose this as a “must read” for lovers of vintage crime fiction and Wodehousian-style humour alike. A deliciously nasty little tale which defies fitting neatly into its possible genres in much the same way as its narrator dodges attempts to save him from himself.

Edward Powell has been raised by his aunt since the unfortunate (and apparently scandalous) double demise of his parents when he was but a wee tot. Childless Aunt Mildred is happily established at the family estate in rural Wales, but Richard has a hankering for a more sophisticated lifestyle, and is increasingly impatient with his aunt’s attitude that he should find an occupation and become self-supporting, rather than relying on her support.

Now, as spinster Aunt Mildred has no other heirs, Edward can one day expect to inherit her estate, which he fully intends to dispose of as quickly as possible, to facilitate departure for some place more appealing to his sensibilities. Perhaps the Riviera…

But pesky Aunt Mildred looks to be good for quite a few more years. What if her nephew were to hasten her inevitable demise, combining it with a spot of revenge for all of her patronizing comments regarding his dilettante leanings?

As Edward attempts to bring about the “accidental” demise of his sole relative, he confides all in great detail to his private journal, which he keeps locked up between episodes of writing in a small safe in his bedroom. A safe which his aunt has given him. (Hint: Richard isn’t as bright as he thinks himself.)

And never doubt that Aunt Mildred may have a few tricks up her own sleeve…

A nice fast read, and a fine vintage diversion for a quiet evening or a blustery day.

Here’s a sample. (Click the image to enlarge in a new window.)

the murder of my aunt excerpt richard hull 001

 

 

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a lady of quality frances hodgson burnett 001

My spouse guffawed when he saw this cover: “Which child of the author drew that horse?” Well, it *is* eye-catching, even though I suspect it does not quite jive with the stated setting of the story, which starts in 1685.

A Lady of Quality by Frances Hodgson Burnett ~ 1896. This edition: Center Point Publishing, 1999. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-58547-000-7. 317 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

She gathered all her dying will and brought her hand up to the infant’s mouth.  A wild look was on her poor, small face, she panted and fell forward on its breast, the rattle in her throat growing louder.  The child awakened, opening great black eyes, and with her dying weakness its new-born life struggled.  Her cold hand lay upon its mouth, and her head upon its body, for she was too far gone to move if she had willed to do so.  But the tiny creature’s strength was marvellous.  It gasped, it fought, its little limbs struggled beneath her, it writhed until the cold hand fell away, and then, its baby mouth set free, it fell a-shrieking.  Its cries were not like those of a new-born thing, but fierce and shrill, and even held the sound of infant passion.  ’Twas not a thing to let its life go easily, ’twas of those born to do battle.

Its lusty screaming pierced her ear perhaps—she drew a long, slow breath, and then another, and another still—the last one trembled and stopped short, and the last cinder fell dead from the fire.

It is “a wintry morning at the close of 1685”, and the heroine of our story has almost been smothered by her poor doomed mother. Nine children has poor Lady Daphne borne, all of them daughters, and with each successive childbed disappointment her abusive husband, Sir Jeoffry of Wildairs Hall, has become more and more enraged at his wife’s inability to bring forth a son. Six of the girl children have already perished; two survive, hidden away in a dingy nursery, and they are about to be joined by their baby sister, who survives her doomed mother’s feeble attempt at infanticide, meant to save her last child from a dreadful future fate.

Clorinda – our heroine, the baby-that-almost-was-smothered – is made of much sterner stuff than her mother, and she grows into a fiery-spirited, stunningly beautiful child. Catching her father’s eye by her forceful personality and wicked temper (he can totally relate), Clorinda spends her years until her fifteenth birthday hanging out with her father and his hard-drinking, hard-riding, gambling, womanizing cronies, while the sisters languish in their dismal corner of the Hall.

At fifteen Clorinda suddenly casts of her tomboyish persona and reinvents herself as a proper young lady, forcing herself out into society and making quite a stir what with her flashing eyes, unspeakable beauty, and rapier-sharp wit, not to mention her fairy-like dancing ability and gorgeous clothes.

The transformation continues, with the expected setbacks, including that of a blackmailing shadow from Clorinda’s heedless past. Luckily Clorinda’s elder sister Anne stands by her, and between the two of them Clorinda attains her marriage to the man she loves, and the downfall of her bitter enemy.

An absolutely overwritten almost-gothic romance – and I say “almost-gothic” because though it is set in the late 17th and early 18th centuries it is deeply and awfully Victorian in style, all attempts by its author to set the scene with dramatically archaic language and descriptions of silks and brocades and paduasoys aside.

The occasional humour that enlivens FHB’s other books seems to be almost entirely missing here; there is an absolute earnestness which serves the highlight the improbabilities of Clorinda’s transformation and many successes, and Sister Anne is just as unbelievable in her saintly self-sacrifice; Anne’s deathbed scene at the end of the novel is stunning in its adherence to the stereotype.

An interesting novel in that it rounds out one’s familiarity with this author’s substantial body of work, but otherwise not particularly recommended by me for readers of the current day and age. A just-readable Victorian-age curiousity of a novel rather than a lost treasure or a hidden gem, I’m afraid.

 

 

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the shapes of sleep j b priestley 001The Shapes of Sleep by J.B. Priestley ~ 1962. This edition: Granada, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-586-05201-1. 190 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Close call, J.B. You almost didn’t make that 5, but my enduring fondness for your many years’ worth of earnest and good-humoured novels and essays and memoirs tipped the balance.

This is not so much a baddish book as a terminally undecided one. It reads like the author can’t quite decide on some rather major plot developments so has decided to make it up as he goes. Which can work, but in this case means false starts, dropped threads, and a general lack of a sturdy backbone to build the story upon.

And J.B. Priestley has tried his hand here at writing sexy, but it reads very much like the author is extremely uneasy with the style, and the hands-on-breasts and rigid (or not rigid) nipple descriptions are much more embarrassing for the reader than titillating. At least I found them so. I absolutely cringed, and mostly because it made the writer look inept and out of his comfort zone, style-wise. This is Priestley, after all, and you’d expect a higher level of capability in handling a scene. Any sort of scene.

Following closely on the heels of 1961’s uneven “suspense-thriller” Saturn Over the Water, Priestley further experiments with the genre, using the action to sugar coat some intellectual musings about the continual deterioration of societal mores, the dangers of state-sponsored paranoia (this is smack dab in the middle of the Cold War), and the status of women inside and outside of marriage. There are some fairly substantial shades of proto-feminism here, with Priestley trying his darnedest to articulate his support and appreciation for the “other side” from his masculine point of view.

So, regarding the actual story.

Here we have a freelancer journalist, Ben Sterndale, on the declining end of what was apparently a stellar career. He is offered a small job which will require him to use his investigative skills rather than his writing ability. A pale green piece of paper covered in mysterious figures and foreign handwriting has gone missing from an advertising agency office. Strayed or stolen, it is wanted back. Luckily there is a tiny corner of the paper left behind, with a few word ends which Ben interprets to be of German origin, and the investigation is on.

People with guns and sinister accents pop in and out, as well as a female person who is rather obviously not what she seems. Ben tenaciously follows every little lead, and by a combination of sheer bullheadedness and a fair bit of luck (courtesy our old fictional friend, the blissful coincidence) tracks down the secret behind the green paper as well as the girl.

A Helen MacInnes-like hectic tour of Germany plays a central role in the story; Ben-voiced-over-by-Priestley does not care for the Germans much – as I already sort of had gathered from his (Priestley’s) jibes in Saturn Over the Water – which adds an uneasy element to his adventurings in that country.

The mysterious paper and the secret it holds the key to are the least important thing going on here; so much so that even when we get a firsthand description of the “shapes of sleep” and their sinister inferences (spoiler: this would apparently be brainwashing and social engineering, to be delivered via subliminal messaging/advertising), we can’t quite believe that they are worth killing and being killed for, and they fade away completely in the last scene of Ben/Priestley mulling over the deteriorating state of the world and the changing status of women and their vital importance to future “peace and prosperity.”

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this was due to Priestley’s private life influencing his writing. When The Shapes of Sleep was written, Priestley was sixty-eight years old, and just a few years into his third marriage, with archeologist/researcher and fellow writer (and Priestley’s co-writer in their 1955 collection of travel and opinion essays, Journey Down a Rainbow) Jacquetta Hawkes.

All in all, a rather unsatisfactory book, mostly interesting to this “fan” to enable me to check off another entry in Priestley’s widely-varied oeuvre. I may read it again one day to see if my impressions can be revised; then again, I may not.

Here, see Kirkus for its take, from June 15, 1962. I was amused to read this briefly cynical review after I had formulated my own, and to see that I was not alone in my disenchantment regarding this novel.

An uneven writer is our Mr. Priestley; one scarcely knows what to expect. This time as in last year’s Saturn Over the Water he has turned to suspense and an international spy story, but has fallen down in two aspects that made Saturn engaging reading. He never in this new book sets his scene so that the reader becomes absorbed in atmosphere and mood. Nor – on the story line – does he hold to a central thread that, intricate as the windings may prove, goes from Point A to Point B. This time he substitutes motion for action. His newspaperman, with a keen scent for the unusual, jumps from London to the Continent, from town to town and back again in Germany; but somehow he seems to be chasing his own tail, and even the near misses of danger peter out. Finally, there is a touch – just a touch – of the element of mysticism, which characterized his The Other Place back in 1955. And this too somehow dissipates the effect. And the injection of some random sex and a romance in which one cannot feel too involved does not add to the sense of unity demanded.

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greenwillow hc no dj b j chute 001Greenwillow by B.J. Chute ~ 1956. This edition: E.P. Dutton, 1956. Illustrated at chapter headings by Erik Blegvad. Hardcover. 223 pages.

My rating: Oh, what the heck. It was unexpected, but I mostly loved this one. 9.5/10.

A novel being the story of a village beyond the boundaries of time, no exact location, where people who are kinder and happier than we can be, and whose lives are linked to the rhythm of the seasons…

In the nebulously located village of Greenwillow, the Reverend Lapp preaches hellfire, damnation and the eternal loss of the souls of babies who die before being baptised, and though they stick a bit on that last concept, by and large his congregation puts up with him reasonably cheerfully. And when a certain Reverend Birdsong shows up, sent, so he says, “by the Bishop”, and accompanied by an upside-down umbrella full of hawthorn blossoms, the two preachers compromise by sharing the church, though they cannot bring themselves to share doctrine.

Reverend Lapp sees the Devil everywhere and is an authority on his pervasive influence; Reverend Birdsong is a bit vague on such details, preferring instead to concentrate on the God-given wonders of nature, and by extending encouraging approval to young lovers, kittens and the cultivation and appreciation of flowers.

Both Reverends take an interest in the family of Amos Briggs, famously of a wandering nature, who appears every year or so for a few days, just long enough to give a start to the next addition to the ever-increasing family of young Briggs who scrabble about on their poor but promising farm. The eldest Briggs child, Gideon, lives under the cloud of the family curse: that the first son of the first son will at some point in his young life hear the mysterious “call” and will drop everything and head off into the unknown, abandoning family, friends and livelihood to roam the wide world over –

…hoeing man laid down his hoe, digging man laid down his spade, reaping man laid down his scythe…

Gideon is working frantically to have the farm in a viable condition to leave in the care of his younger siblings when his call comes. He’s also determined to break the family curse once and for all, for though he’s resigned himself to his own fate, he is firmly determined not to marry. He’ll not to leave behind a wife as his own dear mother has been left, though she is gently complaisant with her fate, never losing her original love for her wayward spouse and welcoming him with eager arms for the few days he reappears every year or two. Most of all, Gideon is determined not to have any children of his own.

Which complicates things exceedingly when Gideon meets the eyes of a sterling-natured village maid, one Dorrie – an accomplished cook from a tender age, lover of the afore-mentioned kittens, and of children, in particular the Briggs young ones, which aids in moving the mutual attraction up a notch or two. ) Dorrie is more than ready for a home of her own, and when the two admit their love to one another, we are almost convinced that Gideon will break his personal vow not to ever wed.

Lapp preaches thunder and damnation to Gideon, warning him against heeding the call of the Devil; Birdsong cocks his head sideways and doesn’t say much but exudes encouragement; neither appears to have any influence on Gideon, to sway him from his stubborn (and rather tiresome) insistence that his fate is sealed.

But we have an inkling that it will all come round right in the long run, and it does, though not without a lot of side plots and interferences by all and sundry of the (mostly) well-intentioned villagers and rural folk.

greenwillow page scan page 1 b j chute 001

Did I say “charming” yet? Well, it is. And deeply so. A book I had no previous knowledge of, and which surprised me by its likeable fairy tale atmosphere, and by its assortment of stock rural characters – both human and animal – all with unexpectedly diverting quirks.

This B.J. Chute is rather an amusingly lyrical writer, I concluded well before the happy end of Greenwillow. And this is what I discovered about her. For it turned out to be a her, not a him, as I had somehow assumed. And it also turned out also that I was already acquainted with one of the family, as it were, for B.J.’s sister turns out to be Marchette Chute, historical biographer and children’s author and poet. Who knew?!

From the dust jacket of the first edition of Greenwillow, found pictured online. (My copy is sadly missing its jacket.)

B.J. Chute was born of an American father and an English mother, and she spent most of her life at a country home in Minnesota named “Hazelwood.” There she and her two sisters became familiar with animals and birds and trees., and in their spare time they all made a hobby of writing. In the end all three became professional writers, for one sister, M.G. Chute, is well known for her Saturday Evening Post stories, and the other, Marchette, for her biographies of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.

B.J. Chute, who is Joy to her family and friends, has written many short stories for major magazines, and this is her third novel. She wrote Greenwillow in a style that would not tie it down to any country or any period, but it was because she was brought up with woods and fields and country people that she knows them so intimately and can write about them so well. Her delight in people is just as evident now that she lives in New York, and in her spare time she does volunteer work with the Police Athletic League and in a shelter in Harlem for temporarily homeless babies.

And from her obituary in the New York Times, September 15, 1987:

Beatrice Joy Chute, a novelist and short-story writer who was also a past president of the PEN American Center and taught for many years at Barnard College, died of a heart attack Sept. 6 at Bellevue Hospital Center. She was 74 years old and lived in Manhattan.

Miss Chute, who was born in Minneapolis in 1913, published her first story in 1931. She wrote many stories for and about adolescent boys for Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines during the 1930’s, and her first book, ”Blocking Back,” was published in 1938. Many of her early works, such as ”Shattuck Cadet” (1940) and ”Camp Hero” (1942), were realistic tales of sports and camp life that captured the relationships and slang of her primarily male teen-age heroes.

Although she continued to write short stories for children and adolescents in the 1940’s, Miss Chute began to concentrate on adult fiction with ”The Fields Are White,” a 1950 book about marriage and manners.

discovery. It was made into a Broadway musical in 1960. Subsequent works included a 1957 anthology called ”The Blue Cup and Other Stories,” ”The Story of a Small Life” (1971) and ”Katie: An Impertinent Fairy Tale” (1978). Her most recent novel, ”The Good Woman” (1986), was a parable about a lonely woman who abandons her home for a journey of spiritual awakening while living on the streets.

Miss Chute – who preferred to be called Joy and signed her books B. J. Chute – moved to New York in the early 1940’s with her mother and two sisters. Over the years, she did volunteer work with poor children and the Police Athletic League. She became an adjunct professor of English at Barnard College in 1964, and taught creative writing there until her death.

She was also director of Books Across the Sea, a division of the English-Speaking Union that promoted American books overseas, and was an active member and one-time president of the American chapter of PEN, the writer’s association.

Provenance, my edition: Rotary Club Book Sale, Williams Lake, B.C., February 2014. Inscription: “Irene Ringland”. First edition, no dust jacket.

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