The Peterkin Papers Delightful In Small Doses

Years ago I obtained a book of classic Christmas poems and stories, and one story was The Peterkins’ Christmas Tree, about a family preparing for the holiday. Alas, when the family’s evergreen was cut and delivered it was discovered that it was too tall to stand in the back parlor.

What to do? Agamemnon, the eldest son, suggested the tree be set up slanting, but Mrs. Peterkin was sure that would make her dizzy, plus the candles would drip.

Then Mr. Peterkin decided to have the parlor ceiling raised, to make room for the top of the tree. Not the entire parlor ceiling, (for daughter Elizabeth Eliza’s bedroom was above the parlor, and it would be awkward having no floor during alterations,) but just a ridge along the back of the room, where the tree would be placed.

When a carpenter was consulted, he suggested cutting off some of the tree at the lower end, but the family had already made up their minds to raise the parlor ceiling.

While the carpentry work was being done some family members attempted to make tree ornaments, and others went shopping for decorations, but no one ended up with much of anything.

At the last minute disaster was averted by the delivery of a large box of ornaments sent by the lady from Philadelphia, and the family ended up with a wonderful Christmas tree.

I am not always amused by stories about foolish people, but I liked the Peterkins, and their well-meaning ways. A few years later I obtained The St. Nicholas Anthology, and one of the stories collected from that children’s magazine was The Peterkins Celebrate the Fourth of July.

Over time I came across other Peterkin tales, and began to sort everyone out. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin was their grown daughter, Elizabeth Eliza, who was named after two aunts. The oldest son was Agamemnon, who had briefly attended several colleges. Next came Solomon John, who liked to make things. And lastly were the little boys – there were either two or three of them (one story says three, another mentions “both” of the boys). Readers never learn their names, or much about them, other than that they often wore India rubber boots.

The family appears to have lived in a village, and often took the train to Boston. And they had a sensible friend – the lady from Philadelphia.

I attempted to learned something about the author, Lucrecia P. Hale, who lived from 1820 to 1900. She was from a distinguished Boston family. Her father had been named after his uncle, Nathan Hale, the patriot who’d declared “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Her mother was the sister of orator Edward Everett, the main speaker at the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery. (After Mr. Everett spoke for more than two hours President Lincoln gave his brief Gettysburg Address, which began “Four score and seven years ago…)

Several of Miss Hale’s ten siblings were authors; her brother Edward Everett Hale wrote The Man Without a Country.

Miss Hale had a great interest in education, and was one of the first six women elected to the Boston School Committee. She was a prolific writer, whose published work includes many novels, books on religious subjects, and on the art of needlework.

In 1868 her story The Lady Who Put Salt In Her Coffee was published in the children’s magazine Our Young Folks. That was the first of dozens of stories about the foolish Peterkin family. I wonder if Miss Hale would be pleased or annoyed if she knew that only her silly stories were now remembered. I hope she enjoyed writing them – and that they amused her highly-educated Boston family.

Every so often I read another Peterkin story, and enjoy most of them, though I find a few too ridiculous to have any charm for me. And I’ve learned that Peterkin stories are like rich deserts – too much at one time doesn’t agree with me.

So I take them one story now and then, and I learn what to do if the delivery men bring in a piano and set it up against a window, with the back facing the middle of the room. You open up the window, take the piano stool out onto the piazza (porch) and play your music through the window. When cold weather sets in this method of music making becomes uncomfortable, but fortunately the lady from Philadelphia comes up with a solution to the problem …

If you’d like to get to know the Peterkin family you can download The Peterkin Papers free of charge at:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25648/25648-h/25648-h.ht

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