Thursday, April 21, 2016

'LOVEY MARY" by Alice Hegan Rice

"Lovey Mary" in a movie version

One of our family books was “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch,” by Alice Hegan Rice, which was a best seller in 1902.   As of 1997, the book had sold more than 650,000 copies in a hundred printings, and both movies and stage plays had been made from it.  I wonder whether the difference between me and my cousins is this book and others of that point of view in the early 20th century, before WWI.  I'm probably too comfortable in tumbledown houses.  I don't try to be prosperous.  

"Hill 57" after Heintz 57 Varieties.

This book is like “Stay Away, Joe” about "Hill 57" where impoverished Metis and disenfranchised tribal people made a life out of the margins of Great Falls.  Or it’s like the boisterous columns that John Tatsey wrote about the people in Heart Butte and their alcohol-fueled shenanigans.  “Dogpatch" wouldn’t be far off the mark, and “Moccasin Flats” was another community of the type.  Poor people, disreputable but warm-hearted, trying to help each other in sometimes ridiculous ways.  Today’s refugee camps are probably good material except that they are so big and impermanent.

This "cabbage" patch is mostly Irish, who seem to have a characteristic national affinity for these stories.  A UU woman in Canada pointed out to me the big house in Saskatoon that her Irish uncle owned and ran as a boarding house.  The plumbing was the sort that is so interconnected that if anyone flushed the toilet, whoever was in the shower was scalded.  His renters challenged him to do something, so he went downtown, returned with a paper bag that he said was the answer.  He gave each renter a whistle with the instructions to blow it before they flushed the toilet.  

Another improvisation was that when the building needed to be painted, he bought cheap remainders and overstocks.  The trouble was that there was only enough of each color for one side of the house.  Rather than mixing the colors together, maybe because he bought them at different times, he painted each side of the house a different color.  He said it was fine, because no one looked at more than one side at a time anyway.

I was looking for my copy of “Mrs. Wiggs” and then cruising the used book websites to see how much copies were selling for when I found “Lovey Mary.”  With a title like that, I had to find out what the story was about and it only cost a dollar or two, so I ordered it.  It’s a bit of a sequel to “Mrs. Wiggs.

The real Cabbage Patch was in Louisville, Kentucky, where Rice did “philanthropic work” and the claim is that there was a real Mrs. Wiggs.  Rice herself is probably echoed in the educated well-to-do women who offer charity, something like Gene Stratton-Porter autobiographically invented the "Bird Woman" who took photos in the Limberlost, very much like herself.  

The denizens of this story are mostly women and children.  The men are generally alcoholic, crippled, or gone.  When Miss Hazy marries a slicker with a trail of wives behind him, a man who drinks to the point of passing out, the solution Mrs. Wiggs devises is to simply wait until he was unconscious and load him into an empty boxcar on a train leaving for the West.  On the rez we call that being “floated”.

"Anne of Green Gables"

But the key story is more like “Anne of Green Gables” and all the Gene Stratton-Porter tales.  A gifted and tender-hearted girl is stuck in an orphanage where she works hard and her virtues and generosity finally save her.  In this version, and due to circumstances all too real, a bad girl from the orphanage comes back with her “illegitimate” baby boy, whom she mistreats.  Lovey Mary is given the task of protecting the boy and finally runs away with him to escape the bad mother.  She arrives in the Cabbage Patch and moves in with Miss Hazy, who is the worst housekeeper since myself, but good-hearted.  (I reserve judgment on my heart.)  

There are adventures.  You’ll remember that Mrs. Wiggs named her children for the continents (the twins are Asia Minor and Asia Major) and her horse is named Cuba.  It’s a retired firehorse, so when they load up one fine day in order to go for a picnic, they pass close enough to a fire engine on its way to a conflagration that Cuba’s training kicks in and they join the rush.  Always adaptive, instead of some bucolic scene as planned, they decide that watching a fire is a good way to sit in the wagon enjoying their picnic.

Alice Hegan Rice

One of the interesting dimensions to these stories is the background presence of wealthy beautiful ladies who are well-connected.  They are the image of the do-gooder that has persisted through all the Masterpiece Theatre small-town plots, through the tales of wartime and poverty, and now often turn up in the comments to posts on blogs when tales of racism, suffering, and oppression are being told.  They are real and step in, whether they are wanted or not, because the image of meddling privileged women is so powerful.  Mrs. Wiggs is proof that it's wits and empathy that are needed, not charity.

I have to fight the impulse to "do good" in myself or I would run around interfering where I’m clumsy and intrusive.  It’s a painful, but beguiling intention.  A young person’s hangup.  Church groups invade the rez in the summer, anxious to transform fate by building something or teaching a class.  Managing them, aside from having to find housing with showers (they’re young and get sweaty) and safety (they are far too trusting), is a major undertaking but they don’t think of that.

Lovey Mary is the one who needs help, though she is an excellent guardian and “mom” for the little boy.  They are depicted as quaint, speaking a kind of minstrel vernacular that is full of malapropisms and schtick.  The serious issues are submerged with only a little sharp edge showing here and there.  Most people wouldn’t notice and would never identify with the characters.

I’m not quite sure why I DO identify with rural poor people, except that I could see it in my Portland, Oregon, neighborhood.  Growing up in the Forties with a mother raised on a failing prune orchard, we knew the old ladies in the surrounding blocks (centered on NE 15th and Alberta) who raised chickens or had apple trees they put in the classifieds as U-Pick.  They were all referred to by their last names and a woman down the street -- quite like Mrs. Wiggs -- was called Hartwig.  Callahan was another example.   My mother, with her dynamic but belligerent father, was a bit of a Mrs. Wiggs.  I tried to be Lovey Mary, but failed, everyone agreed because I thought only of myself. 

W.C. Fields playing one of those improvident men.

But it was a survival issue, like those of the real Cabbage Patch, Hill 57, Moccasin Flats, Heart Butte and even some Valier people.  The real aberration is the grand houses with many bathrooms where the plumbing always works and the grass is always mowed.  The economy is not supporting them.  They stand empty in Detroit and New Orleans, submerged one way or another.

Lovey Mary” is a bit of romanticism seasoned with mockery, but it’s a dear little book with elegant drawings.  I’m glad I’ve got it.  I don’t exactly believe it, but it’s a small force for good -- even if it IS propaganda..


Anonymous said...

Your header photo with the tree branch "caution barrier tape" marker looks like it's about to sprout!

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

That's the marker for the clean-out for the city half of the sewer replacement done two months ago, so they could find it when they came back to do the other half. If they ever do. It may be a tree by then.