If you can cast your mind back to 27th November 2007 and this post (yes, that is 16 months ago) you’ll remember Danielle and I did a book swap. Miss Hargreaves sailed across the Atlantic, and in return I got two books by Christopher Morley – Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, both featuring Southern farmer’s-sister Helen McGill and travelling bookseller Mr. Mifflin. And earlier this month I got around, finally, to reading… er, one of them. But it was rather brilliant so I will be reading the second one soon.*
Parnassus on Wheels, which is nice and short, was written in 1917 and has that unmistakable early-20th century tang to it. Wise, straight-talking women of the sort people like Ethan Frome probably stumbled over all the time. Helen McGill, said straight-talking woman – at one pointshe measures a length of time as ‘about as long as it takes to peel a potato’ – lives a life of domestic routine on a farm, and is disgruntled rather than delighted when her brother someone writes a book which becomes famous. She burns letters from publishers and tries to distract him from this high-falutin’ life, which seems insignificant compared to finding all the eggs in the farmyard.
Until Mr. Mifflin comes along, in his Parnassus. A travelling wagon, the sides come down to reveal shelves of books, which he travels the countryside selling. His patter is wonderful; he truly believes in the power of good literature for anyone and everyone (often his only competition is the man who has been around the area previously, selling everyone bound funeral orations). Known as The Professor to most, he is a firecracker, but one with an utterly infectious love of books.
“No creature on earth has the right to think himself a human being if he doesn’t know at least one good book. The man that spends every evening chewing Piper Heidsieck at the store is unworthy of to catch the intimations of a benevolent Creator. The man that’s got a few good books on his shelf is making his wife happy, giving his children a square deal, and he’s likely to be a better citizen himself.”
However, he’s come to the farm to sell Parnassus on Wheels to Helen’s brother, Andrew. His literary reputation makes him a potential seller – and Mr. Mifflin wants to retire. Simply to prevent the distraction to her brother, Helen decides to buy it – leaving a note for her brother:
Dear Andrew, Don’t be thinking I’m crazy. I’ve gone off for an adventure. It just came over me that you’ve had all the adventures while I’ve been at home baking bread […] I’m going off for a little while – a month, maybe – to see some of this happiness and hayseed of yours. It’s what the magazines call the revolt of womanhood. Warm underwear in the cedar chest in the spare room when you need it. With love, Helen.
How can you not like a woman like that?
So, off she goes. Mr. Mifflin shows her how, and soon Helen’s off selling the books herself – though as exuberantly wonderful a creation as Mr. Mifflin can’t stay out of the narrative for too long, and he’s back soon, and in the sequel. This short novel isn’t filled with ‘exciting adventures’ (though there are one or two) – rather it is a paean to the love of books in whatever shape or size they come, and a good-humoured, sensible depiction of a slightly bizarre couple of people pursuing a slightly bizarre aspiration. Utterly wonderful, it’s one of my books of the year already, and I encourage any and every book-lover to give it a go.
*Soon is a relevant word. I mean before books become obsolete.