You’ve had fun watching Beaver on T.V. Now have fun reading about him…
When I have reviewed Beverly Cleary’s work here in the past, I have opened by invoking “Leave It To Beaver,” and it’s not just because both works present a kid-centric view of growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In 1960-61, Cleary was the obvious choice to adapt “Beaver” into a series of tie-in novelizations to the TV show.
Long used as shorthand for a bland, patriarchal, suburban type of nostalgia, I actually feel like “Leave it to Beaver”, the TV series, has mostly been reevaluated, with its stubbornly child’s point of view, well-meaning fatherly advice that unerringly causes more problems than it solves, mom who often seems to be on her last nerve, and of course obnoxious teenage hipster Eddie Haskell.
These paperback originals seem to have been reissued under various titles throughout the 60s, outlasting the run of the TV series (and reissued as eBooks this past year). Cleary’s first book adapts six episodes of the series, so the loosely-connected vignettes have more in common with the format of Emily’s Runaway Imagination than they do with her better-known novels of the era. The constraints of writing for characters that are not her own limits the kookiness, but there is still a lot of weird and relatable stuff going on here.
“Beaver and the Pigeons”
10-year-old Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver gets himself into a very Henry Huggins-esque dilemma when he and his friends form a club to train homing pigeons, and purchases said pigeons from the local pet store without consulting his parents. When he broaches the subject at dinner, older brother Wally darkly alludes to the last time Beaver was allowed a pet and something went horribly wrong:
Beaver remembered uncomfortably all the talk there had been about those rabbits- how he hadn’t been responsible enough and how he was too young- the sort of things grown ups say when a boy does something that doesn’t turn out right.
“Remember those rabbits he had,” warned Wally.
“Now, Wally,” said Mrs. Clever. “Let Beaver explain.”
“Sure,” Wally said agreeably. “I just want Dad to remember about those rabbits.”
“OK, I remember the rabbits.”
While Beaver eventually convinces his parents, he, along with pals Whitey and Larry, have their hopes dashed when the pigeons only home back to their former owner, but not before they give the Cleavers a case of psychosomatic lice.
Beaver’s beloved teacher Miss Landers accidentally stokes the flames of a feud that Beaver is having with annoying classmate Judy when she plans a Veteran’s Day celebration; while Beaver is quick to brag that “My father as in the same war with President Eisenhower,” Judy’s one-upmanship inspires him to stretch the truth about what his father actually did in the War. As a sheltered Baby Boomer, he has no idea.
Searching through his father’s steamer trunk for medals, hand grenades and other war trophies, his father informs him that as a Seabee, his main duty was as a surveyor for the construction of airfields, and glibly announces that he mostly “leveled dirt.”
There is an amusing interlude when, inspired by his little brother’s quest, for a school assignment Wally writes what he imagines is a love letter from his father to his mother written while under enemy attack and forgiving her for “losing all of the medals I sent you.”
In the end it is Miss Landers who saves the day (she’s on her last nerve where Judy is concerned) by making a short speech celebrating the war’s “unsung heroes” such as “the brave men of the Seabees like Beaver’s father who leveled the dirt to build the air bases”.
But ultimately, Beaver taunts Judy by bragging that if it weren’t for his father, her Air Force pilot father would “still be flying around with no place to land.” So, zero lessons learned.
“Beaver Gets Adopted”
I have not watched any “Leave it to Beaver” reruns in quite a while, but the main difference I see in Cleary’s adaptation is that Beaver seems quite a bit dimmer and Wally much more sarcastic on the printed page.
Beaver openly worships his very Beezus-like older brother in a very un-Ramona-like way. In this one, he is content to bask in Wally’s reflected glory as he sweeps all of the track and field events in the town’s field day, bringing home a gold plastic trophy.
Only later does it occur to Beaver that he was being laughed at not with when he failed to finish the fifty-yard dash in borrowed sneakers. Recalling a classmate who was always bragging about
…how her parents chose her because they liked her best out of a whole bunch of kids. She bragged so much it got so the rest of the class felt as if their parents were just stuck with them because they had to take what they got in the way of children.
Beaver takes himself down to the local adoption agency to see if he can get himself a new family. Nearly instantly regretting this course of action, Wally comes to the rescue when the orphanage calls the house and comes down to collect him, allowing his younger brother to save face
“Beaver Goes Shopping”
When Mrs. Cleaver goes out of town to visit a relative with a new baby, she arranges to have her Aunt Martha come to stay with the Cleaver men (Lord knows if Ward was left in charge the house would burn down…) Waspish and old fashioned, Aunt Martha is dubious about Wally and Beaver’s California Casual lifestyle. When she offers to take Beaver shopping he jumps at the chance, sure he convinces her to buy him “the very finest leather jackets with the fiercest eagles on the back.”
Instead, she buys him a suit with short pants and half-socks, which leads to Beaver getting into a fight with his entire Sunday School class when they question his sartorial choices. When Aunt Martha has repaired his suit in time for school on Monday, his father engages him in a conspiracy in which he will leave the house in the suit but change into his jeans in the garage and change back in the afternoon before coming inside. Aunt Martha is so delighted that Beaver appreciates his new clothes that she rewards him with cookies and cake every day after school, making Beaver feel more and more guilty about the deception.
When his father gives him an “out” about going to the airport and seeing Aunt Martha off (and thus having to wear the suit in public), Beaver is sensitive to his Aunt’s disappointment, and decides to suck it up and wear it, doing his best to ignore the comments it draws from the adults in the crowd.
His newfound maturity is rewarded with the eagle-emblazoned leather jacket of his dreams.
“Beaver’s Big Game”
Guys, honestly this one was so stressful to read!
When a gopher starts digging up Mrs. Cleaver’s marigolds, the boys’ father improvises a box trap to catch it and instead ends up capturing a white rabbit. Beaver is eager to take it on as a pet, but again, Wally is there to ominously bring up the tragic end of Beaver’s last rabbit. OF COURSE Henry the rabbit turns out to be pregnant and now Beaver has seven rabbits. Doubling down on his efforts to show that he’s a responsible pet owner, Beaver is concerned when Henry seems to reject one of the babies, and he scoops it up to keep it warm.
Too late, Wally drops that his father shared some crucial advice on rabbits:
“It would probably die, so be sure you don’t touch any of them while their babies.”
Beaver could see that Wally spoke with assurance. “How come you know so much about it?”
“Dad just told me. After we had those other rabbits that conked our he asked around and found out that was probably the reason why.”
“Why didn’t he tell me?” Beaver demanded.
WHY INDEED???? Obviously, Beaver has been wandering around with residual rabbit guilt for years!
Consulting with local eccentric and Auxiliary Fireman Gus, he is advised to sprinkle baby powder on the baby rabbits and put vanilla on Henry’s nose to confuse her about what smells like what. When Wally and his parents go out to the garage to see the rabbits, Beaver is prepared for the worst, but instead the family finds all six babies contentedly nursing.
Well. That was an emotional roller coaster.
“Beaver and Wally”
This is the other story with some seriously weird undertones, going deep on the question of Why Doesn’t Beaver Have Any Friends His Own Age?
The brothers quarrel after Wally agrees to paint the family garbage cans for $1 cash money, and then endlessly puts off doing so, allowing an eager Beaver to step in and do the job.
They’re still on the outs when Wally leaves with his Boy Scout troop for an overnight camping trip (organized by Eddie Haskell, in his only appearance in this collection). Without his older brother, Beaver finds himself at loose ends. When he pays a call on schoolmate Whitey, he learns that all of the neighborhood boys have gone to the movies without him; when he shows up at the park to play baseball with Wally’s friends, the older boys tell him to get lost, they only let him hang around because Wally insists upon it.
When he stops by Gus’s firehouse, he finds that even the local eccentric has no time for him, as the Chief is coming by for an inspection.
Beaver does find his adult friend Charlie, who works for the local power company, and allows him to watch him while he works in a manhole (and leaves Beaver “guarding” the manhole while he takes an extended coffee break).
Deeply contrite about his fight with Wally by the time he returns home, he finds that Wally is sick in bed after the whole troop got rained on after Eddie Haskell forgot to pack tents, and the brothers make up.
Cleary would write two more books based on TV scripts (and a few other books for younger readers were published by different authors); these are available in new editions and for the Kindle via Amazon.