When Emily gets an idea, nothing can stop her!
Today Beverly Cleary celebrates her 103rd (!!!) birthday, and in tribute we are again looking at one of her early works. She is best known (do I really need to say this?) for the Leave It to Beaver-style adventures of sisters Ramona and Beezus Quimby and neighborhood everyboy Henry Huggins; her work has remained consistently in print for nearly 70 years.
The Plot: Set in the 1920s in rural Pitchfork, Yamhill County, Oregon, Cleary again writes some very gentle (and undoubtably autobiographical) adventures for her preteen protagonist, prominent local girl Emily Bartlett.
Mainly a series of vignettes as Emily interacts with various locals (many of whom she is related to), the through-story involves a very serious and most noble undertaking: Emily’s efforts to bring a public library to Pitchfork.
While nostalgic (it was first published in 1961) in its look back at the 1920s and the community pulling together, whether for a “Silver Tea” to raise money for the library or a “Hard Times” party to raise spirits when the prices for crops are down, it also presents an especially optimistic view of new technology: in a town with just as many horses as automobiles, Emily’s Grandfather cheerfully announces he’s going to keep up with the times and buy a Model-T.
The impetus for Emily’s crusade to found a library is her envy of her city-dwelling cousin, Muriel, who writes lengthy letters detailing all of the books she checks out of her local library, especially her favorite, Black Beauty, the description of which Emily finds equally puzzling and enticing.
When horse-crazy Muriel announces that she will be coming to visit for Memorial Day and hopes to ride a real horse at last, Emily is in despair that she can only offer one of the Bartlett’s plow-horses, hardly the elegant steed she imagines her cousin is imagining. She convinces her mother to allow her to “Clorox” one of the horses, much to the amusement of the neighboring bachelor farmer:
“Well, I’ll be gol-dinged,” said Pete Ginty. “Cloroxing a horse! I always did say women were too neat and tidy for their own good, but this beats anything I ever heard.”
“I’m not doing it to be neat and tidy,” Emily said hotly. “I’m doing it because my cousin Muriel is coming out from Portland and she has been reading a book about a beautiful black horse and I want to turn Lady into a beautiful white horse.” She could hear him telling the men who hung around the livery stable about it. From now on every man she met would say, “Hello, there, Emily. Cloroxed any horses lately?” That was the trouble with a small town. Nobody could ever live anything down.
Pete is won over by this tale of woe and helps Emily bleach Lady’s tail. But the overall effect still isn’t what Emily is going for, even after adding a garland of sweet pea blossom around Lady’s neck. When Muriel arrives and immediately wants to see the horses, Emily worries about her cousin’s reaction, but Muriel surprises her:
“A white horse!” exclaimed Muriel, her face alight with admiration. “That’s even better than a black horse.”
Cleary’s empathy for her young characters is her greatest gift as a writer- just as she takes Emily’s plight to glamorize Lady very seriously, she also does not make fun of citified Muriel’s rapture over finally being on a horse or her Black Beauty-inspired concern for Lady’s welfare:
“You don’t think the horse will get tired, do you?” she asked.
“No.” Emily did not tell her cousin that Lady was used to pulling a plow for hours at a time.
“In Black Beauty some of the masters were terribly cruel to horses,” said Muriel. “I wouldn’t want to be cruel to a horse.”
In contrast to Muriel, who seems to share Emily’s titular imagination, is down-to-earth cousin June, who comes to spend the night when Emily’s father has to go off to band practice.
Despite Emily’s best efforts, June is moved by neither Mrs. Bartlett’s recitation of “The Raven” nor Emily pointing out that the farmhouse has thirteen rooms.
“Well,” said June, “our great-grandfather had a big family. He needed a lot of rooms.”
Oh honestly, June, thought Emily crossly, you aren’t being any fun at all.
Emily tried to think of something ghostly, but all she could think of was the skeleton of a cow down in the pasture and there was nothing ghostly about that. The cow did not die of a broken heart. It was a cow Daddy had to shoot because it ate some baling wire.
But Emily’s imagination and June’s skepticism are both put to the test when a sudden thunderstorm comes up and they hear mysterious noises from their attic bedroom. Emily dares herself to look out the window…
Through the lashing branches of the horse chestnut tree she could see a ghostly white figure moving across the barnyard. She shut her eyes and opened them again. The ghostly figure was really there. She could see it with her own eyes.
It turns out to be her father chasing their escaped bull around the yard in his nightshirt, after said bull gets a copper wash-kettle stuck on its head. Standing by in her nightgown is Emily’s mother, ready with a pitchfork.
And let’s talk about Emily’s mom for a second, because she is awesome. Not only does she take her daughter’s quest for a public library seriously, rallying the other ladies of the town to the cause, but she has also lived an adventurous life of her own, coming west from Chicago as a teenager to work as a school teacher, surviving a an incident with a runaway horse, and then accidentally dating a dashing man who turns out to be a horse thief.
It’s Mom that organizes the Silver Tea, to celebrate the opening of and raise funds for the library. She’s also the one who realizes the importance of what they’re doing when a young boy shows up from a neighboring town:
“We read about the library in the Pitchfork Report and I walked down the railroad track to see if I could get some books too.”
“Why, that’s at least four miles,” said Mama, “and four miles back again.”
The boy looked at the floor. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Of course you my take some books for your family,” said Mama. This boy wanted to read. That was enough for her. It made no difference where he lived.
“I hope you enjoy them,” Mama said, watching the boy as he slipped through the crowd and disappeared down the stairs. “Just think, that boy is willing to walk eight miles along a railroad track for books,” she remarked, and Emily thought that Mama looked both happy and sad at the same time.
And I’m sorry there is SOMETHING IN MY EYYYYYYEEEEE.
Another unexpected patron of Emily and Mrs. Bartlett’s efforts is their neighbor, Fong Quock, the retired owner of the local candy shop, who had come to the United States with a wave of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, but in the post-Exclusion Act world, he is the only one that stayed to “seek his fortune”.
How do we feel about Fong Quock in 2019? His accent is played for comedy, and Emily spends most of the book hiding from him, embarrassed that she had thoughtlessly corrected his pronunciation of the Bartlett’s dog’s name from “Plince” to “Prince”, and the whole town heard about it. On the other hand, the residents of Pitchfork regard him as one of their own, an exotic but respected citizen. At the end of the book, a rumor circulates that he is moving back to China, and wants to “buy” Emily to take back as a bride for one of his grandsons, but the joke is played more at Emily’s expense than Fong Quock’s, her comeuppance for her impertinence to her elder.
But when Emily learns that Fong Quock really is returning to China, she gets a surprise when she learns that he is donating his home to house the local library, which has grown to the point of being crowded out of its space in the local Men’s Club. Emily decides to swallow her pride and try to make it up to him, making a Valentine card for him :
Emily felt ashamed of herself for avoiding such a nice old man, a remarkable man who was giving a whole house for the library.
As Emily was tiptoeing down the walk, Fong Quock, who must have been watching her all the time, opened the door and picked up the valentine. He opened the envelope and studied the kittens with a smile on his wrinkled old face. Then he looked at Emily and smiled and nodded his head. Emily smiled and nodded her head. Fong Quock waved and Emily waved back.
With a light heart Emily went hippity-hopping on her way home. This remarkable man, who had given his house for a library and who was going to travel all the way to China, knew someone in Pitchfork was thinking of him.