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.
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.
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.
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.