Imagine a travelling bookshop: a horse-drawn caravan where the outer walls fold down to reveal shelves lined with books. Imagine the owner: a little man with a red beard, a bald head, and a missionary zeal to bring his own love of reading to American farmers. Now imagine a woman: a large, practical, homely woman, who wants the strange contraption and its even stranger occupant to move off her land as quickly as possible – but ends up buying the whole outfit, and setting off on an adventure which changes her life.
Parnassus on Wheels, written by Christopher Morley in 1917, is an enchanting novel. It is warm and humorous, and a ‘must’ for anyone who loves books and reading. Helen McGill has let life pass her by while she acts as housekeeper on the farm she shares with her brother Andrew. He has become a celebrity author, but ignores the farm and his sister in favour of jaunts to seek material for his writing, so she is less than pleased when bookseller Roger Mifflin, who wants to retire to Brooklyn and write his own book, offers to sell his business to Andrew. Instead, she buys the van and its contents herself, leaving a note for her brother which predates Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine by some 70 years, and is every bit as memorable:
“Dear Andrew, Don’t be thinking I’m crazy. I’ve gone off for an adventure. It just came over me that you’d had all the adventures while I’ve been at home baking bread. Mrs McNally will look after your meal and one of her girls can come over and do the housework. So don’t worry. 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.”
Mr Mifflin, known as the Professor, agrees to stay on for a bit to show her the ropes, and together they eventually manage to outwit Andrew, who is determined to force his sister to return home. The book is very short, but packs plenty in: tramps steal the van, along with Bock the dog and Peg the horse (real names Boccaccio and Pegasus); Mr Mifflin is jailed, and Helen is ejected from a hotel. All ends happily however, and Helen finds love and a purpose in life.
The van (the Parnassus of the title) is as delightful as the yellow caravan acquired by Toad in Wind in the Willows, or the more ramshackle affair which features in Ann Scott-Moncreiff’s Auntie Robbo, and the poem painted in red letters on the pale blue bodywork is irresistible:
“Worthy friends, my wain doth hold
Many a book, both new and old;
Books, the truest friend of man,
Fill this rolling caravan.
Books to satisfy all uses,
Golden lyrics of the Muses,
Books on cookery and farming,
Novels passionate and charming,
Every kind for every need
So that he who buys may read.
What libraries can surpass us?
Mifflin’s Travelling Parnassus”
Inside, it has been ‘fixed up… mighty comfortably’ with a neat little row of pots and dishes above the stove, a chest of drawers, a bed, a small table, a wicker chair, plenty storage space, and a pot geranium. But it’s the books which take centre stage in the novel. For example, Mr Mifflin tells Helen:
“When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.” And later he insists: “No creature on earth has a right to think himself a human being, if he doesn’t know at least one good book.”
As far as I’m concerned, this really is one good book, and I’m grateful to Lyn at http://preferreading.blogspot.com/ for bringing it to my attention. I’d never heard of the author before, but she included it in her Top Ten Books 2011- Fiction and, since I had a Kindle for Christmas, I downloaded a copy from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5311, along with a follow-up, The Haunted Bookshop, and The Friendly Road New Adventures in Contentment by David Grayson, which provided inspiration for Morley.
PS: There is another lovely review of this book at http://leavesandpages.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/review-parnassus-on-wheels-by-christopher-morley/