The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

When I was a little girl I didn’t know this book had existed long before the Judy Garland movie came into being. Later on I learned that L Frank Baum wrote fourteen Land of Oz books, but only recently did I read the first of the series. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the movie or read this novel I tell the ending, plus major plot twists.)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published in 1900, has sold over three million copies, but I wonder if it has many fans in Kansas, for the author portrayed it as such a dismal place it seemed odd that Dorothy was so interested in returning there. Baum and his family lived in the Dakota Territory during the drought years of 1888 through 1891, and he apparently based his main character’s home on what he’d experienced in another part of the country when there wasn’t enough rain.

Dorothy was a girl who lived with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em on the gray Kansas prairie. The plowed fields were sun-baked and gray, the grass was dry and gray, and the one-room farm house was weather-beaten and gray. Even Dorothy’s relatives were gaunt and gray.

Uncle Henry worked from early morning until nighttime and didn’t know what joy was. Whenever Aunt Em heard Dorothy laugh it would startle her, for she’d stopped being cheerful soon after marrying and coming to live on the prairie. Dorothy had a playful little dog named Toto, and he kept the girl from becoming as gray and unhappy as everyone else.

One day Uncle Henry called out that a cyclone was coming, and while he ran to look after the stock Aunt Em ordered Dorothy into the storm cellar. But Toto became frightened and hid under a bed, and Dorothy went to rescue her dog before following her aunt to safety. Before she could get to the cellar’s trap door high winds whirled the house around and slowly began to lift it into the air.

The house rose higher and higher and began to sway back and forth. This went on for hours and Dorothy grew weary, so she went to her bed, fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until the cyclone set the house down in the middle of a beautiful green meadow.

Dorothy stood in the open doorway and saw a group of short, oddly-dressed people coming towards her. A woman – who turned out to be the Witch of the North – bowed, welcomed her to the land of the Munchkins, and thanked her for killing the Wicked Witch of the East by having her house land on top of her. And, sure enough, two feet shod in silver shoes could be seen sticking out from beneath the corner of the building.

She was told that Oz had had four witches. Two were good and two were wicked, and since Dorothy had just killed one of the bad ones there was now only one wicked witch remaining. Dorothy said she needed to return to Kansas, and was advised to travel along a yellow brick road to the City of Emeralds and then go to see the Great Wizard. The Witch of the North could not travel with her, but kissed her on the forehead, which left a mark that would give her protection. Since the deceased witch had turned to dust Dorothy was given her silver shoes, and was told they were charmed, though no one knew what the charm was.

Dorothy’s regular shoes were nearly worn out so she put on the silver ones, and then she and Toto began walking to the City of Emeralds. Along the way she met up with three companions who also decided to travel to see the Wizard and ask for his help.

First she met up with a Scarecrow who wanted brains, but whenever Dorothy and her friends found themselves in danger most of the practical suggestions came from Scarecrow, so he seemed to be doing pretty well with a head filled with straw.

The second companion was a Tin Woodman who wanted a heart. He’d had one back when he was a flesh-and-blood human, before the Wicked Witch of the East worked an enchantment on him. (The Witch had been paid two sheep and a cow to prevent the Woodman from marrying the Munchkin he loved.)

The third companion was a Cowardly Lion who wanted courage, though he tended to be brave during times of danger, even after admitting he was frightened.

After many adventures Dorothy and her companions arrived at the City of Emeralds, and after a night’s rest Dorothy received a private audience with the Great Oz, a/k/a the Wizard, who appeared to her as a giant head. When she requested to be sent back to Kansas she was told she must first go to the land of the Winkies and kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Since the girl had never willingly killed anyone she began to weep, and felt there was no hope of her returning to her family.

The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion all received private audiences with the Wizard, who appeared to each of them in a different form. All asked for what they wanted, and all received the same answer – until the Wicked Witch of the West was killed no requests would be granted. And so the group set off on a witch hunt.

The Wicked Witch saw the group coming and tried to kill them with wolves, followed by crows, then bees, and lastly enslaved Winkies, but Dorothy’s friends were able to defeat all attackers. As a last resort the Wicked Witch decided to send out the dreaded Winged Monkeys. Anyone who owned a charmed Golden Cap could give the Winged Monkeys three commands which they had to obey, and the Witch had already used up two of her commands. This was a witch who really hated unexpected visitors.

Fortunately Winged Monkeys know you don’t mess with a girl who has the protective mark of the good Witch of the North on her forehead, so after many days of imprisonment Dorothy was able to accidently kill the last of Oz’s Wicked Witches. As she and her companions got ready to return to see the Great Wizard Dorothy found the Golden Cap in the cupboard, thought it was pretty, and decided to wear it. The cap turned out to be a good fashion accessory to take with her.

With help from the Winged Monkeys the companions safely arrived back at the City of Emeralds, but – alas – the Great Wizard turned out to be the Great Humbug, with no special powers to grant requests. How would Dorothy ever get back to Kansas? One of the locals suggested she go and see Glinda, the good Witch of the South. Should any little girl have to deal with four witches in one short book? If a cyclone carries her to Oz, then the answer is yes.

There were more adventures, more help from the Winged Monkeys, and one more encounter with a witch. A very kind and good witch who explained there is nothing like a pair of charmed silver shoes to get you and your dog back home again.

The book has a happy ending, with Dorothy’s normally-glum Aunt Em actually expressing emotion when her beloved niece returns to live in the brand new farmhouse built after the cyclone. And Dorothy exclaims that she was glad to be home again.

Since I’d seen the 1939 MGM musical I kept comparing L. Frank Baum’s original story to the Hollywood version and found the book to be of average interest. When the Wizard of Oz turned out to have no special powers I knew Dorothy would eventually get back to Kansas, and so found her last round of adventures a bit annoying. But all in all I found the book to be a quick read, for the adventures kept my interest enough to want to know what happened next.

If you’d like to read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz it can be downloaded free of charge at:


The Secret Garden

Mary Lennox was born in India to a beautiful lady who loved attending parties, and who ignored her only child. When Mary “was a sickly, fretful, ugly little baby she was kept out of the way, and when she became a sickly, fretful, toddling thing she was kept out of the way also.” She grew up bullying and insulting her native servants, who had to make sure she didn’t make a fuss and disturb her mother or father.

When Mary was nine years old a cholera outbreak killed her parents and some of the servants, and the survivors ran off without giving a thought to the surly child left behind. After being alone for a couple of days two army officers found her, and arrangements were made for her to be sent to an uncle in England.

Archibald Craven was the owner of Misselthwaite Manor, an estate by the edge of the moor. His home had about a hundred rooms, but most were closed off, with no one ever entering them. Mary’s uncle was a sad, rather disagreeable man who spent most of his time traveling. He had no interest in the orphan left in his care, beyond seeing that she be given food, clothing, and a bedroom and sitting room to stay in.

Mary wasn’t upset that her uncle refused to see her before he left on his latest trip, for no relative had ever paid attention to her, and no one had ever show her affection. What did upset her was learning that English servants wouldn’t let her have her own way. A stern housekeeper named Mrs. Medlock informed Mary that she had to stay within her rooms unless she chose to go outside and walk along the garden paths. She’d arrived during chilly early spring so the sickly girl, raised in a sweltering climate, did not want to go outside.

A girl named Martha was assigned to be the housemaid who brought Mary her meals and cleaned her rooms. She was not a servile servant – she didn’t bow or call her “protector of the poor” as the Indian servants had, but Mary liked listening to Martha’s Yorkshire accent, and became interested in stories about the girl’s family, especially her brother Dickon, who could tame wild animals and make any plant grow and thrive.

She told about Mary’s Uncle Archibald Craven, a hunchback who’d married a kind and beautiful lady who’d spent much of her time in a walled flower garden. About ten years earlier Mrs. Craven was killed in an accident, and Mr. Craven locked the garden door, buried the key, and ordered that no one was to ever again enter his wife’s favorite garden. Mary now had a reason to take walks outside, for she was determined to find the secret, hidden garden.

Friendly, good-hearted Martha enjoyed talking to Mary, and for a time answered all of her questions. But one rainy day Mary heard what sounded like a child crying, and when she asked Martha about it she was told it was just the wind blowing.

On another rainy day Mary decided to walk down one of the long corridors and explore the content of some of the one hundred unused rooms. She ended up walking down many hallways and up a stairway, and once again heard a child crying. She tried to locate the source of the sound, but came upon Mrs. Medlock, who grabbed hold of her arm, and said that if she ever again went where she was told not go she’d be locked inside of her rooms. Mary was not used to being told she couldn’t do something, and was determined to learn the secrets of Misselthwaite Manor.

She began walking amongst the many walled vegetable and flower gardens, and discovered ivy-covered walls that seemed to have no door. Because a dog had dug a hole she found an old key, and a few days later located a door hidden under the ivy, and was able to go inside the secret garden. It was still early spring, and she didn’t know if the bare rose bushes were dead or alive, or if any flowering plants had survived years of neglect, but she longed to bring the garden back to life.

Mary was given spending money each week, so after saying she’d like to grow a garden she and Martha wrote a letter to Dickon, asking him to purchase gardening tools and some easy-to-grow flower seeds. When Dickon came to deliver the items Mary showed him the secret garden she had “stolen.” He assured her that the rose bushes were still alive, and promised to come and help her tend the garden when he wasn’t needed at home.

After that Mary spent much of her time in the secret garden, though she let others believe she was only walking about or skipping rope. Never before had she been outside working, and she’d never had a friend to talk with until her time with Dickon. The sickly disagreeable girl was becoming healthy, and she was beginning to learn how to be kind to others.

Soon after finding the garden Mary was awakened in the night by the sound of crying, and she took her bedside candle and set out to find who was so unhappy. By following the sound she came to a room, went inside and saw a frail boy crying. His name was Colin, and he was the son of Archibald Craven, which made him Mary’s cousin.

Colin and Mary were both astonished to learn another child lived in the manor house. When asked if he had to stay shut up in his room Colin said that he hated going outside or having anyone look at him because he was a cripple who would soon die. Mary inquired if she should leave and Colin said he would like to talk with her.

The boy said his father hated him because his mother died when he was born and Mary blurted out a comment about that was why the garden had been locked. Colin began asking about the locked garden, so Mary said she had heard of it. When Colin became excited and declared he would order the servants to take him there Mary was afraid she would loose her special haven, and said it would be best to keep it a wonderful secret, and that she would go out each day looking for it.

Mary enjoyed visits with Colin, but he was not as important to her as her time working in the garden with Dickon. She skipped a planned time to be with Colin, and the boy threw a tantrum that frightened the servants. But the two cousins were both spoiled tyrants, and instead of giving in to Colin’s demands she engaged him in a shouting match, which turned out to be good for him in the long run, but first brought on a health crisis.

Late at night Mary was awakened by hysterical screaming loud enough to be heard throughout the vast house, and after a time Mary was sent for when the adults – including the trained nurse – could do nothing to stop Colin’s lengthy fit. Mary went into the room with her own angry tantrum, and when the startled boy confided his secret health fears to her, a truce of trust was formed.

After the adults left the room, Mary said she was sure she would soon find the secret garden, and Colin declared he wanted to go outside with Mary and Dickon and see the garden his mother had loved.

Soon Misselthwaite Manor had a new secret. Colin was sure that time in the garden would heal him, but he didn’t want anyone to know he was getting stronger. His dream was to wait until his father returned home, when he would walk up to him and show Mr. Craven he had a strong healthy son he needn’t be ashamed of.

If you’ve never read The Secret Garden you may know the story, for there have been several movies based on the novel. I’ve seen a couple of the films, but they left out parts, or added things I hated. Hallmark Hall of Fame did a lavish production, but set the story as a flashback, and viewers learn Dickon was killed during the first World War. No, no, no! The novel was first published in 1911, and I want no “made up” deaths that take place after the events of the story.

I’ve read the novel several times, and though there are a few “magical” and / or coincidental elements (how convenient that a stray dog happened to dig up the buried key) I find everything believable when I’m caught up in the wonder of the story about two bad-tempered neglected children, a splendid wonder-gardener boy, and the health-giving benefits of hard work to bring beauty to an imprisoned flower garden.
I highly recommend The Secret Garden, which can be downloaded free of charge at:

The Paddington Books

In 1958 a book was published that told of Mr. and Mrs. Brown going to London’s Paddington station to meet their daughter, who was coming home from school. At a crowded railway platform they noticed a small bear wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sitting on a battered suitcase. Around the bear’s neck hung a label that read: PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR. THANK YOU.

They questioned the well-mannered bear and learned he was from Darkest Peru. He had been raised by his Aunt Lucy, but when she had to go to the home for retired bears she told him to emigrate to England, which he did by stowing away in a ship’s lifeboat. (It was never explained how he ended up at a combination railway and London Underground terminal.)

Mrs. Brown convinced her reluctant husband they needed to let the poor bear stay with them. The young bear informed her that no can understand his Peruvian name, so she gave him the name Paddington, after the station where he’d been found.

The family soon learned Paddington was a good-natured and polite bear who wanted to do be helpful, but Darkest Peru is much different than London, and he kept getting into situations he’d never experienced before. When Mrs. Brown went off to meet her daughter’s train her husband bought hungry Paddington a cup of tea and a bun. Alas, Mr. Brown wasn’t familiar with the ways of bears, so he chose a large cream and jam bun, which Paddington ate by standing on the tabletop and getting sticky filling all over his whiskers and fur.

When the bear arrived at his new home he was told he needed a bath, but modern plumbing is confusing when you were used to bathing by sitting in a puddle. He filled the bathtub nearly to overflowing, and after getting into the tub was afraid he’d drown, so he used his hat to bail out some of the water. Oh dear, that made a bit of a mess …

Paddington was taken to a large department store and discovered all kinds of ways to accidently get into trouble. Fortunately most people understood he wasn’t trying to misbehave. (The few who thought themselves too important to bother about the bear’s problems received a certain hard stare – learned from Aunt Lucy – that made the most hoity-toity person squirm.)

He preferred the small shops in his own neighborhood, and turned out to be a shrewd shopper when he was sent out to run errands for the Brown family. His favorite shopkeeper was Mr. Gruber, who had a second-hand store, and would sometimes acquire valuable antiques. Paddington became good friends with Mr. Gruber, and got into the habit of sharing “elevenses” with him – a cup of cocoa and a bun at eleven in the morning.

Mr. Gruber taught his friend about antiques, but Paddington didn’t always listen well enough to the story he was being told. Once Mr. Gruber said that in the past a poor artist might reuse an old canvas by painting a picture over top of another one, and sometimes the hidden painting had been painted by an artist who became famous.

At the Brown’s house a painting was being stored in a canvas bag, and Paddington meant no harm when he decided to remove some of the paint in search of a hidden picture. Then he tried to cover up the damage with random strokes of bright paint, not knowing that Mr. Brown had painted the picture, and it was an entry into a local art show. It’s a good thing some judges like modern art …

Author Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington sold well, and so he wrote other Paddington novels. Over time the chapter books were joined by Paddington toys, a British television series, and short picture books based on television episodes. Two recent movies have been popular.

The last new Paddington book was published in 2017, shortly before Michael Bond’s death. Not many book series have the same author producing new stories for 59 years!

If you’d like to read any of Paddington Brown’s adventures the books are still in print. And since over 30 million Paddington books have been sold it shouldn’t be hard to purchase used volumes.

I own a few of the novels, and when everyday life seems a bit overwhelming I take a short vacation by seeing what the small bear from Darkest Peru is up to at 32 Windsor Gardens, near the Portobello Road market. There are always some good-deeds-gone-awry there, but everything turns out well in the end.

Adrift In New York

When reading Horatio Alger’s Adrift In New York, or Tom and Florence Braving the World I can imagine the story being performed on stage by a Victorian-era touring company, with the actor playing the villain twirling the end of his mustache as he speaks his caddish thoughts out loud.
Here is the reader’s introduction to Curtis Waring: “He was a tall, dark-complexioned man, of perhaps thirty-five, with shifty, black eyes and thin lips, shaded by a dark mustache. It was not a face to trust.” There was nothing subtle about Alger’s character descriptions.
In the first chapter wealthy-but-ailing John Linden speaks to his niece, Florence, about the loss of his son, who was “abducted at the age of four by a revengeful servant whom I had discharged from my employment.” If the son was still alive he would be eighteen years old.
When Curtis Waring (Florence’s cousin and John Linden’s nephew) comes into the room Linden tells his relatives that he has two wills locked in a desk. One will leaves his estate to his son, and the other leaves everything to Florence and Curtis if they marry each other. Curtis is agreeable to the marriage for “so far as he was capable of loving anyone, he loved his fair young cousin.” However Florence informs the cad that she’d rather live in poverty “then become the wife of one I loathe.”
In the next chapter we learn that Tim Bolton, the former revengeful servant, had been paid by Curtis to abduct Uncle John’s son and take him out of the country, but Bolton and the boy have now returned from Australia and are running a saloon in the Bowery. Curtis hires Bolton to break into the house and steal the wills from the locked desk.
Soon after that Florence’s Uncle John informs her she has twenty-four hours to agree to marry Curtis, or else he’d send her away penniless. She then sits at a table writing her uncle a good-bye letter until sobbing herself to sleep. While she slept a young man wearing tattered clothes comes through the window and opens the locked desk. When Florence wakes up and asks the youth what he was doing, he apologizes and says he came to steal something because the man who claimed to be his father told him to, but he didn’t want to be a thief.
Florence tells the young man, whose name is Tom Dodger, that he should give up bad company and live an honest life, and informs him she will soon be homeless. Tom promises to obtain honest work, find a respectable rented room for her to stay in, and look after her as though she were his sister. Florence is sure the young house-breaker is trustworthy, and agrees to let Tom take care of her.
Tom and Florence both rent separate rooms at the run-down lodging house run by Mrs. O’Keefe, a widow who has an apple stand. Florence is able to find work as a part-time governess, teaching a wealthy girl each morning. Tom begins selling newspapers by the North River piers, and sometimes finding addition work carrying luggage for passengers getting off the boats. During the evenings Florence gives lessons to Tom, who’d only had a few years of schooling.
All goes well for a few weeks, but then villainous Curtis Waring kidnaps and drugs Tom, and has him driven to a ship which will take four to six months to travel to San Francisco. Tom’s passage has been paid for, and a satchel of clothes provided. (A few chapters later readers are informed that railroads allow travelers to cross the country in no time at all, so I’m not sure if there would be much call for ships to take on passengers during a half-a-year voyage to California. Perhaps ship staterooms were mostly occupied by rightful heirs who had to be kept out of the way for long periods of time.)
The good news is that once Tom arrives in San Francisco he obtains a well-paying job. The bad news is that Florence sends him a letter stating she had lost her teaching job and is reduced to sewing all day long for just a few cents a day.
One evening after work Tom meets a poor woman with a little boy, who are about to be evicted from their rented room. He buys the forlorn mother and child a restaurant meal, and learns the woman is Mrs. Curtis Waring. Well now, if that stubborn John Linden could learn that there is an excellent reason why he mustn’t insist that Florence marry her cousin Curtis, surely he would take Florence back into his home, so she doesn’t have to be working herself to death. But it would take many month’s salary to purchase three cross-country railroad tickets for himself and Curtis Waring’s abandoned family.
Poor Tom seems to be faced with an insurmountable problem. Fortunately his story was written by an author who never hesitated to hurry the plot along with outlandish coincidences…
Adrift in New York was first published in 1900, one year after Horatio Alger’s death, so it is possible that the book was partially written by Edward Stratemeyer, who had been chosen to complete Alger’s unfinished manuscripts. (See my October 2017 post for more on Stratemeyer.) No matter who wrote the novel there is much to keep it off my list of all-time favorite books. I suspect the author placed speed-of-writing over literary excellence, and the plot does not pass the most basic “it is reasonable to assume this might happen” test.
However the book has one important factor in it’s favor – it is an enjoyable read. I may roll my eyes and snicker over plot developments, but I keep reading because I want to know what happens next. Even during a reread, when I know what will happen, I keep reading just because I’m having a good time revisiting Florence and Tom’s troubles.
If you’d like to spend a few hours reading Adrift in New York, it can be downloaded free of charge at:

Charlotte’s Web

I believe I was a junior high student when I first read Charlotte’s Web and, though I remembered the basic gist of the story, I couldn’t recall if I liked it or not. When I recently came upon a battered paperback copy of E. B. White’s famous novel I was at first reluctant to reread it, for I knew there were sad parts. But I reminded myself that I’ve survived reading many sad stories, so I decided to see if my grown up self liked the book.

One morning eight-year-old Fern learns that her father, Mr. Arable, planned to kill the runt of a litter of pigs. She pleaded with him to spare the pig’s life, so he agreed to allow her to care for the animal. When Fern’s older brother learns his sister was given a pig he asked if he could have one as well, but his father tells him that only early risers get presents. “Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result, she now has a pig.”

Fern loved her pig, and named him Wilbur. She’d warm milk for Wilbur, tie on his bib, and hold the bottle for him. When he grew a little older Wilbur would follow Fern all around the farm. But when the pig was five weeks old Mr. Arable said that Wilbur had to be sold, so arrangements were made to sell him to Fern’s Uncle Homer Zuckerman.

Wilbur’s new home was in the lower part of Mr. Zuckerman’s barn, and Fern came almost everyday to visit him. She sat so quietly on an old milking stool next to Wilbur’s pen that the geese and sheep learned to trust her, and in time Fern understood the conversations the animals had with each other. Sometimes Fern told her parents what the animals had to say, and that worried her mother, who informed her that animals could not talk. However her father suggested that their adult ears might not hear what their daughter could hear.

Wilbur enjoyed Fern’s visits, but she wasn’t there during most of the day and he grew lonely. He wanted a friend who could always be nearby.

One day a spider by the name of Charlotte A. Cavatica said she would be his friend, and that made Wilbur happy – until he learned Charlotte trapped, killed and ate flies, which seemed quite blood-thristy to the young pig. But Charlotte explained that while Wilbur had his food brought to him spiders had to work for their food. Plus, if it wasn’t for spiders eatings flies and bugs the insects would multiply and take over the earth. That made sense to Wilbur, and he began to focus on the good qualities of his new friend.

Summer came, and Wilbur was enjoying his life until one of the sheep informed him he was being fattened up to be killed and eaten. Wilbur began to scream and cry, but Charlotte told him that she would not let him be harmed.

One evening Charlotte tore a large section out of the middle of her web and began to weave something new. The next morning, when the farm hand came to feed Wilbur, he saw a message had been woven into the spider web: SOME PIG.

The farm hand rushed off to get Mr. Zuckerman, who drove to his minister’s house to tell him about the miracle on his farm. Even before the minister was able to preach a sermon on the meaning of the miracle folks from all parts of the county were coming to see Wilbur and the remarkable spider web.

Charlotte held meetings with the other barnyard animals (including an unpleasant rat named Templeton) to discuss new messages she could weave, and in time her web proclaimed that Wilbur was TERRIFIC, and then RADIANT.

Mr. Zuckerman decided to take Wilbur to the county fair so that more people could see his wonderful pig, and Wilbur found out he would not be killed. However, Wilbur’s troubles weren’t over, for spiders don’t live as long as pigs who aren’t turned into ham and bacon, and little girls grow up and find new interests.

Would Wilbur be left with no friends to keep him company? And if he does find new friends, could they ever mean as much to him as his beloved Charlotte?

When I first read Charlotte’s Web I may have considered it to be a book about talking farm animals, but now I see it as a story about friendship. Since my first reading of the novel I’ve lost friends through death, and through the gradual realization that we no longer share the same interests. Plus I’ve met up with folks who were as silly or annoying as many of the sheep and geese that shared Wilbur’s barn – folks that meant well and who can be classified as friends. And, alas, I’ve lived or worked around people as self-serving as Templeton the rat, and even they can be of use if you meet their terms.

I enjoyed my time reading about Wilbur and his world, especially since I’ve had the honor of meeting many fine people who share my love of creating stories. I can relate to Wilbur’s bittersweet acceptance that he will never love any of his new friends as much as he loved Charlotte. At the end of the book the reader learns: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” I can attest to the importance of those virtues!

If you would like to read Charlotte’s Web you should be able to find it at a public library, or from many booksellers.

Bobby In Movieland

Recently I learned of a Jesuit priest named Francis J. Finn who’d written Horatio Alger style adventure books from the 1890s through the 1920s. His most famous stories were novels about Tom Playfair, who attended St. Maure’s School. I wasn’t able to find any of that series, so I’ll be reviewing Fr. Finn’s Bobby In Movieland, published by Benziger Brothers in 1921.

Eight-year-old Bobby Vernon and his widowed mother were making their first visit to California. Bobby and his new friend, Peggy Sansone – they’d met on the Pullman railroad car – wanted to go wading in the ocean by Long Beach, and Mrs. Vernon gave her permission if they promised to return to the railroad station in half-an-hour, for they were traveling to see a relative who might help Mrs. Vernon pay a debt.

Alas, Bobby ventured further out into the water than he should have, and then – double alas – a high “roller” wave rushed over him and pushed him under water and then out to sea. Peggy rushed back to her mother, just as the train was about to leave the station. The girl was too upset to notice the small earthquake tremor that terrified those who were new to the Los Angeles area. The train was moving when Mrs. Vernon learned that her son probably drowned, and the porter told her it would be best to go on to the next station, and see if there was a telegram waiting for her.

Fortunately the book’s hero did not die in the first chapter. A former lifeguard rescued Bobby, then left to get the boy some brandy. (Gasp – and this during Prohibition!) Bobby put on his shoes, and just as memories of his near drowning came back to him he felt the earthquake tremor. Panic stricken, he began running out onto a highway.

Bobby was nearly hit by an auto driven by John Compton, a “promising comedian” recently hired by a moving-picture company to star in silent movies. Compton stopped his auto, and ran back to see if the boy was hurt. He soon learned the boy’s entire history, including Bobby’s mother’s maiden name. In later chapters I learned that Compton had once courted Bobby’s mother, but she had broken up with him because he was a non-believer.

Compton promised to take care of Bobby until he could be reunited with his mother. He promptly sent off a telegram to the train station
the widowed Mrs. Vernon was headed towards but – alas once more – so many frightened visitors rushed to send off wires that the telegraph company was overwhelmed with work, and John Compton’s message didn’t arrive in time to be delivered.

Compton had to return to his studio, and he took Bobby along. The boy followed the rules about staying out of the way of those working on the movie, but he was a born mimic, and amused himself by taking on the movements and facial expressions of the actors. And when the director gave instructions to an uninspired youth on how to act out a scene Bobby followed directions better than the paid actor, and put on an fine show out of camera range.

Soon everyone on the set knew that Bobby was a gifted actor, and he was given a part in the film. Bobby loved working in movies, staying with his “uncle” John Compton, and learning that Peggy Sansone – the girl he’d gone wading with – was an actress at the same studio he worked at.

Bobby was living near a Catholic church and loved to go inside to pray. Compton went in with him, though he didn’t know just what was required within church walls. Bobby gave him little catechism lessons, and soon the temporary uncle became interested in the faith of his young ward.

The boy was almost always cheerful, but when night came he missed his mother. Each evening Compton checked on Bobby after the boy had been sent to bed, saw tears on his face, and knew Bobby had cried himself to sleep.

What had happened to Mrs. Vernon? She got off at her destination, but found no telegram waiting for her. She made inquiries about the relative she’d come to see, and learned the man had recently died in poverty.

The train had left, so she prayed for guidance. Five minutes later a man with two children came up to her, and said his wife would die if he didn’t find a nurse to give her around-the-clock care. Mrs. Vernon declared that she’d attended nursing school, and was hired on the spot to go out to a ranch and care for the gravely ill wife and mother.

Caring for the woman helped Mrs. Vernon forget her own troubles, and she grew to love the family’s two children. But if she’s off living on an isolated ranch, will she learn anything about the wonderful new child movie star? Will the private investigators hired by John Compton be able to find her? And if she is reunited with her son, what will she think of his guardian, who’s now becoming interested in the Catholic church? You know, the man who once courted her, but who’s lack of faith doomed their romance.

I’ll let you know that the novel has a happy ending. Though I wouldn’t rank Fr. Finn as a first class writer, I found the book an enjoyable read. Bobby is a good boy, but he’s not perfect, so doesn’t come off as annoyingly pious. Other likable characters “reform” their mildly naughty habits in ways that come across as plausible.

Catechism lessons are given, but they only take up a couple of sentences at a time. However, the book was written for an audience of Catholic children, and has a religious slant that some may not appreciate.

If you’d like to know more about Bobby, Mrs. Vernon, John Compton, and how silent moving-pictures may have been made in 1921 Bobby In Movieland can be downloaded, free of charge at:

Little Orphan Mary Alice

Once upon a time portions of a girl’s life was memorialized in a famous poem. Later on –– due to a typesetter’s error – her misspelled name was used as the moniker of two iconic fictional characters.

Mary Alice Smith was born in Union County, Indiana on September 25, 1850. Legend has it that she became an orphan at age twelve, when her father died, but recent research suggests her father either would not or could not care for his daughter. Whether or not she was an orphan, it became necessary for young Mary Alice to find a local family to take her in so she could work to earn her board and keep.

Fortunately she went to stay at the farm of Reuben Riley, where she was treated well. Mary Alice, who was called Allie, was assigned kitchen chores, plus she helped care for the family’s four children. During the evening hours she’d sit by the fireplace and entertain the family with stories about ghosts and goblins. She told moral tales, warning about the bad things that happen to children who don’t obey their parents.

One of the children Allie cared for grew up to be a writer who specialized in dialect poetry, written to mimic the way rural Hoosier (Indiana) residents spoke. In 1885 James Whitcomb Riley published a poem entitled The Elf Child, about an “orphant” girl who came to “wash the cups an’ saucers, an’ brush the crumbs away.” After the supper dishes were done the girl would tell witch-tales and declare that “the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!”

When the poem was to be republished in a book Riley changed the title to Little Orphant Allie, but, though the typesetter had no trouble with Riley’s spelling of “orphant” or “Gobble-uns,” “Allie” was too much for him. He felt the girl’s name was misspelled, so he changed the poem’s title to Little Orphant Annie. The error upset Riley, who demanded a correction in future printings, but he was told the book was selling well, and changing the name of a popular poem would cause confusion, so Riley resigned himself to his heroine having the wrong name.

In about 1915 another Hoosier writer by the name of Johnny Gruelle came upon an old handmade rag doll which became the inspiration for a manufactured toy, plus a series of children’s stories. He needed a name for his doll character, so he picked up a volume of James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry and combined parts of two poem titles, The Raggedy Man and Little Orphant Annie, to create the name of Raggedy Ann.

in 1924 a cartoonist created a comic strip about an orphan girl. That orphan didn’t live with a farm family – she started out in an orphanage, and ended up having adventures in all parts of the world. For some reason the comic strip was titled Little Orphan Annie.

You may wonder what became of the real “orphant Allie” who went to live with the Riley family. in 1868 eighteen-year-old Mary Alice Smith married John Wesley Gray, and spent the next 54 years as a farmer’s wife. She lived in a cabin, and gave birth to four daughters.

For many years she was not aware that her story was told in Riley’s poem. How she found out depends on what story you read. One version has it that Riley’s secretary came to her home and told her. Another story is that Riley came to visit her, and invited her to take part in one of his speaking / poetry-reading tours. And one story has it that, shortly before Riley died in 1916, he placed newspaper ads seeking the whereabouts of the girl who had come to stay with his family. Mrs. March, one of Mary Alice Gray’s daughters, saw one of the ads and wrote to the poet, but due to his poor health Riley was unable to be reunited with Mrs. Gray.

However it was that Mary Alice Gray learned she had been the inspiration for Little Orphant Annie the knowledge pleased her, and she was proud of her connection with the former local boy who became famous. On October 7, 1922 she took part in laying the corner stone of the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

Mrs. Gray outlived three of her daughters, and when her husband died in 1922 she went to stay with her one remaining daughter, Mrs. Marsh. She passed away in her sleep on March 7, 1924, at the age of 73. Newspapers across the country reported that Little Orphant Annie had died. Six months after her death the comic strip Little Orphan Annie began its 86-year run. (The comic was created by Harold Gray, who was not related to Mary Alice Gray.)

If you would like to read the poem about an orphan girl who helps with kitchen chores and tells stories about goblins, you can download it free of charge at:

(There’s a poem about the poem before you get to Little Orphant Annie.)

The Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, when most people were poor and illiterate, a common form of entertainment was listening to storytellers share tales that had first been told countless generations earlier.

A few centuries ago interest in memorizing long-ago tales began to wane, so scholars decided to write them down before the last of the storytellers died. The most famous compilers of folk tales were the Brothers Grimm, who may not have planned on their story collection being children’s entertainment.

Jacob Grimm (1785 – 1863) and his brother Wilhelm (1786 – 1859) were born in – I hope I’ve got this right – the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, which was within the Kingdom of Germany, which was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. They were the eldest sons of the family’s six children who had not died in infancy.

Their father, Philipp Grimm, worked in the field of law, and the brothers’ early years were spent in a large country home. Education was a high priority, and they were taught by private tutors.

When Philipp Grimm died in 1796 the family had to move to a small house and get by on meager support from the mother’s extended family. A maternal aunt paid for Jacob and Wilhelm to attend the University of Marburg, but little assistance was provided beyond the cost of their tuition.

The young men were ostracized by fellow students due to their low social-status, but that helped them excel in their classes, for there were no outside distractions. They depended on each other for friendship and encouragement, and their close bond would last throughout their lives.

Jacob was the more scholarly and quiet brother, habitually working long hours without a break, and interested in most subjects that came to his attention. Wilhelm was outgoing and, though hard-working, was more easily distracted. He had few interests outside of his chosen fields of study. A childhood illness left him in poor health.

The brothers studied law, but became interested in history and literature. Throughout their adult lives they longed for a unified Germany. After the Holy Roman Empire ended in 1806 Germany consisted of dozens of states, each with a succession of rulers. The Brothers Grimm felt that the German national identity could be found in popular culture. Their interest in collecting and preserving folk tales was connected with their interest in unifying their country.

When Jacob first left school he – as the eldest son – was financially responsible for his impoverished family, so he took whatever work was available. He strove to keep his siblings from going hungry, and paid for his youngest brother to attend art school. Later on both Jacob and Wilhelm worked as librarians for many years. The pay was modest, but allowed them time to conduct their research.

Their first collection of folk tales was published in 1812. It’s not known who chose the dubious title of Children’s and Household Tales. The book drew criticism, for many families bought it to read to their children, though much of the content was not suitable for young ones.

For example, in the original version of Rapunzel the witch discovered the imprisoned damsel was being visited by a prince when Rapunzel’s expanding waistline showed that she was with child. One tale was about family members killing each other. There was no hero, and no happy ending.

The collection would go through seven editions, and with each one the stories were rewritten to make them more child-friendly. Some stories were eliminated. In those that remained babies weren’t born until nine months after the wedding, and evil mothers became evil step-mothers. The level of violence didn’t decrease, but painful deaths were usually reserved as punishment for the villains.

In 1825 40-year-old Wilhelm married Henriette Dorothea Wild, who had supplied the brothers with some of their folk tales. Jacob continued to live with Wilhelm and his family, which included three children who survived infancy.

The brothers wrote numerous books. Jacob did much of the work on the two-volume German Legends, which were based on stories of actual people and events. He also published 8th and 9th century German poems and songs, and translated folk tales from several European countries. (He could read about a dozen languages.)

Wilhelm took over most of the work on what would come to be known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and he edited such stories as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White into the written form that has come down to us through many generations.

The books provided academic recognition, but little extra income. For the most part they supported themselves and Wilhelm’s family on their salaries.

In about 1830 the brothers obtained employment at the University of Gottingen – Wilhelm as a professor, and Jacob as professor and head librarian. However, they lost their posts in 1837 after refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to King Ernest Augustus I, who was the ruler of the German state of Hanover.

During the time they were without employment the brothers moved to the German state of Hesse and began to work on what they hoped would be their masterpiece – a multi-volume German dictionary.

In 1840 the brothers obtained teaching posts at the University of Berlin, plus the Academy of Sciences offered them research stipends. With two steady sources of income Jacob and Wilhelm were able to live in middle-class comfort as they taught classes and published scholarly works. Wilhelm continued to rewrite Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The final revised edition was published in 1857.

After Wilhelm died in 1859, at the age of 73, Jacob became reclusive, spending his days working on his German dictionary. The elder brother died in 1863, at the age of 78, soon after writing the definition of the word “fruit.” Generations of scholars would continue to work on what would become a 32-volume dictionary, completed in 1960.

Since Grimms’ Fairy Tales did not become a best seller until after the brothers’ deaths it is unlikely that Jacob and Wilhelm imagined their project to preserve German culture would have such a lasting impact on the world. A billion copies of their rewritten traditional tales have been published in over 50 languages.

Stories that had been in danger of dying with the last oral storyteller have gone on to live happily ever after.

Gene Stratton-Porter a/k/a the Bird Lady

In past decades I would occasionally read the name Gene Stratton-Porter, and got the impression she’d written the type of old-fashioned novels that had gone out of style. When I decided to research her life I was surprised to learn she had plenty of “new-fashioned” ideas.

Geneva Grace Stratton was born August 17, 1863 on a farm in Indiana. She was the youngest of twelve children. As a child she developed an interest in nature, especially observing birds in their natural habitats.

When she was twelve years old her family moved to Wabash, Indiana, and when her mother died a few months later Geneva began boarding with various relatives until her marriage.

In 1885 Geneva became engaged to Charles Porter, who was thirteen years her elder. During their courtship she decided to shortened her first name, and when she married in 1886 she chose to keep her family name, so she became Gene Stratton-Porter. In 1887 she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Jeannette.

Charles Porter became a wealthy businessman, owning numerous farms, businesses and oil wells. He was often away on business trips, and Gene decided she wanted more out of life than to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. Plus, she wanted to earn her own income.

She loved exploring Limberlost Swamp, with its abundance of rare plants that provided both food and shelter for birds and moths. From 1888 to 1910 the 13,000 acre swamp was drained for use as farmland, and Gene began photographing the shrinking wetlands. She was especially interested in obtaining photos of birds, and would sometimes remain motionless for hours until she saw the perfect image to capture on film. She spent so much time in her photographic pursuits that she became known as the Bird Lady.

Gene began selling her photos to newspapers and magazines, and then began writing articles to go with the photos. She was able to earn money while educating the public on the importance of preserving wildlife habitats.

In time she began writing novels about people with an interest in nature, and when her fictional characters saw a moth, or a wildflower, or a bird of prey protecting its nest, she gave a full-blown naturalist’s description of what was seen. Modern readers might find Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels rather slow going, with frequent “nature talk” sections, but in the early 1900s her twelve novels sold by the millions.

Her most famous novels were set in the Limberlost Swamp. Freckles (1904) tells of a plucky orphan who’d had his right hand cut off soon after his birth. He finds work guarding two-thousand acres of leased timberland because the boss couldn’t provide a good answer to his question of: “But why wouldn’t that be the finest job in the world for me?”

A Girl of the Limberlost
(1909) tells of Elnora Comstock, who collects and sells rare moths to pay for her high school education. Her life was summed up in the first chapter: “Behind her lay the land on which she had been born to drudgery and a mother who made no pretense of loving her; before her lay the city through whose schools she hoped to find means of escape and the way to reach the things for which she cared.”

Both of the novels had a minor character called the Bird Lady, who was a wealthy nature photographer. Gee, Bird Lady was the nickname given to the wealthy nature photographer author …

Gene Stratton-Porter also published eight nature books which weren’t bestsellers, but earned her a reputation as a first-class naturalist. She became active in several conservation groups and fought to save wetlands, and protect animals in danger of becoming extinct.

By the late 1910s she had become so famous that uninvited fans would come to her Indiana home, which was called Cabin at Wildflower Woods. Some people would trespass onto her land. In 1919 Stratton-Porter moved to southern California – at least in part to regain some privacy. In 1920 her daughter and two grandchildren also moved to California. Mr. Porter remained in Indiana.

Movie producers began making films based on Stratton-Porter’s novels, but the author was unhappy that they strayed so far from her original story. In 1924 she became the first woman to create her own studio and production company. Unfortunately, Gene Stratton-Porter Productions made only two movies during her lifetime.

On December 6, 1924, at the age of 61, she was killed in an automobile accident, and buried at Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery. In 1999 her grandsons made arrangements to move the remains of their grandmother and mother for reburial on the grounds of the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site, near Rome City, Indiana. (Her husband, Charles Porter, who died in 1929, has always been buried in his hometown of Decatur, Indiana.)

Two of her Indiana homes are now open as house museums. The Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site contains her Cabin at Wildflower Woods, as well as about 150 acres of the former Limberlost Swamp, purchased by the state in several parcels. Much of the land is being restored to wetlands and prairie as a nature preserve. Perhaps Gene Stratton-Porter’s greatest legacy is that many people now share her belief that protecting nature’s flora and fauna has both environmental and economic benefits for the world at large.

If you’d like to read the Gene Stratton-Porter novels which have the Bird Lady as a character you can download (at no charge)
Freckles at
and A Girl of the Limberlost at

How Rudolph Came To Be

If you only know Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from the 1964 television special you don’t know what’s in the original children’s book. I’ll tell you the gist of that story, but not until you learn how the book came into being.

During the 1930s Montgomery Ward & Company was one of the country’s leading store chains, but what with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl many families had limited money to spend. To encourage Christmas shopping Wards gave away coloring books to those who came to their stores. In early 1939 the company decided to save money by creating and printing a small children’s book as their next Christmas promotional gift, and they asked 34-year-old Robert L. May to write an animal story in verse.

May was a copywriter who spent most of his workdays writing descriptions of products for Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogs, but he also wrote amusing rhymes that he shared with coworkers. He was a gentle man who liked helping others and, though his wife was dying of cancer, he agreed to write a Christmas story.

As a child May had been taunted for being a shy weakling, so he wanted to write about an outcast animal who triumphed in the end. He decided on a young reindeer who was teased and excluded from games because he had a big glowing red nose. He wrote and rewrote verses, which he read to his four-year-old daughter to see if she liked them.

It was slow going, because May had catalog deadlines to meet. When his wife died he was told the company could find someone else to write their giveaway book, but May said he wanted his book printed.

Summer came and he continued to work on his story about a lonely reindeer ridiculed because of his red nose. Rudolph tried to be a good reindeer, and always obeyed his parents, so he hoped Santa would bring him presents for Christmas. (Yes, Santa brings presents to all good animal children who happen to live in people-style houses, and sleep in people-style beds.)

Alas, it was such a foggy Christmas Eve that Santa had trouble guiding his sleigh, and he feared he wouldn’t finish his gift-giving rounds before morning. Then he stopped at a house and discovered a sleeping reindeer with a glowing nose. If he woke up that youngster and asked nicely, would the reindeer be willing to lead his sleigh through the fog? Spoiler alert – Rudolph helped out Santa.

May finished his story, showed it to his supervisors – and they rejected it. Drunkards were depicted as having big red noses, and Montgomery Ward did not want a book about a red-nosed reindeer. But May had worked through heartache to write his tale, and he believed children would like it. He had an artist make some drawings of a lovable young reindeer with a shiny red nose, and convinced those in charge to allow the book to be printed.

During the 1939 Christmas shopping season Montgomery Ward gave away more than two million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and nary a person associated that red nose with hard drinking. No books were distributed during World War II, but by 1946 six million copies had been given away, and Rudolph was becoming an important part of the American Christmas celebration.

May began receiving offers for licensing rights on his creation, but his story belonged to Montgomery Ward & Company, for it had been written as part of his work duties. May needed extra money, for he had remarried, his family was growing, but he faced a lifetime of making payments on his deceased wife’s medical bills. He asked for all rights to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and they were given to him.

I’ve read two versions on why May received the right to make money from his Rudolph character. One is that he was a good and loyal employer, and his supervisors wanted to help him out. The other is that company officials felt that after six million copies of a dinky little book had been given away there wasn’t much chance of anyone making a profit on the story. I prefer the first version.

May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song about Rudolph. It was recorded by Gene Autry, who sold two million copies in 1949. Commercial publishers reprinted the book, Christmas ornaments and toys were manufactured and, starting in the 1960s, Rudolph became a holiday television superstar.

Medical debts were paid off, and May saved enough money to send his children to college. In 1951 he quit his job and spent seven years managing his Rudolph franchise, then he returned to working at Montgomery Ward until his retirement in 1971. When he died in 1976 his family inherited all rights to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is still reaping profits.

Now you know the story behind the story of a young reindeer who overcame hardships – both his own and his creator’s – and won not only Santa’s praise, but the admiration of generations of children.