Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Look What I Found: Paul Gallico's Mrs. 'Arris

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned.  I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931.  If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

Does anyone remember Paul Gallico these days?  Have his charms evaporated and his novels been banished to the neglected kingdoms of the attic, the thrift store, the 89-year-old widow's nightstand (where Gallico slumbers with co-residents Arthur Hailey, Ernest K. Gann and Frank G. Slaughter)?

If Paul Gallico does get any attention from our nation of readers distracted by the new and shiny, I'd wager that attention is focused on his two major works, the mega-disaster The Poseidon Adventure and the all-ages fable The Snow Goose.  This week, sadly, Gallico's 1969 bestseller came back to mind as we watched the Costa Concordia cruise ship capsizing Poseidon-like off the coast of Italy.  Of course, if you're of a certain age (like me), Paul Gallico is not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear "Poseidon Adventure."  It's Shelley Winters and her brave, tragic breaststroke.

I have a fondness for Paul Gallico because the very mention of his name takes me back to my first paying job shelving books at the Teton County Library.  Gallico was pretty hot on the bestseller list around that time and I remember checking out, reading, and thoroughly enjoying one of his nearly-forgotten books, 1974's The Boy Who Invented the Bubble Gun.  After nearly 40 years, I don't remember plot specifics, but this site has a brief summary:
A young boy has a brilliant idea for a toy--a toy gun which shoots bubbles. He builds a working model of it, and shows it to his father. Unfortunately, his father shows no interest in the toy. So, to demonstrate to his father that it is worth doing, he gets on a bus and takes it to Washington to patent it. This is his story, and the story of the people he meets along the way.
I found it thoroughly charming and suspenseful--I seem to remember there's a gun battle near the end and the bubble-gun boy caught in the crossfire.  And that's the forte of Gallico's writing: it's simple, straightforward, and possesses an unadorned charm (some might call it treacle and sentiment, but my mileage varies).

In recent years, I've been trying to stock my personal library with Mr. Gallico's works whenever I can find them at garage sales, estate sales and, in one instance, eBay (where I scored a nice copy of Scruffy, a novel about an ape named Harold living on Gibraltar).  Last week, my wife gently twisted my arm to pay a visit to the thrift store on Cobban Street here in Butte.  Once inside the doors, I'm glad my arm was wrenched behind my back.  When we entered the store, she took a right-hand turn to the used furniture (which she'll eventually turn into beautifully-repurposed furniture like this); me, I beelined straight for the bookshelves, which were laced with catnip: signs advertising BOOK SALE 6 for $1.  I was sniffing like a hound on the musk-trail of a coon.

I picked up a couple of Mary Higgins Clark Christmas novels (that's right, you heard me--I'm not ashamed to admit my guilty pleasures in this public forum), and then I spotted this musty, dull-colored paperback from Pocket Books, circa 1962:

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Two Gallico novels for just under 17 cents?  Score!

I haven't met Mrs. Harris, the London charwoman, but the back cover of the Cardinal paperback that was now in my hands offered introductions all around:

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Opening the paperback (which was in remarkably good shape), I turned to the first chapter of Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (Flowers for Mrs. Harris in the UK):
      The small, slender woman with apple-red cheeks, greying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount on the morning flight from London to Paris. As, with a rush and a roar, it lifted itself from the runway, her spirits soared aloft with it. She was nervous, but not at all frightened, for she was convinced that nothing could happen to her now. Hers was the bliss of one who knew that at last she was off upon the adventure at the end of which lay her heart’s desire.

The New York novel begins thusly:
      Mrs. Ada Harris and Mrs. Violet Butterfield, of numbers 5 and 7 Willis Gardens, Battersea, London, respectively, were having their nightly cup of tea in Mrs. Harris' neat and flower-decorated little flat in the basement of No. 5.
      Mrs. Harris was a charwoman of that sturdy London breed that fares forth daily to tidy up the largest city in the world, and her lifelong friend and bosom companion, Mrs. Butterfield, was a part-time cook and char as well. Both looked after a fashionable clientele in Belgravia, where they met varying adventures during the day, picking up stray and interesting pieces of gossip from the odd bods for whom they worked. At night they visited one another for a final cup of tea to exchange these tidbits.

I hope to sit down with Mrs. 'Arris sometime in the near future, mug of tea and scones at my elbow, and get to know her better.  No, this isn't deep, world-rumbling literature.  But then again, sometimes I need a break from Franzen, DFW, and Denis Johnson.  Mrs. 'Arris'll do just fine, thankyouverymuch.


  1. Bravo. There have been many books from foggy, youthful memories I have hunted over the years. Your piece made me feel I was on the hunt once again.

  2. How fun! I love finds like this. And I know just the 89 year old widow to track down Mrs. 'Arris for... thanks, David.

  3. This just made me feel wistful! I hunted down Paul Gallico books for years - so wonderful finding them in a myriad of unexpected places..