Parnassus on Wheels

What a blah weekend!  Raw and rainy, neither Saturday nor Sunday inspired me to any great exertions. On Saturday I drove to the south end of Tongass Highway for the first time (and for those of you who urged me to go, you were right: the two large waterfalls along the way are spectacular).  Then I drove back north through town to visit the Rendezvous Thrift Shop. I was looking for furniture, but there was none to be found. There were, however, books. I can never go by a book shelf without looking—thrift shops, grocery stores, book sales—it doesn’t matter where they are.  You never know what you’ll find.

Among the recently-published paperbacks were a few older books. One in particular jumped out at me. It was a copy of ‘Parnassus on Wheels’, originally written in 1917 by Christopher Morley, and reprinted in 1955 for the Book-Of-The-Month Club.  I had not read it in at least a few decades and the details were dim in my mind.  But I remembered the way it made me feel.  Reader, I bought it.

‘Parnassus on Wheels’ is the fictional story of Helen McGill, hard-working sister of successful author Andrew McGill. Helen is stuck cooking and minding the farm while the Great Man writes about his rambles around the country. (It is said to be based on author David Grayson, an early 20th century writer of Thoreau-like essays.)

Helen is a salt-of-the-earth, practical woman in her late 30s who resents her brother’s frequent absences.  When Roger Mifflin comes by looking to sell his bookshop on wheels, Helen decides to buy it herself.  Her subsequent adventures are funny and diverting, and give an insight into the life of a rural woman of 100 years ago.  Her description of a typical day of cooking, for instance:

“Hot bread and coffee, eggs and preserves for breakfast; soup and hot meat, vegetables, dumplings, gravy, brown bread and white, huckleberry pudding, chocolate cake and buttermilk for dinner; muffins, tea, sausage rolls, blackberries and cream, and doughnuts for supper—that’s the kind of menu I had been preparing three times a day for years.”

Parnassus is the name of the bookshop, drawn by a horse called Pegasus. McGill and Mifflin ride through the countryside, stopping in farmhouses and small towns to sell their wares. Mifflin has a passion for the power of books:

“The mandarins of culture—what do they teach the common folk to read? It’s no good writing down lists of books for farmers and compiling five-foot shelves; you’ve got to go out and visit the people yourself—take the books to them, talk to the teachers and bully the editors of country newspapers and farm magazines and tell the children stories—and then little by little you begin to get good books circulating in the veins of the nation. It’s a great work, mind you!”

For anyone who loves books the story is a small, perfect gem.  This 160-page book is a hymn to the written word, a gentle portrait of rural America in the 1910s, and an inspiration.  And—it is in the UAS-Ketchikan Library’s collection, call number PS3525.O71 P3 1955.

About Pat Tully

Librarian exploring effective leadership, local history and community service.
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