Mother Carey’s Chickens

By Kate Douglas Wiggin

This is the story of a wonderful single (widowed) mother raising her four children around the turn of the century. Because they are in very straitened circumstances they have to downsize. Nancy, the oldest daughter, remembers a yellow house they saw on a vacation to Maine when their father was alive where the family can live much more cheaply. Sound familiar? It was made into a Disney movie, Summer Magic.

For a while, this book is quite similar in tone and content to many other children’s books I have read from the turn of the century. It noticeably picks up around chapter 20, however. A neighbor family, The Lords, are introduced. This family is a piece of work. Henry Lord, especially, being a seriously messed up parent, to the point of tragedy. The two children are the bitter but brilliant Olive and the nerdy Cyril, who has tons of potential. As with her more famous Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, I would kill to read a sequel. Unfortunately, once again, Kate Douglas Wiggin did not oblige. The Lords are surely one of the most unique and non-stereotypical families in any literature of the time and genre.

There are several quite slapstick and delightful comedy scenes. I found myself pausing with delight and saying to myself, “Hey, this is really funny!” Among them, the resurrection of “You dirty boy”, a much-hated to the point of being a family joke, statue. Despite the family’s best efforts, it refuses to be broken so it can be disposed of. The deed is finally accomplished after they move into the yellow house, by a fall from a loft, after the initial move, despite supremely careless packing, failed to destroy it. However, Osh Popham, their friend and landlord, glues the whole mess together from “a thousand” pieces much to the family’s chagrin, and presents it to them during a solemn housewarming ceremony. The description of Nancy teaching her brothers and sisters how to pretend-faint on command and en-masse creates a hilarious picture in the mind’s eye. At her signal, this performance turned a serious and possibly weepy cliché moment into laughter instead of tears.

Mother Carey is a beautiful widow who is universally admired at first sight by all who meet her acquaintance. Yet somehow, I liked her too. Here is a rather poignant glimpse into her secret thoughts and emotions:

Was doing all that she could, she wondered as her steps
flew over the Yellow House, from attic to cellar. She could play
The piano and sing; she could speak three languages and read
Four; she had made her curtsy at two foreign courts; admiration and
Love had followed her ever since she could remember, and here
She was, a widow at forty, living in a half-deserted New England
Village, making parsnip stews for her children’s dinner. Well,
it was a time of preparation, and its rigors and self-denials must be cheerfully faced.

Summer Magic is my number one comfort movie, and it was amazing to read so many passages and scenes and dialogue that Sally Benson incorporated into the film. The book is considerably fleshed out with more characters and plots, but regrettably, only a bit where Nancy meets her future love, Tom Hamilton. Miss Benson obviously read the book very carefully and loved it.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

May 13, 2015

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