Mary Coyle Chase

mary coyle chase

There is no perfect age to commence being a lover of books. It’s great whenever it happens. I think I can generalize about early book lovers in saying that the experience is so very intense.

Here’s a test.

Assuming you are over thirty, can you recollect your favorite books at age 19? 29? How about 9?

I can name my favorite books at age nine. I can even remember the exact shelves they lived on at the local library.

At the top of that list was Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, and Loretta Mason Potts. Whose author I could not remember. Why did I need to know who wrote it? That orange-covered book was always in the same place, and it was the only one by her.

 

When I moved as an early teen, our branch library didn’t carry Loretta Mason Potts, but that was okay as I’d read it so many times I’d memorized it, and anyway, I’d moved on in my interests. And once I’d moved again, and had become old enough to want to collect some of those early childhood favorites, while I was able to find the Blytons over in England, I could not for the life of me track down Loretta Mason Potts because it had long gone out of print, and in those days, if there was no hand-typed index card in the card catalogue, the book might as well not exist.

It wasn’t until 1981 that I managed to get a used copy, and discovered the author name: Mary Chase. It wasn’t until another twenty years had passed before I discovered that the Mary Chase who had written that children’s book was the same Mary Chase who’d written the story that Harvey, the James Stewart film about a six foot rabbit, was based on.

Now, I’d seen Harvey offered now and again as old movie filler late at night or during summer reruns, but I had never turned it on. Much as I liked James Stewart, I had always hated dressed-up animal stories, and that went double—triple—for people dressed in animal suits.

pooka as banshee

pooka as banshee

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon this interview with Mary Chase that I discovered how wrong I had been in my assumptions about the film.

She got the idea after observing a lone woman coming and going across the street, whose son had been lost in the war in the Pacific. Chase felt so badly for that woman she wanted to write a story to cheer her up . . . and Harvey was the result.

As a kid, Chase had been entertained by her Irish uncle, who filled her mind with Irish fairy tales, myths, and legends. Harvey was a pooka—taking in this story the form of a rabbit—which when the play first was in production on Broadway, seemed to require an actor dressed up in an expensive rabbit costume. One appearance, and Chase knew it was a mistake. Audiences hated it.

But an invisible Harvey was magical, because then the story was about innocence, good will—hope—faith—and unexamined alcoholism. Because that’s there, too, as Mary Chase later admitted, after becoming a long-time member of AA.

After the play and the movie were made, Chase received letters of praise and gratitude from strangers who had lost someone in the war. She had lost track of the woman for whom it had been written, which may or may not be just as well: it’s hard to know how a grief-stricken person would feel if a stranger appeared and said, “I’ve written a play to make you feel better, about a six foot magical pooka.”

But a gift you are not obligated to receive was just the ticket for so many of Chase’s fellow Americans that the play was as successful as the film, and continues to be put on stage now and then.

Chase had started out as a journalist. She married a journalist, but while her husband’s career went on up the ladder to more serious journalism, she was pretty much confined to the social page, and so she turned to plays and books.

harvey

None of her other plays were as successful as Harvey, though movies were made of several of them.

I rewatched Harvey the other night. There is some clever writing, and clever acting, mostly from James Stewart, as Elwood P. Dowd, and Josephine Hull as Veta, his sister. The plot is centered around Veta wanting to get her brother Elwood committed to an asylum because of his insistence on his invisible friend Harvey being real. His strangeness is ruining their social lives—and making it impossible to get her daughter Myrtle Mae married.

When she admits to the doctor that he’s so convincing that sometimes she sees Harvey, the doctor has her dragged off and locked up, beginning a sequence that makes fun of psychiatric treatment in a distinctively 1950s manner. Ditto the way Myrtle Mae instantly falls “in love” with the asylum’s over-eager bouncer, and the nurse with the dismissive, arrogant head doctor.

Modern audiences have to take the whole with a hefty dose of salt, but there is enough wit left in combination with delightful acting to demonstrate what audiences sixty years ago thought so appealing.

The sense of wild, unexplained magic in Harvey is present in both her children’s books, Loretta Mason Potts, which was published in 1958, and The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House, which came out ten years later, in 1968. (It seems to have had an alternate title, The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Haunted House.)

Rereading Loretta Mason Potts all these years later, I wonder what librarians made of it in 1958, when children’s literature was determinedly g-rated and conformist. The eponymous character, Loretta Mason Potts, is a total brat—encouraged by the ten inch countess and her friend living under a magical hill behind the Potts house. The protagonist, her brother Colin, had not known he had a sister until he finds pictures of her—which includes one of her as a baby smoking a cigarette.

Now cigarettes were ubiquitous in 1958 everyplace I went, including my own home. The adult world reeked of them, but they were emphatically not for kids! Though we all got sugar cigarettes as Halloween candy, one of the many conflicting messages of that era. But I digress.

Colin, Loretta, and then their siblings are at first beguiled by the countess, who encourages all their worst behavior, but at the same time, strives to protect the secret of their diminutive size. A lot of the story doesn’t make sense, and the countess and her friends are clearly riffing off the heartless party crowd of the Bright Young Things of the twenties, all of which whizzed right over my head when I was nine.

loretta mason potts

That didn’t matter. As soon as Colin discovered the secret tunnel at the back of his sister’s closet, I was riveted. That story had everything I loved most—magic, secrets, a huge palace of a house, and an amazing bird lady, Mrs. Newby, whose magic was altogether different from the dangerous magic of the countess & co.

Chase’s second book I didn’t discover until I was an adult; it probably wasn’t ordered at my library. I can see why. It reads like the least appealing aspects of Harriet the Spy by way of Hans Christian Andersen, in a setting of Victorian weirdness couched in twenties wit. The main character, Maureen Swenson, can only be described as a thug, age nine, until she Learns Her Lesson through her experiences trapped in a magical house with the seven magical ladies who turn into pigeons for no reason that I can discern.

Chase was mostly a playwright, and from the synopses of her other plays she tackled all kinds of subjects—old women ignored by their families, a sympathetic portrayal of a group of African-American kids, in 1961—mysteries, psychological dramas.

It got me thinking about writers with wit, imagination, life experience, who write all their lives but who are regarded afterward as one hit wonders. Of course some of us never even get that one hit. But writing is an act of faith (as well as desperation, bull-headedness, and a host of other iffy qualities!)

Reading that interview made me wish I’d been able to meet her.

 

 

 

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Mary Coyle Chase — 45 Comments

  1. I wish I’d found Loretta Mason Potts when I was a kid–it is exactly the sort of “secret places/hidden knowledge” book I adored. Maybe I need to go find it now.

  2. Omigosh! The picture of the bookcover in your post was the first inkling I had that this book has been reissued. It’s now in my Amazon cart! I finally got to read it a few years ago (thanks to interlibrary loan) and only wish I’d been able to when I was a kid.

    A definite yes on being able to remember what I read and loved when I was 9 years old. And it’s location on the library bookshelf. I still remember the sunbeams shining through the tall multi-paned window to my left as I stood in front of the shelf with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books at Holy Trinity School library. And on what side of the children’s bookshelf at the Navy Housing rec center sat the volume I was too terrified to open: The Thinking Machine.

    • Oh, my! Yes, as a kid I mostly equated science fiction with horror. (Until I found the Mushroom Planet books when I was in fourth grade. How I loved those! I wish I could get them all now, but used prices are through the roof!)

  3. I remember reading Walter Brooks’ FREDDY THE PIG in second grade. Got into trouble for doing it in class, too.
    I remember picking my way through an issue of LOIS LANE comics (unless it was Superman, but I think it was Lois) in first grade, and asking my mother about the words I couldn’t figure out. Kryptonite, very difficult.
    I remember (this must have been in first grade) being coached by nuns on how to print. It was a Catholic elementary school, and my class of 63 kids was run with a rod of iron by a Sister Catherine. We were as good as gold, and sat in alphabetical order which put me in the far back corner, in front of a Williams or two and a Zelinsky.

  4. I very clearly remember my grade 3 music teacher lending me his copies of Narnia, saying “I think you might like these.”

    I remember the shelf at the Southgate public library (in the basement of a shopping mall, of all places) where I found the Arthur Ransome books, and the excitement of noticing one I hadn’t read yet. Wonder if that library is still there.

    I remember reading Black Beauty over and over and over again; and then I moved on to The Black Stallion books, all 20-odd of them (the one that sticks most in my head is The Black Stallion and Flame, because of the secret island setting).

    • For some reason I always preferred the Island Stallion books to the Black Stallion books — especially The Island Stallion Races, which is one of the few SF/horse story novels I’m aware of. (Another is Starship on Saddle Mountain, which I also remember fondly.)

      I really wanted that bridle from The Island Stallion Races. The nearest I got was to put a string in my horse’s mouth and go riding bareback all day in Bridle Trails State Park.

      Vonda

      • Oh, yes. I didn’t read the Narnia books until I was an adult working as the children’s book buyer in a bookstore. I borrowed (with permission) all the children’s books I hadn’t read and took them home to read so that I would be knowledgeable about my job. That’s when I discovered Elizabeth Coatsworth’s The Cat Who Went to Heaven, possibly my favorite children’s book of all time even though it always makes me cry.

        • I was in Vientiane, Laos, so I must have been 9. There may be libraries in Vientiane, but not in English; I was too young to purchase my own books and there were none to buy anyway. We went to another American family’s house for a cookout (probably it was Labor Day or the Fourth of July). Everyone there was either much older or much younger than myself, and I was bored. On a bookcase in the hall were all seven Narnia books in conforming hardback edition. I remember being vaguely intimidated about the hardbackiness of them. I picked one up at random (I think it was MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW, selected because of the Pauline Baynes illustration of the winged horse on the cover) and read it from cover to cover before the burgers were on. This was before I was savvy enough to think about reading order. I was about halfway through another random one (I think it was HORSE AND HIS BOY unless it was PRINCE CASPIAN) before the cookout was over. And, God bless her! The mother of the family said, “Oh, why don’t you borrow the set?” The entire American community may have come to perhaps six families, so she knew she would get them back. That woman is surely responsible for what I am today. I wish I could remember her name or face, or even her kids — she must have had some; the books were clearly a present to them. As I recall the books were untouched, never opened, so she must’ve been glad that some kid was getting something out of them.

          • What a marvelous story. And I love your adjective hardbackiness

            My mother brought home The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe for me from the library, and I was turned off by both the title and the image of the dwarf on the cover–but we started reading it (she started reading it to me) and I fell right in love.

            And yes those Pauline Baynes illustrations! If I’d been confronted by the full set, I’m sure I would have gone for The Magician’s Nephew too, for the cover 🙂

        • Oh, Elizabeth Coatsworth! There is a name I recollect. I need to look into her . . . if she’s who I think, I loved some of her books.

          I never read that one, as the animal book lover girls at school said it was sad, and I loathed sad books.

          • The Yearling and Old Yeller – two sad animal books that I loved, even if they made me cry.

            I remember getting really angry when books didn’t end the way I wanted them to, and then trying to re-write them in my mind. It never worked though, and I always eventually had to accept the the “real” endings. Early life lessons, I guess: things don’t always turn out the way we want them to…

  5. I am rather predictable, even from the age of 9. Misty of Chincoteague. Black Gold. The Black Stallion. Lad, a Dog. Black Beauty. Neigh. Arf.

    • Heh! I had a bunch of friends who loved all the animal books. I can still remember those girls. They had a club.

      Black Beauty was given me when I turned seven. It was a tough read (my mother didn’t know what humbug meant) but it had a tremendous effect on me.

    • That sounds an awful lot like my list around that age, although I can’t single out age nine in particular.

  6. Starship on Saddle Mountain: An alien ship lands on Saddle Mountain. Wyoming? Montana? Somewhere in the contemporary (1950s or thereabouts) American west. A kid and his horse meet the aliens. Who are from Saturn (if I remember right) though very humanoid. Boy and horse fly away on the spaceship because Adventures. It’s been more than 50 years since I read it, so the details are a little fuzzy, but I probably read it five times. At least.

    Vonda

  7. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien. Up a Road Slowly, by Irene Hunt. The Little House on the Prairie books. Pretty much anything I could get my hands on, really.

    I read and loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at nine, but didn’t find the rest of the series until much later. I think I picked up The Silver Chair in a bookstore when I was about 12 – and then received the boxed set for Christmas shortly after. Unfortunately, the initial magic of these books didn’t follow me into adulthood.

    I still love The Owl Service – and Elidor, which I discovered a few years after the former. There’s something about Garner’s style that has stuck with me.

    Heh, I’ve spent the entire afternoon meandering down memory lane, trying to identify half-remembered titles from all those years ago. I love the internet!

      • Well, to be fair, the more “adult” themes went waaaay over my head (I had a few “aha” moments when I re-read the book years later). I was just totally enthralled with the whole mystery and mythology of the story.

        But yeah, total geek. I guess I was also lucky to have been given the leeway to read whatever I wanted; if I was really out of my depth, I’d simply lose interest and put the book away until a later time.

        Except for Moby Dick. I have never been able to finish that book.

  8. At nine, my family was in Belgium, so there was no English library for me to pillage. My mother picked up the occasional British children’s book, so I read some Enid Blyton, but don’t recall swooning for those books. Not sure quite what I read at 9, but I recall loving “Black Beauty”, Carol Kendall’s “The Gammage Cup”, and Elizabeth Goudge’s “The Little White Horse”. I was reading my parent’s and older sibling’s books long before I could understand much of what I was reading. When I started attending a school with a library in 6th grade I was in heaven! I clearly remember discovering Hornblower.

    I don’t remember what age I was when I read the Narnia books. I recall some reserve in my enjoyment — I think I was getting too sotmg a whiff of Improving Message.

    At 19, I was still working my way through the mimeographed list of classic literature that my AP English teacher had handed out. I also adored Wodehouse, as is only right, but the blush was fading from Heinlein.

  9. I’ve seen that movie title too and always been prejudiced against it for the exact reason you mention, but now I’m going to get it out on Netflix! And Loretta Mason Potts sounds *very* fun.

    And what a great question: what books were your favorite at a certain age–I’d never thought of looking at them over time like that, strange to say. And the fun of knowing the **exact shelf** to go to! In fact, I remembered sections of the children’s rooms based on what books were there. Lloyd Alexander books here, Natalie Babbit here, Edward Eager here, Sylvia Louise Engdahl here–those were all along the wall. Then there were the free-standing shelves in the middle, with CS Lewis on one side and Andre Norton on the other, and if you went to the next row, Zilpha Keatley Snyder on one side and Lawrence Yep on the other. The different shelves seemed to glow different colors.

  10. Nine was the age I was when I discovered the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books. Those were a shoe-in. Of course I was also a big Oz fan. I still think ‘Ozma of Oz’ is one of the best of the series. And I was around 9 or 10 when my mother and I were up in Alhambra and I found ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ and loved it.

    Didn’t bother with the author at that point, and mis-remembered the title so I could never find it again. I think I was around 11 when I stumbled across Lion, Witch and Wardrobe and realized that it was the same world.

    I’m pretty sure that Marty Chase wrote the play; ‘Mrs McThing’. We put that one on in my senior year of High School. It’s an oddity, but rather fun. I’m now mildly bemused at the teacher in charge managing to put on a play sort of about magic in a public HS in 1963.

  11. So many book memories being dredged up by these comments: the animal-book phase, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle! But the specific age I was when I read certain books, or their locations in the library except for very generally where the children’s section was, not so much.

    One author I haven’t seen mentioned yet is Beverly Cleary. The children in her books lived, in my perhaps faulty memory, in a place that was much more similar to the neighborhood I lived in than the many US children’s books set in New York.

    I distinctly remember reading Cleary’s Ellen Tebbits and having no concept of what woolen long underwear was.

    • Oh, yes! I remember wondering about long underwear, too, but I knew I’d get slapped hard for mentioning underwear, so I never dared ask. Eventually I figured out that long underwear were those things you saw in cartoons with the drawers that buttoned, and thought myself so clever to have figured that out!

    • Oh, yes — Beverly Cleary! When I was young I wanted to grow up to write books just like hers. I think the Henry Huggins and Beezus & Ramona series were set in Oregon, though I don’t think that was obvious to me when I was a child. What really mattered to me was that they were explicitly set in the suburbs rather than the city or the country. (Which probably means I mostly had access to older kid lit written before the suburban boom.)