Earlier this year, I read Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War, which describes the huge effort by the publishing industry and the War Department to supply soldiers during WWII with lightweight paperbacks to read during their deployments. While I found When Books Went to War a bit repetitive at times, I loved hearing about the books that were selected for the printing program. Some of them still enjoy success, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Great Gatsby. Others have lapsed into obscurity, like Rosemary Taylor’s Chicken Every Sunday. The fact that this was one of the program’s most popular books piqued my curiosity. It took a little while to find a decent second-hand copy, but the effort to find it was worth it. It is a delightful, fun read.
Now, I don’t think this book could be a success today. The book was published in 1943, when ladies did not sneak across the hall at night to visit gentlemen (except they did, gasp!). There are a few problematic stereotypes, most notably the Scary Indian, but overall, I found the book to be like a warm glow (think “It’s a Wonderful Life”). And I can totally see how it would be a success with lonely young soldiers stuck in the trenches, who were probably all salivating for some of Mother’s chicken.
The book is narrated by the second child of the family, which means that the fun is often based on a child’s innocent observations and repetition of adult conversations (“for years I thought you got babies by rubbing people’s chests”). But the parents are fun, too. Father always gets into scrapes for crazy investment schemes, like buying a laundry in Tucson without knowing anything about the laundry business. Mother loves to make money, mostly to have some security during those times when Father’s investments are not coming through. So she squeezes as many people as she can into her house, all of them needing a little extra love, which Mother freely provides. She is a great cook, usually telling the hired cook what she is doing wrong, but very untidy, which means things go frequently missing (although they are usually found in the window seats).
Mother also likes to scheme a little bit behind the scenes, making sure that poor Miss Sally falls in love with the widower across the street, that Jeffrey finds the courage to break away from his overbearing mother (he goes into the laundry business), and that the homeless boys in town always get a meal. She freely volunteers to cook for and entertain 120 people in her home as a fundraiser for the YWCA, and she always makes sure her yard is untidy, so that the desperate have a place to work for some money.
You don’t need to run out to buy a copy of this charming book, but if you happen to have it around and are in the mood for some fuzzy comfort reading, go ahead and pick it up.
Mother was very much Mrs. Laundry Owner when anything went wrong with the boarders’ wash. She’d call up Russ and tell him he’d have to make it good and ask what was the matter down there that they did such poor work. But if the boarders changed to another laundry—for there were several in town now—how she would fume and fret.
“You’ve got their board money,” Father pointed out, “so let someone else have their wash. Why must you always get their last nickel?”
“I don’t want their last nickel,” Mother retorted, “but I think their business should stay in the family. Besides, how does it look to have another wagon drive up here and take clothes out of this house? People will think our laundry is so bad we won’t even go to it ourselves.”
“They think that anyway,” said Father, “when they see your wash hanging on the line every Monday.”
“That’s different,” Mother hedged.