Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Treasure

“Novelizations” of movies and TV shows rarely make good children’s books. In fact, they are usually downright awful:

However, I know at least one exception to the rule.

I still remember the Sunday evening in December 1972 when my family stumbled across THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE on television. Right from the start it seemed different than most holiday specials. It wasn’t a cartoon. It wasn’t a filmed-in-July musical extravaganza featuring famous stars sweltering in winter coats while "Jingle Bells" and throwing styrofoam “snowballs” at each other. This program was different. Quieter. It started with the image of a construction paper house and a woman’s hands pasting windows to this collage as she spoke: “I live and work in the city now. It’s a landscape of cement and noise and crowds, all very different and very far away from the little town where I grew up -- Clear River, Nebraska, population 1500. ...I often think of that little town and that special Christmas in 1946, when I was ten years old.” The show was presented on tape, rather than film, so it had the feel and immediacy of a stage play. The characters, young bespectacled Addie Mills (played by Lisa Lucas), her gruff, widowed father (Jason Robards) and eccentric grandmother (Mildred Natwick) were all three-dimensional and real -- like people you might know -- and the story of how Addie brought Christmas back to her damaged family was well-developed and touching.

THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE was an instant classic and I was thrilled when, nearly a year later, Addie Mills and her family returned in another holiday-themed TV special, THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE. This story, about Addie’s attempts to befriend a crochety old man was, if anything, stronger than its predecessor. It was around this time that I read an item in the TV Guide reporting, “CBS is considering two new series for next season -- a spin-off from the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW about Mary’s neighbor Rhoda, and 'Addie Mills,' a series based on the recent holiday movies THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE and THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE." Rhoda did get own show. She moved to New York, got married, got divorced, and got cancelled. But although Addie returned for two more holiday specials, THE EASTER PROMISE and the Valentine-themed ADDIE AND THE KING OF HEARTS, she never did get her own series. Maybe it’s just as well. By confining Addie’s stories to TV specials, they always remained...well, special. She never got boring, she never overstayed her welcome, she never got cancelled.

But I always wished that her stories would be published as books. I wanted to be able to dive into Addie’s stories whenever I chose, not be a tethered to a once-a-year broadcast schedule. And I knew that the characters and plots would make strong children’s books -- and actually considered writing a letter to some publishers suggesting the idea.

But they beat me to it! In 1974, Knopf issued the THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE and THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE in book form. A DREAM FOR ADDIE (called THE EASTER PROMISE on television) was published in 1975 and the following year brought ADDIE AND THE KING OF HEARTS.

Although I’ve always contended that novelizations of TV shows are pretty junky -- written for commercial, rather than literary, purposes, and published to make a quick buck -- I make an exception for the four Addie Mills books. For one thing, while most novelizations are penned by pseudonymous hacks, the Addie books were written -- with integrity and elan -- by Gail Rock, who created the original, perhaps autobiographical stories for the TV specials (the stories were then adapted for television by scriptwriter Eleanor Perry, who won an Emmy for THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE.) Of the four Addie Mills books, I think my favorite is THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE. It would have been very easy to turn this story into a sentimental, feel-good tale, but Rock avoids that by making Addie a prickly, bossy character whose motivations for befriending old Mr. Rhenquist have a lot to do, at least initially, with just wanting to ride his horse. There is sentiment in the book, of course, but it’s well-earned. I particularly like Addie’s conversation with her grandmother about death and Grandma’s response that “When people leave on a boat, you say, ‘There they go.” But on the other side of the horizon, they’re saying, ‘Here they come.’” Although I'm sure that some part of my affection for THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE is fueled by the nostalgia I have for the TV program, I still think the book is pretty special in and of itself. The prose is tight, the dialogue is often funny, and the characterizations are solid.

For over twenty years I owned paperback copies of these books, and would often read each volume on its special holiday. About five years ago, I decided I wanted to “trade up to hardcover" and found a bookseller who had all four books inscribed by the author to a friend. THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE is signed “To Pat, Who would certainly have been one of Addie’s best friends if they had met in 1946. Love, Gail.” Even better, Ms. Rock inscribed THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE in her protagonist's voice and even signed it “Addie”! Also tucked inside was an envelope containing an invitation to a publication party for the first two volumes, featuring author Gail Rock and “members of the cast of the CBS-TV Family Specials” to be held at Elaine’s “by invitation only” on November 21, 1974. Across the bottom, the author has written “Pat -- your local neighborhood joint! -- so please come. Love, Gail.” How I wish I could have gone. I know, admittance was “by invitation only” but I now have an invitation right here in my hand! ...Too bad the party was held over thirty years ago.

Oh well, even if I didn’t get to attend the party, I still have the books to enjoy. And since today is Thanksgiving, I’ll probably find myself reading the story of Addie and Mr. Rhenquist at some point this afternoon -- a TREASURE that I continue to treasure.


Lisa Yee said...

I never read the books, but I sure do remember the TV specials. I loved them and tried to do my own construction paper art.

Linda said...

I am watching THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE right now and have the book in my library. One of my favorite stories for over 30 years. Thank you for your write-up!

Unknown said...

I love when my husband and i pass time together specially when we are with all the family celebrating the thanksgiving. Is sure this year we´ll be happy all of us together and enjoying. But i am thankful because my husband buy viagra and he has more self-steem.I am really happy.

Meetzorp said...

We had those books at my school. I hadn't know they were novelizations. I'd always assumed the TV movies had been based on the books! I really loved them, not only because they are well-told stories, but because I, too, originate from rural Nebraska and recognize many character and setting types which ring true-to-real-life.

Thanks to your website, I now know the author's name, and will be hunting up copies of my own from Amazon.

Thank you for sharing!