Sunday, July 17, 2005

Celebrating E.C. Spykman


While the rest of the world devoted itself to reading and celebrating the latest Harry Potter (not that I'm too snooty to read it, it's just we're partial to the UK versions and ours won't be delivered for another week to 10 days), I spent my free time over the last few days with my favorite children's novels in honor of their author's birthday.

Elizabeth Choate was born in Southboro, Massachusetts, on this date in 1896. In her mid-thirties she married an educator, Nicholas Spykman (pronounced Speakman), and had two daughters. Her husband died in 1943. She contributed articles to Atlantic Monthly and wrote a history of the first 50 years of the Westover school for girls in Middlebury, Connecticut.

She published her first children's novel, A Lemon and a Star, in 1955. Two years later she published a sequel, The Wild Angel, which was followed in 1960 with the third installment in the continuing saga of the Cares children of Summerton, Massachusetts, Terrible, Horrible Edie. She died in 1965, and her fourth novel, Edie on the Warpath, was published the following year.

That's it-the sum total that I know about the woman who wrote the books that meant the most to me while I was growing up. I have no way of knowing if Jane Cares, whose tenth birthday on June 17, 1907, is recounted in the first chapter of A Lemon and a Star, is based on Elizabeth Choate's young self or if she was, in fact, more like younger sibling Edith, who shares her initials and whose adventures were worthy of two separate volumes, or some combination of the two. Who knows-they-along with brothers Theodore and Hubert--may be whole cloth inventions with no real life counterparts, although the back flap of one of the books claims they all stem from the author's childhood. Perhaps I can get more info by reading Sarah L. Rueter's introduction to The Wild Angel, which was republished by Gregg Press in 1981 (why only the second volume of the series?); I need to place an ILL request very soon.

The Cares themselves grew up in a large house in the country surrounded by dairy farms owned by various aunts and uncles, woods, open fields, swamps, and "reservoir basins that ran in a chain like a quiet river right through town, the family lawns and pastures along their borders." Their father took a train to work each day; "Edie had killed their real mother, as everybody knew, by having to get herself born," leaving the children at home with a house full of servants unable to keep them under control and out of trouble. When the four gain a stepmother near the end of A Lemon and a Star she manages to take the edge off the father's disciplinary excesses but Theodore, Jane, Hubert and Edie continue to run amuck (I first heard the phrase "run amuck" in these books as well as the word "lollapalooza"), having one exciting adventure after another: unauthorized steeplechases, walks across the top of the reservoir, encounters with country thugs and French governesses and foxes and skunks.

By the time Edie takes center stage in the third volume, Ted, Jane and Hubert have toned down considerably, although Ted's temper and bossiness haven't abated. Frustrated by her lack of rights and privileges compared to those of her older brothers, especially when she's continually insulted by the same, Edie feels she must rebel and, at times, take revenge against those who deem her unworthy of consideration. Her best friend Susan, a minister's daughter, tries to teach her to rely on God to supply her needs, although Edie is convinced God is primarily concerned with helping boys, not girls like herself. When the teacher hired to teach Edie and Susan refuses to teach them arithmetic because they are girls, Edie drops all their books out the attic window--certainly not a rational response by today's standards, but Spykman is willing to show her characters both succeed and fail. Edie risks considerable danger at the shore by taking a boat out alone and dares to punch a cop during a suffragettes parade. She eventually manages to prove her worth to her family by a risky manuever with a neighbor's bull.

Occasionally I'll check my stats and see that someone's been here searching for information on E. C. Spykman, so I can't be the only person who read and continues to love these books. Why can't they be brought back into print so that a new generation of readers can fall under their spell?

16 comments:

Lea said...

She was the most thrillingly REAL portrayer of childhood ever. To read her books is to be swept up in the genuine, powerful and at times fierce emotions that children experience. Her stories are also wildly funny. Not to be missed!

Anonymous said...

I love Spykman's books! Edie is so quirky and so imaginative and you can enjoy her naughtiness because she's not mean-spirited. Even those people who foil Edie's plans are rendered sympathetically. You can understand their motives -- even if Edie's sheer audacity trumps their good intentions.

Eric Hanson said...

I'd never read any of these books until NYRB sent me Terrible Horrible Edie to illustrate. What a treat! I wish I'd known about these books when my daughter was 10. I shall try to do this wonderful character justice. It's nice to see publishers like NYRB and Persephone rescuing books of this type from obscurity.

rosyposy said...

Rosy Curtis said...
I can hardly believe it ! I am brand new to this running round The Net lark and still playing at it. Whiling away and thinking of what to Ask It I thought, wonder if Terrible, horrible Edie is in there? (out there ?) I read it as a child, about 8 years old, when I discovered I could borrow books from the library and used to read 5 or 6 a week. 1957 ish. couldnt recall the story and had NO idea who wrote it. But one line has stayed with me all this time.... when Edie cut her (?)hair...one deicious,grinding snip. I can feel it, hear it,have the zithery rythm of it in my fingers ! Years later one of my daughters had me cut her nearly knee-length hair and I plaited it first before making that very "delicious, grinding snip". I wished then that I could read the story again. Hopefully now I can, but to granddaughters now. Nostalgia, nostalgia!

Anonymous said...

how memory plays tricks, i must have been older than 8 or i read it before it was written ! still a long time ago tho.

SFP said...

Hi Rosy! I can remember searching for the Spykman books when I first got on the internet and was bummed when I couldn't find anything! I made sure as soon as I could that there would be something for those who remembered the Cares to find!

JudyBG said...

I am so happy to find that others recall these wonderful books and even happier to find that at least Terrible, Horrible Edie is being republished.

She ranks with the very best--E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Elizabeth Enright. A childhood deprived of their company is a poor one indeed.

meupi said...

me encanta un limon y una estrella,y me gustaria leer todos los libros

tut-tut said...

I'm surprised these haven't been in perpetual publication. Several years ago there was an outcry from a small but influential group when the Betsy-Tacey books were to become out of print, and the campaign was successful to keep them published. I love these and just got The Wild Angel from an Abe.com bookseller, so now I have all four.

Rebekah Gillette said...

So happy to find this site.I grew up next door to Mrs. Spykman and was familiar with her writing cabins she had set up in the cedar woods surrounding our rented farmhouse. One had a view of Long Island Sound, with a writing desk and small bed.As a child I knew every acre of that woods.She did love children, and I had 3 siblings.Mrs.Spykman had the most wonderful Easter egg hunts EVER inviting us and all her family to find eggs and stuffed animals.We also benefited from her asparagus bed, I remember eating LOTS of asparagus as a child. I still remember her laugh.

JudyBG said...

Thank you for sharing that memory! I always knew she must be lovable, because her characters were so beautifully realized. No one who lacked humour, imagination or integrity could possible have brought them to life the way she did. But now you have given me an image of her from beyond simply how I imagined her to be, and it is delightful.

SFP said...

Rebekah, I'm thrilled you found us and that you shared your memories of Mrs. Spykman. Thank you!

I'm still hoping that since NYRB brought out a new edition of Terrible, Horrible Edie in 2010, they'll eventually republish the rest of her books at some point. I would love to hear that Eric Hanson's been told he's to illustrate all the covers.

Julia said...

All Spykman fans should get on board the campaign to save her childhood home from demolition. Help is urgently needed. See http://www.mysouthborough.com/2014/07/17/video-garfield-house-protest/#comment-192526.

SFP said...

This is the actual house she grew up in, Julia, and not just a local landmark? She wasn't mentioned in the video.

SFP said...

At any rate, the sale didn't go through:

http://historicalgood.org/standup/Blog/Entries/2014/7/22_Day_8__Victory!.html

Hurray!

And now I'm in the mood to reread Sypyman now that I've found the documents at http://historicalgood.org/

Virginia said...

Just found this site, and glad to see all the appreciative comments on EC Spykman's books. I also love them. I have been researching Spykman and may be formalising this as post-graduate university study next year. Rebekah - I would love to hear more from you and wondering if you'd be interested in being interviewed about your recollections? Also, just to clarify Julia's post, the home threatened with demolition is that of her maternal grandfather - Joseph Burnett (inventor of vanilla essence amongst many other achievements).