Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sisters and Best Friends

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.”

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.


Anonymous said...

I like these posts bringing to light old/forgotten gems more than the 'the two Newbery winners who were notified on Wednesdays while on vacation west of the Mississippi' style posts.

lin said...

In the sixth grade, the Best Friends series was a huge favorite with my best friend and me. It was cliched and romantic and fired up our little pre-teen hearts. I enjoyed the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, too, but never would have connected the two authors in any way.

CLM said...

I found Nancy and Plum in the Wellesley, MA library not long after my third grade teacher had introduced me to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and loved it as I do most well told orphan stories (Alas, it was not my branch so I only read it once. I think it was Laurie AB who told me it had been reprinted ten or so years ago so I now own it).

I did not come across the Best Friends series until I was grown up but by then I knew Betty and Mary were sisters. My copy of Best Friends is a UK first edition with partial dust jacket and Best Friends at School is the US first edition with a virtually intact dust jacket. I love the two I own. However, I do not own and have not read Best Friends in Summer. Does anyone want to share that one? I've scanned my covers, if anyone wants to see, also the photo of Mary Bard:

Robin Winzler Lane said...

I read the Best Friends series in the early 1970s, as a fourth grader, and loved them. For some reason, I remember that one of the books (Best Friends in Summer, I suspect) featured a treehouse or clubhouse or something that had wonderfully organized cubbies and cabinets. To this day, I can't look at a organization supply catalog without thinking of Suzie and Coco!

Marjorie said...

I loved "Best Friends," by Mary Bard. It was my favorite book when I was in the sixth grade.

Unknown said...

Best Friends in Summer was my very first chapter book, summer before 3rd grade. I signed it out many times. I butchered CoCo's French and today, I'm a French teacher! I identified with Coco's timidity - how she wouldn't ride the horse, but stuck with the donkey. My favorite part was when [Nancy?] taught Coco all about painting with natural colors. I luxuriated in that part - their enjoyment and interest came right into my mind along with the words and I was hooked. Oh, I SO want to read it again! Or... do I really just want to revisit age seven?


I adored the BEST FRIENDS books. Read and re-read them in the 70s. Wish I had thought -then- to borrow them permanently from the library as they are so hard to come by. I did buy one of the titles from a rare book dealer who offered me the book for a non-strangling price.

Suzie and Coco were friends to me as a kid. I think of those books often. And you are right in that not many people know or talk about them. What a pity. Bring them back. Bring them back!

Linda said...

As a life-long fan of Betty Macdonald, I was always fascinated by Mary - I thought she was wonderful. After reading Mary's adult books, Forty Odd and The Doctor etc., my feeling was that marriage and motherhood had taken away a lot of the spirit that Betty captured so vividly in her books. Mary's husband certainly seemed to keep her in her place! Or maybe she exaggerated for her books. It can't have been easy to go from being the vibrant single, independent, successful working girl, to being a stay-at-home mother responsible for taking care of a house, a demanding husband (those recipes he insisted she prepare) and three children. I imagine Mary was astounded at Betty's success and her competitive nature resulted in her writing her own books. Being of a certain age now myself, I find 'Forty Odd' covers issues which are actually still quite relevant in a lot of ways, even though it is obviously dated. I'm not at all surprised that Mary found turning forty so traumatic. Although she must have been pretty wealthy being married to a doctor, and having seen photos of her house, which looks huge to me, the challenges of her earlier life were over and she must have felt great frustration. She also makes it clear when talking about her time as a Brownie leader that she herself had not been interested or skilled in any way in things like sewing etc. Its not hard to imagine how she felt playing the role of housewife in real life. I would love to hear the views of Mary's children, Mari, Sally and Heidi, I'm sure that they often drop in on sites like this!

Anonymous said...

I read "Best Friends" and then "Best Friends In Summer" and just loved these books, but I did not know that a "Best Friends In School" existed ! I felt like I knew these 2 wonderful girls Susie and CoCo, how I wish I could go back to that time in 1965-1966, nine and ten years of age, things were so much simplier back then......