In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Great and ordinary silliness

Dear Aunt Debbie,

For Eleanor's birthday this year, I went old-school to find some good read-alouds. We've just started a book I remember my parents reading aloud to me and Michael, which my mom remembers your parents reading aloud to her and to you: The Peterkin Papers, by Lucretia P. Hale.

The Peterkins are a sublimely silly family. There are Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin, their older children Agamemnon, Elizabeth Eliza, and Solomon John, and the unnamed "little boys" (are there two of them? three? it's not quite clear, as they always speak and move together). In each of the short stories in the collection, the Peterkins get into a small ordinary difficulty, and don't have the sense to figure a way out of it by themselves. In most of the stories, their problems are solved when they ask advice of "the lady from Philadelphia," who is often visiting in a house down the street. She is a paragon of common sense, and offers up the basic solutions the Peterkins are lacking.

The stories which stuck with me in greatest detail are among the first in the book. In "The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee," Mrs. Peterkin puts salt in her coffee instead of sugar. She can't drink it, of course, and the family goes all out to help her find a way to fix it. The whole pile of them troop over to fetch the chemist (who is an amateur alchemist, and is trying to convince his wife to give him her gold wedding ring to melt down for his experiments) and bring him for a house call:

First he looked at the coffee, and then stirred it. Then he put in a little chlorate of potassium, and the family tried it all round, but it tasted no better. Then he stirred in a little bichlorate of magnesia. But Mrs. Peterkin didn't like that. Then he added some tartaric acid and some hypersulphate of lime. But no; it was no better. "I have it!" exclaimed the chemist, -- "a little ammonia is just the thing!" No, it wasn't the thing at all.

After the failure of the chemist, the family goes to fetch the herb-woman:

First she put in a little hop for the bitter. Mrs. Peterkin said it tasted like hop-tea, and not at all like coffee. Then she tried a little flagroot and snakeroot, then some spruce gum, and some caraway and some dill, some rue and rosemary, some sweet marjoram and sour, some oppermint and sappermint, a little spearmint and peppermint, some wild thyme, and some of the other tame time, some tansy and basil, and catnip and valerian, and sassafras, ginger, and pennyroyal. The children tasted after each mixture, but made up dreadful faces. Mrs. Peterkin tasted, and did the same. The more the old woman stirred, and the more she put in, the worse it all seemed to taste.

So the old woman shook her head, and muttered a few words, and said she must go. She believed the coffee was bewitched.

Finally, in desperation, Elizabeth Eliza goes to ask the advice of the lady from Philadelphia. Her response: "Why doesn't your mother make a fresh cup of coffee?" The children shout with joy, Elizabeth Eliza wonders, "Why didn't we think of that?" and the day is saved.

In "About Elizabeth Eliza's Piano," the piano-movers set up the new instrument with the keyboard facing the wall, and Elizabeth Eliza has to sit out on the piazza to play it through the open window, which becomes difficult when the weather gets cold. (This is the picture on the cover of the book.) The lady from Philadelphia triumphs again, asking, "But why don't you turn the piano round?"

One of the joys of reading The Peterkin Papers aloud with children is that a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old can see the solutions to these problems quite easily, and enjoy calling them out before the lady from Philadelphia gets involved.

The stories in The Peterkin Papers were first published in magazine form in the 1860s and 1870s. They feel like magazine stories: episodic, quite short (so good for read-alouds at bedtime!), a little formulaic in a nice way. Most of the stories involve lists of items (see the chemicals and herbs above), and all of them include a moment where the little boys have to put on their india-rubber boots to go fetch someone or something. The general good nature of everyone involved is totally pleasing, as is the absolute ordinariness of the problems they run into.  They're a great precursor to books like The Stupids.

Eleanor is loving them, and Isabel, in spite of her continued protestations against chapter books, is taken by the stories too. I can see "the lady from Philadelphia" becoming a family literary reference for us as it did in my own childhood.

Love, Annie

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