A Billion For Boris By Mary Rodgers

Enclosed please find a detailed account of a most unusual experience recently undergone by me, my brother and a friend of mine who lives upstairs in our apartment building…

A Billion for Boris

Background: Broadway composer Mary Rodgers (daughter of composer Richard, mother of composer Adam Guettel) introduced readers to sophisticated, unapologetically slovenly, teen Annabel Andrews in 1972, in the classic Freaky Friday, in which the generation gap is bridged when Annabel swaps bodies with her mother for a day. Ten years later, Annabel’s younger brother Ben (“Ape Face”) would undergo the same transformation in Summer Switch, swapping bodies with his father, discovering that a 12 year boy makes a pretty good Hollywood executive.

But in between all of this body-swapping, Annabel, Ape Face and Annabel’s boyfriend Boris Harris had an entirely unrelated set of adventures on the mean streets of 1970s New York, this time involving a magical television set.

The Plot: The book opens with a letter from Annabel to the head of the parapsychology Department at Barron University, requesting that they review the enclosed “report” of ESP activity- she swears that this first-hand account is “the absolute verbatim truth” and all parties concerned “positively reek with credibility”.

Annabel’s report begins with the “basic facts” about herself, her younger brother, and upstairs neighbor and almost-boyfriend Boris (including reminding Freaky Friday readers about how Boris is actually named Morris), and how this whole crisis started when, after a romantic birthday celebration at The Bitter End, Boris presents Annabel with the unromantic gift of a pair of walkie-talkies.

Annabel is also distressed about the fact that despite living downstairs from the Harrises for her entire life, she has yet to meet Boris’s mother, a fabulously eccentric author to whom the buttoned-down Boris is allergic. Literally.

It soon comes to light that Sascha Harris is so fiscally irresponsible that the phone has been turned off for non-payment (hence the walkie-talkies) and the Harrises are in hock for tuition for Boris’s fancy private school, let alone the rent on their pad at the Majestic (in Summer Switch Ape Face complains about having to constantly correct people who assume that 115 CPW is the Dakota, having to explain that they live across the street at the Majestic). Annabel desperately wants to help her friend, but it is Ape Face who discovers a solution when he fixes up a broken TV set that Boris sold him for fifty cents and it miraculously starts broadcasting the next day’s programs.

Ape Face, who isn’t even allowed to watch TV in the first place, just wants to sneak in the afternoon Creature Features, and never does understand what he’s done, but Boris sees a chance to raise some cash by betting on horse racing.

Annabel tries to balance books, karmically speaking, by trying to prevent the constant muggings, rapes and murders she learns about in advance, but the future obstinately refuses to be changed: if it appears on “The Box” it is going to happen, one way or another.

New York of 1974 is populated with an assortment of colorful lowlifes- tabloid reporters, Weathermen, and OTB habitués. Rodgers also meticulously documents the dueling accents of the city, such as this scene in which Annabel fails to prevent a Bleeker Street warehouse fire:

“She trun a bomb inna winda,” said Dan Diction. All the guys were staring at me.

“I did not trun a…” I took a deep breath and began again, enunciating carefully and clearly, and pausing between each and every word.

“I did not throw a bomb in the window. I threw a beer can…”

“She trun a bomb!”

“She din’t trow no bomb. She trew a beer can. To tell you the trute,” he admitted, “she was trowin’ it back after I trew it at her.”

Annabel’s “ESP” arouses the suspicions of Daily News reporter Bartholomew Bacon, who becomes increasingly dependent upon Annabel for his scoops.

(In a joke that went way over my head as young reader, Annabel initially identifies herself to Bacon as “Marvin the Torch”)

Annabel becomes increasingly concerned with Boris’s increasing avarice, as his bets at the Port Authority Bus Terminal OTB start paying off. When Sascha abruptly takes off for the west coast, Boris grabs the chance to redecorate the apartment, buy his mother a new wardrobe and find her a psychiatrist. Annabel, still trying to do good, arranges to have the Harrises’ discarded clothes, furniture and appliances shipped to their housekeeper’s Granddaddy Clovis, who lives deep in the heart of the Florida Everglades.

Boris bets big on the Kentucky Derby, but his winning streak comes to an end when Annabel and Ape Face’s mother discovers that Ape Face has been watching contraband television programs and ships The Box off to Granddaddy Clovis with a load of old furniture.

Boris is initially furious, which rouses long-dormant sisterly feelings in Annabel:

Then he did something I would have never thought him capable of. Repeating, “Isn’t that what I told you never to do, isn’t it?” he shook Ape Face back and forth ‘til I though his teeth would fall out.

Next it was my turn to do something I never would have thought I’d be capable of. I hauled off and socked Boris in the chops- hard.

Finally, Ape Face said in tones of great awe, “Gee, Annabel, you’re as tough as John Wayne!”

“I had it coming to me,” said Boris, licking his swollen lip.

“And you sound like John Wayne,” said Ape Face.

At least Boris will be able to collect enough from his OTB bets to cover his mother’s debts, and so all is forgiven as he and Annabel settle in to enjoy Derby Day with a champagne toast. All’s well that ends well, right?

Unfortunately, Ape Face had been left in charge of monitoring the racing results, and he immediately switched over to the movie, missing the fact that the horse Boris bet on had been disqualified. Not only broke again, but now tens of thousands of dollars indebted to Saks Fifth Avenue, Boris half-heartedly attempts to jump out of a window. Annabel is in the midst of consoling him when Sascha arrives home, less concerned about the money and more concerned that Boris has thrown away all of their things and replaced them with mink coats and white naugahyde living room suites.

Mother and son have a long-coming blow up, which of course results in understanding and acceptance for all parties. Plus Sascha was in L.A. collecting a $50,000 payday on a screenplay anyway, so NBD.

Meta! Department: The book’s coda is in the form of a response from Barron University, in which the head of the Parapsychology Department expresses a very mercenary interest in locating Granddaddy Clovis and The Box.

However, he also suggests that Annabel send her fantastic tale to Ursula Nordstrom at Harper & Row. Nordstrom was, of course, the famed editor who brought us Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web, the “Little House” series and… the work of Mary Rodgers.

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18 Responses to A Billion For Boris By Mary Rodgers

  1. meinthecity says:

    You have not only made me want to read this book. But also wonder what kind of drugs the author was on while she was writing.

    You don’t think she came up with all this sober do you?

    • mondomolly says:

      LOL, whatever it was I want some!

      I *highly* recommend tracking down a copy, it is just chock full of 8th graders doing things that would be considered wildly inappropriate in 2015- and a ton of fun to boot!

  2. miss amy says:

    And it has a cover by Edward Gorey, don’t forget! I love his covers for these books–I want Annabel’s outfit so bad on this one.

    Admission: I never read the sequels to Freaky Friday, since I bought my (Gorey-covered, falling apart) edition at a church sale and never came across the others. It sounds like I’ve got to get reading.

    • mondomolly says:

      I haven’t read Summer Switch since childhood (it was actually the first one in the series I read), but I remember the descriptions of Los Angeles and the film industry being pretty funny- I still think its descriptions of the differences between Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Brentwood whenever those neighborhoods are mentioned 😉

      Eye-opening information for an east coaster!

      Thanks for your comments!

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  4. Tracy says:

    Another book I have to find! I remember reading this one now…thanks for the reminder!
    What I wouldn’t give to browse through my elementary and middle school libraries again!

    • Susan says:

      I actually used to have dreams once in a while about my elementary school library 🙂 !

    • mondomolly says:

      This one is so much fun- with the 40th anniversary of the 1977 NYC blackout this summer, I was watching some old newscasts from then and this book does such a great job of capturing the mood of the city! Thanks for commenting!

  5. Keri says:

    I’m trying to track down a book for a library patron, and this may be it. He remembers a boy who has a tv or radio that tells him the near future. He also remembers a part of the book where the character throws away a bunch of food after hearing one of the future broadcasts. Does this book have any scenes that are like that? Thank you! This is such a fun blog, I’m glad to have run across it!

  6. Erin says:

    I love this trilogy so much! I re-read them annually. And my cat’s name is Boris Harris.

  7. Jennifer L. Schillig says:

    I have always loved this book, maybe a little bit more than Freaky Friday. Definitely more than the other sequels, which were just retreads of Freaky Friday’s premise. I loved the bit at the end where Boris asks Annabel if she misses not knowing about the future, and Annabel says that she doesn’t…she’d grown to hate knowing that people were going to suffer from things she couldn’t prevent. (An incident with an armed robbery that left the elderly shopkeeper dead and his wife grieving had really hit her badly.) Boris asks her what about the things she could influence, such as “playing gin rummy with your old grandmother so she won’t get caught in a blizzard”? Annabel tells him that she’s also come to realize she’d have thousands of opportunities like that at any one time, and would have to constantly decide WHO to save–and she just isn’t cut out to bear that kind of responsibility.

    You can tell this was written in the 1970s (before the whole “stranger danger” thing really erupted in the eighties) because it’s full of free-range fourteen-year-olds–wandering around NYC, no less, and in some pretty shady areas. For example, Annabel goes to her reporter pal’s apartment in a rather run-down area alone. (After his boss at the paper casually gives her his home address–can you imagine THAT happening today?) She seems to have some idea of how to handle herself–she debates which door she can knock on that would be less dangerous for a young girl alone–but still, it’s not something I can imagine happening quite so easily today. At least with Boris, there’s the excuse that his mother isn’t all that involved, but Annabel’s parents seem to be a lot more involved and protective (Annabel’s big fight with her mother in Freaky Friday that sparked off the whole thing was not being allowed to go to a boy-girl party where the mother would be staying out of the way). And that’s not even getting into their going to off-track betting places on their own (after they’ve figured out which ones aren’t going to look too closely at their ages)!

    There’s only one thing in this novel that really jars me–it went over my head as a kid but really stood out to me as an adult. Annabel’s friend Virginia–a fourteen-year-old like her, though she’d like to think she’s going on thirty–goes after any guy Annabel shows an interest in, or that she later drops. She goes after Boris when Annabel gives her a cover story she’s in love with Bart (the reporter) and not Boris, and when Annabel tells her that it’s over between her and Bart, she makes a beeline for Bart, who later tells Annabel he’s fallen in love with Virginia and they’re in a relationship now. A man in his early twenties…in a relationship…with a FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD. And no one, not even Annabel, seems to think this is the LEAST bit skeezy! I mean, I know this was the sophisticated New York that Mary Rodgers was used to, but REALLY?! Were relationships between adult men and underage schoolgirls at all acceptable even in THAT set?! It’s as if Rodgers forgot these characters were fourteen and thought they were late high-school or early college instead.

    I know there was a movie version of this that didn’t make much of a splash. If I were adapting this for a new film version (after all, there’s been a new film version of Freaky Friday, though one that’s not all that faithful to the original), I’d junk the whole Virginia subplot. Instead, since Annabel says she wants to be a journalist, I’d have it be some sort of career-mentoring thing–she knows Bart already through the mentoring program, runs into him again at the big factory fire, and realizes that she can really help the career of this guy she’s taken a liking to. Boris knows about it, and worries a bit as to Bart’s real intentions (“C’mon, Boris, I’m fourteen and he’s twenty-four. What could he possibly want with a fourteen-year-old?” “You live in NEW YORK and you ask me THAT?!”) but Bart, of course, turns out to be trustworthy in the end.

    I’d also add a bit to the scene where Annabel goes to the school psychologist Dr. Artunian to ask if she can recommend a psychiatrist for Sascha, and Dr. Artunian thinks she’s using the I Have This Friend cover story. Instead of just giving up then and there, I’d have Annabel set Dr. Artunian straight as to the real story (minus any mention of The Box, of course–it’s just “my upstairs boyfriend’s mother has no fiscal or practical responsibility and it’s killing Boris that he has to take all that on, so can you recommend a psychiatrist for her?”). And Dr. Artunian gently tries to get Annabel to see that Boris can’t change his mother’s behavior, only how he deals with it…and furthermore, she doesn’t think it sounds as if Boris is really being fair to Annabel by dragging her into the middle of his family conflict. That way, there’s a seed of doubt planted in Annabel’s mind that resonates in the ending.

    One last thought on this book I’ve always loved, since I learned more about Mary Rodgers: she was close pals with Stephen Sondheim. I can’t help but wonder if Boris’ conflict with his mother drew a little bit on Sondheim’s life, since he also had a fractious relationship with his own mother.

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for commenting! I love that somebody loves and remembers this book as much I do! And yes, especially books set in NYC in the 70s certainly took a more casual attitutude towards crime- I wa sthinking of Tales of a Fourth Grade NOthing the other day and how the 9 year old narrator casually talks about how many times he and his friends have been mugged and their trips to the police station to look at mug shots.

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