The magic of Uncle Wiggily and other wonderful stories

When I was little, my father (a big reader) had a collection of Uncle Wiggily books. They were books he’d owned as a child. We probably had 20 of these books, each containing three stories and amazing drawings.

The author, Howard R. Garis, began writing the Uncle Wiggily stories for the Newark News in 1910 and then wrote one every day (except Sundays) for more than three decades after that, publishing 79 books in his lifetime. The main character of these tales is Uncle Wiggily, an older male rabbit, somewhat but not altogether impeded by rheumatism, who carries around a peppermint-stick striped crutch and has many adventures, aided by friends—Sammie and Susie Littletail, Jimmie Wibblewobble (a duck), Petie Bow-Wow, Munchie Trot (a pony), etc.—and thwarted by bullies and pranksters (the Pipsisewah, the Skeezicks, the Bazumpus, Skillery Skallery Alligator and a number of others), whom Uncle Wiggily manages to dispense with, often with his candy-striped crutch or by the use of some “thing-a-ma-bob” he just happens to have in his satchel.

We had the whole collection. My Uncle Jamie (my father’s younger brother) often (laughingly) accused my father of stealing the Uncle Wiggily books from him as a child. But whoever owned the Uncle Wiggily books, my sisters and I didn’t care. We had access to them. That was what counted. And they were magical.

But here is the strange thing: for the longest time, we only read one Uncle Wiggily story. Just one. The story we read over and over and over (or more accurately, had read to us) was: “Uncle Wiggily’s Water Spout.” Just that. No other. But OMG, that story was incredible! So exciting, just the right amount of scary. Why, you might ask, would we only read that one story when there were so many others to be had? I think one reason is because “Uncle Wiggily’s Water Spout” was so extraordinarily satisfying we had no need for another. But I think another reason, possibly the main one, is that we wanted to keep all those other stories saved and unread for the future. Like Christmas presents you can’t bear to unwrap, because once you have, well, there will then be no more Christmas presents to unwrap, shimmering with mystery and untapped magic.

Why on earth am I talking about this? Well, it’s a good question. The answer is, because I just passed by my upstairs hall bookshelf, where I caught sight of Sue Grafton’s Y is for Yesterday. As I have mentioned before, I have read all the other books in this excellent series. And I only have one left. One. And I just can’t quite bring myself to read it. Because once I do, I will be done. There is no Z is for…, and there never will be. So there Y is for Yesterday lies, rather like the 78 unread Uncle Wiggily stories…which we did, by the way, eventually read. But it took a long time before we were ready. And so Y is for Yesterday lies unread, like an unwrapped present, an uneaten peach. And by the way, I just spotted an ad for an early printing, 1927, cloth hardback with pastedown, Uncle Wiggily’s Water Spout, illustrated by Lang Campbell, $249 on Amazon, not counting shipping. Wow. Maybe I’ll take a trip home and see if those Uncle Wiggily books are still there (Don’t tell my sisters.).

On a heavier note, last month I listened to Fear, which wasn’t fun but which taught me a lot of things I now kind of wish I didn’t know. The author, Bob Woodward (veteran reporter and now associate editor of The Washington Post, author/coauthor of 18 books, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner), draws from hours and hours of interviews with firsthand sources, personal journals and diaries, notes from meetings, etc., for this unbelievably detailed behind-the-scenes book about the 45th president of the United States and the people who surround him. This book is not for the faint of heart.

As I listened to accounts of actual conversations between Trump and his people, I almost had to pinch myself. THIS is a president?! Our president?! The president of the United States?! Am I dreaming? Is this a nightmare?! The amount of arguing, expletives, backbiting, confusion, subterfuge and staff turnover is dizzying. It almost reads as comedy at times, but it’s not funny, because it isn’t fiction. God help us. Seriously. I now understand better some of what has been transpiring behind the sacrosanct walls of the Oval Office, the Situation Room, Air Force One and the presidential living quarters. I found particularly chilling the parts about the tweet-storm with Kim Jong-un and Trump’s clueless, bullish impulsivity vis-a-vis South Korea outposts. Read it if you dare. And vote.

On a lighter note, Elin Hilderbrand has a new book out, and it doesn’t take place on Nantucket. At first, I couldn’t quite stomach this. How dare she write a book that doesn’t take place on Nantucket? Nantucket is her thing! That is what her fans expect! It is what we depend upon and look forward to! But no, Winter in Paradise takes place on (pre-hurricane-ravaged) St. John. I have to say, once I got over the location issue, I really enjoyed this book. Someone’s husband dies in a mysterious private plane crash in the Caribbean, and that’s all I’m going to tell you, except that this really is fun to read. Intrigue, drama, and romance, not in a New England island paradise, but a tropical, island one. It’s really fun. And hey, as the Vermont weather gets wetter and colder by the minute, and the leaves disappear off the branches, and snow seems to be appearing on the mountains and spitting occasionally from the heavens above, this book might be just the thing.

I also really enjoyed Amy Bloom’s White Houses, a novel about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and her longtime companion, Lorena Hickok. I am a big fan of Amy Bloom. A long time ago, a friend turned me on to Bloom’s novel, Away, and I loved it, so I make sure to read everything she turns out. White Houses is narrated by Lorena Hickok (“Hick,” as her friends called her) who grew up in a poor family in South Dakota and rose to become a prominent American reporter. She and Eleanor Roosevelt met in 1932 while Hickok was reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, and their connection evolved into a friendship and then into a passionate, secret love affair that turned into—…well, that turned into what it had to turn into over the course of time in a culture that had a hard time handling relationships outside the bounds of heterosexual marital ones. This is a really good book. Highly recommend.

I loved Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah. Noah was an only child, born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother, whose union was illegal, punishable by five years in jail. Hence, he was “born a crime.” Things weren’t easy for him growing up. He spent much of his early childhood indoors while his cousins frolicked outside, as his mother wanted to protect him from a government that could steal him away from her for good. And then later, once apartheid was over, half white and half black, he didn’t really fit in anywhere—not with the blacks, not with the whites, not with the colored, as Noah tells it.

But difficult as such a life sounds, these stories are really funny, witty, high-energy and filled with joy, humor, resilience and great affection. Through Noah’s eyes, one gets a firsthand look at apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa: the violence, the prejudice, challenges, absurdities and pitfalls. But young Trevor is irrepressible, full of mischief, curiosity and a rambunctious natural intelligence—an inspired hustler and a challenging but fiercely devoted son. In the end what I will remember most is the relationship between Noah and his brave, rebellious, faithful, miraculous mother. This book is moving, funny and beautifully written. I recommend listening to it. Read by the author. It’s perfect. Don’t miss it.

Another nonfiction book I read this month is In Pieces, the autobiography of Sally Fields. Very compelling, very honest, I couldn’t put this one down either. Reading about Fields’ life, I realize how much I take for granted the immense amount of work, both emotional and physical, that goes into acting. Who knew what Mrs. Doubfire’s, what Norma Rae’s, what Gidget’s, what the Flying Nun’s, what Mary Todd Lincoln’s portrayer was actually going through, behind the character, behind the scene, behind the screen and the fiction? Now I know more. It is so easy to idealize the lives of others, especially the lives of celebrities and movie stars and those who are, in worldly terms, successful. But wow, it is sad and shocking to learn what Fields endured as a child. And inspiring and impressive to read of her passion, her dawning insights into herself and the people around her, and the amount of focus and courage that it took for her to survive, and eventually thrive, as a child, a woman, and an artist.

I saw Sally Fields a couple of years ago in A Glass Menagerie on Broadway. I wish I had read this book first. Now I want to go back and watch all her movies. I guess the more you learn about a life, the more you appreciate that life. I guess so much is about stories, and listening to others’ stories. I’ve been pondering this idea lately, as I think about how angry and divisive this country has become as of late. Because every one of us has a story. (Good article, by the way, on Sarah Huckabee Sanders in The New Yorker, September 17, 2018, “Sanders, Trump’s Battering Ram” by Paige Williams).

Stories, and listening, and honoring the stories friends and strangers tell about their lives…honoring one’s own story…I think it is so important. It is hard to hate when you hear the story. So here’s to stories…all stories…all of our stories…told and untold, remembered and forgotten. Till next time…