Katherine’s Little (Vintage) Indulgence


Katherine Hauswirth

When my son Gavin was a new reader I relished the chance to bring him Where the Wild Things Are, especially the delicious last line that I wanted him to equally savor—“And it was still hot.” He’s an eclectic and voracious reader now, and it’s a thrill for me to see him pick up From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler with his own sense of delight. He forgives that it’s now quite a dated book in which escapee children living secretly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are buying lunch and cab fare with a handful of nickels and dimes. Maybe he overlooks this because of my unabashed enthusiasm for the story, especially the scene where the protagonists dive for coins during bath time in the fountain and then go to sleep in a velvet-curtained bed of historical importance.

But there are some books Gavin is unlikely ever to read, no matter how misty eyed I become when recalling them. He is a rather typical boy in that he’s made up of, as the nursery rhyme says, “rats and snails and puppy dog tails.” He relishes all that is gory, gross, and dangerous. So that eliminates my vintage read this week—Maida’s Little Shop—from his summer reading list. I’ve got to pass Maida down to someone.

My mother conveyed her childhood copy of Maida’s Little Shop, copyright 1909, to me with the same care reserved for holy relics. Indeed, I read and reread the pages as if they were illuminated. But sloppy child that I was, I still managed to lose the volume sometime between sprouting underarm hair and starting college. I was reunited with the same orange edition of Maida at the hallowed local biblioempire that is the Niantic Book Barn. Maybe the very same copy made its way to Connecticut like the legendary faithful pets who navigate interstate highways to find their way home.

I can’t be completely objective about Inez Haynes Irwin’s literary capabilities (we go back too far), but she had me at “Four people sat in the big shining automobile.” Not an earth shattering start, I know, but it’s worth staying in the car, watching the autumn leaves whirl by, and stopping at that dusty old store with pickled limes that’s calling out for an overhaul and for a young and enthused proprietor.

Maida is a frail, motherless child. Her father is a kindly tycoon who has hired equally kindly staff to watch over her while he conquers Wall Street. She’s recovering from expert surgery on her deformed leg, and it’s deemed essential to her recovery that she be occupied with a wholesome, distracting passion—hence the little shop. She must keep her identity as “Buffalo” Westabrook’s daughter a secret, to avoid the unwanted attention that’s sometimes given to the wealthy. The story’s got mystery, salvation, reams of new friends, and, typical for its day, an abundance of morals. There’s a part of me that misses the safer, more predictable world portrayed in Maida, one where the financially struggling family cleans their house until it shines, the most indulged little girl in the neighborhood is vain and unappreciative, the long-suffering disabled characters are heroic, and the saintly Irish nanny is finally reunited with her lost daughter.

Maida’s story might be seen through jaded twenty-first-century eyes as formulaic, with a bit of the sickly Klara in Heidi who needs fresh mountain air to recover, a pinch of the rough and tumble kids in The Bells of Saint Mary’s who need Bing Crosby to teach them a song, and a heaping helping of Pollyanna, conceived around the same time as Maida, who enlightens adults and children alike with her earnest “glad game.” But there is a genuine good feeling imbued by the story that survives the wider perspective that a century brings.

I think what made me treasure Maida’s story so much on my first read was the fact that she’s part adult, part child. She’s running her own store, but she’s never bobbed for apples. She can speak Italian but has never indulged in Pig Latin. She wants to sell candy but has no idea what to stock for the neighborhood kids. She’s been to Europe but not to grade school. Maida can grab the attention of any child who, past a certain age, greets their emerging inner adult with both curiosity and ambivalence. Oh, the promises of adult freedom and independence, the dream of what it would be like to be in charge. Oh, the joys of playing that will have to be traded for it. Maida lives both sides of the coin to the tune of many popular books in the series—after the little store, she has a little house, school, island, camp, village, theater, and on and on into the 1950s.

Although I came up with my own theory for the book’s enduring power for me and countless other kids, it was interesting to view Maida from the perspective of my second read: Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood. Without flipping to author Maria Tatar’s biography on the back flap, I could tell from her voice (and many footnotes!) that she’s an academic—professor, in fact, of Germanic Languages at Harvard. I felt at times that I was reading a thesis, albeit a well-researched and adroitly written example. But Tatar brings in color with pictures from children’s stories that help to illustrate the powerful synergy of language and imagination, and she’s generous with quotes that give us a feel for where the magic takes root.

It was revealing to read Maurice Sendak’s thoughts on why he wrote books—“…to combat ‘the awful fact’ that all children must face… ‘their vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration—all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can perceive only as ungovernable and dangerous forces’.” Maida has plenty of vulnerability: recovery from a long illness, being different from all of the other children, having no mother, and two friends who must also battle illness and injury.

Tatar also illuminated the power of inventories to “evoke and stabilize a world,” citing E.B. White’s very tangible lists in Charlotte’s Web—of the smells of the farm, of items from the dump, of bugs that Charlotte wraps up to eat. Maida’s creator also painted a world using lists. The vivid description of the shop window with its tops, marbles, jump ropes, dolls, and school supplies make it come alive, and the inventory of treats needed to satisfy the appetites of neighborhood children is all the more intriguing for me because of the mix of the familiar and unfamiliar—mollolligobs, apple-on-the-stick, tamarinds, pop-corn balls, dulse.

Later in the book Tatar talks about mastery, as when Mary and Colin of The Secret Garden rediscover and assume “ownership” of a place forgotten by the adults, which ultimately becomes a place of healing for them. She also gives the example of the industrious heroine of Charlotte’s Web, who uses words torn from the dump heap to weave lifesaving messages for Wilbur. Maida’s circle of children also makes something from the old, the abandoned, the overlooked, and her children are delightfully productive. They spend a full day making candy to stock the store. They fashion tissue paper into works of art and whittle exquisite toys and decorations. A ramshackle Christmas fair that’s been held by some of the more ambitious children to earn money is invited into Maida’s shop, complete with extravagant poster, eye-catching displays, and unprecedented profit with which longed-for gifts can be purchased for all of the parents.

And, of course, there’s something Tatar doesn’t mention in her treatise, the old (and shameless) teaser, as in, “Yes, Maida did come back. And what fun they all have, the Little Six in their private quarters, and the Big Six with their picnics, and their adventures with the Gypsies, is told in Maida’s Little House.” I may just have to make another Book Barn trip, and find the Little House that I just know will be a welcoming place.

My son’s been a bit anxious about encroaching adulthood. His upcoming entry into the fifth grade is feeling especially adult to him. But he can believe me when I tell him that the child inside me has never really gone away; she just has different trappings. She still delights in reaching into the deep glass jars of the Little Shop for a refreshing dose of magical, mystical, sweet possibility.

Books mentioned in this column:
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White (HarperTrophy, 1952)
Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, by Maria Tatar (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009)
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg (Atheneum, 1967)
Heidi, by Johanna Spyri (Puffin Books, 1956)
Maida’s Little Shop, by Inez Haynes Irwin (Grosset & Dunlap, 1909)
Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter (Kessinger Publishing, reprint of 1912 edition)
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Signet Classic, 1987)
Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (Harper Trophy [anniversary edition], 1984)

Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



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