I devoted part of Sunday’s blog to author Betty MacDonald, who wrote the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” series as well as the stand-alone novel NANCY AND PLUM, which is going to be reissued by Knopf in October.
In her appealing introduction to this new edition, National Book Award winner Jeanne Birdsall (THE PENDERWICKS; THE PENDERWICKS ON GARDAM STREET) describes how Betty created NANCY AND PLUM as a series of bedtime stories which she told her sister Mary. Ms. Birdsall adds, “I do wonder if Mary ever complained that Betty, who was the younger sister of the two, gave all the best lines to Plum, the fictional younger sister. <...> I choose to imagine that if Mary did complain, Betty told her to write her own books. Which Mary did, but those details are for another introduction.”
Anyone who has read Betty MacDonald’s autobiographical books for adults knows all about Mary -- a force of nature who fairly flies off the pages, full of plans and fibs and schemes and dreams. Consider the opening line of MacDonald’s ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING: “The best thing about the Depression was the way it reunited our family and gave my sister Mary a real opportunity to prove that anybody can do anything, especially Betty.” The volume describes, in hilarious detail, how -- even in the depths of the 1929 Depression -- Mary found dozens of jobs for herself, her friends, and family -- especially Betty. Mary has a way with people, as evidenced by this scene, witnessed by Betty:
...(Mary) learned from a long sallow stenographer that her mother, with whom she lived, had a tumor. Mary said, “Oh, think nothing of it. I had two huge tumors. Had them both removed at once and now I’m better than ever.” I looked at Mary, who had never even been in a hospital, with some astonishment. The stenographer looked avid. She said, “Where were your tumors and how much did they weigh?” Mary said, “Oh, one was here,” she pointed to her appendix, “and one was here,” she moved her hand around to the back. “They weighed eight pounds a piece and the operation only took twenty minutes.”
As Mary, who was so vivid, so obviously bursting with health, talked on and on, the stenographer drew in every word and seemed to become firmer, to take shape. It was like watching someone stuff a rag doll. When we left the woman said, almost cheerfully, that she was going to call her mother and tell her about Mary.
Out in the hall I said to Mary, “Mary, you know that nobody in our entire family for generations and generations has ever had a tumor.”
Mary said, “What difference does that make? Evelyn’s mother’s got one and nobody likes to have a tumor all alone. Anyway, can you think of anything drearier than that poor old Evelyn’s life? She works in that stuffy office all day for that disagreeable old Mr. Felton, who has such a bossy mistress and such a nasty wife who knows about the mistress, that his only pleasure in life is kicking old Evelyn every chance he gets.”
“How do you know about all these mistresses and nasty wives?” I asked. Mary said, “People tell me. I’ve got that kind of face. People tell me everything. I don’t know why.” I did. It was because Mary was more interested in their problems than they were.
In ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING, Mary -- who views the Depression as a “personal challenge” -- gets her mother a job writing a radio soap opera; gets herself jobs doing radio advertising and organizing a mammoth Christmas party; and gets Betty jobs in the fields of mining, lumber, law, and photography, to name just a few.
And Mary is the one who pushes Betty into a writing career. As Betty tells it:
Then an old friend of Mary’s arrived in town and announced that he was a talent scout for a publishing house and did she know any Northwest authors.” Mary didn’t, so she said, “Of course I do, my sister Betty. Betty writes brilliantly but I’m not sure how much she has done on her book.” (I had so little done that on it that I hadn’t even thought of writing one.)
Yet that push from Mary led to Betty’s first book -- the million-selling THE EGG AND I...followed by three more adult bestsellers...NANCY AND PLUM...and of course the four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.
But what became of Mary?
Well, she married a doctor, had a family, and then -- as Jeanne Birdsall stated -- began to write her own books as well.
Mary Bard’s volumes are similar to Betty’s books, in that they’re autobiographical, witty and thoroughly enjoyable -- though many fans think they pale next to the MacDonald titles. She wrote THE DOCTOR WEARS THREE FACES, about her experiences as a physician’s wife, as well as FORTY-ODD, describing the trauma of turning forty, and JUST BE YOURSELF, a memoir of being a scout leader.
Mary wrote a children’s book in 1955 called BEST FRIENDS, about a girl named Suzie, a French girl who moves next-door named CoCo, and the blended family they form when Suzie’s mother marries CoCo’s dad. This was followed by BEST FRIENDS IN SUMMER and BEST FRIENDS AT SCHOOL. I once heard an audio interview with one of Mary’s nieces, who came and stayed with Mary as she wrote that last book. Mary’s own daughters were grown by that point, and she needed a real live girl to serve as a “consultant” when writing about young Suzie and CoCo. Mary’s niece recalled that magical summer of 1960 and how the sunlight filled her aunt’s window-lined office during the day as they worked together; in the evening they gathered around the television to watch JFK accept the Democratic nomination for president. The niece remembered how grown-up she felt that summer, helping to create book and discussing politics and current events with a special aunt.
Does anyone out there remember the “Best Friends” series? I never saw of these titles as a kid -- and I actually grew up in the sixties and seventies when one might expect they’d still be on the library shelves. Someone told me these stories are hugely popular in Europe, but they appear to have gone out of print fairly quickly in the United States and have not been available for well over forty years. I would assume that they were minor, fairly forgettable titles...
...it appears they are truly loved by many readers.
Just try to find a copy of BEST FRIENDS, BEST FRIENDS IN SUMMER or BEST FRIENDS IN SCHOOL these days.
They are so rare that only a handful are on the market at any given time. Battered old library copies sell for over $150. Nice copies can cost between $500 and $1000.
Mary Bard apparently had the gift -- like her sister Betty MacDonald -- of creating characters and stories that deeply touched many readers, leaving impressions that lasted a lifetime.
Which brings me back to this new edition of NANCY AND PLUM -- and Jeanne Birdsall's introduction.
Remember the lines "I choose to imagine that if Mary did complain, Betty told her to write her own books. Which Mary did, but those details are for another introduction.”
Is that a hint?
Does this mean that, now that NANCY AND PLUM is coming back into print, there could be plans to re-issue the "Best Friends" series for today's readers?
I don't have a clue.
But I think it would be a good idea.