Saturday, October 18, 2008

REVIEW: Parnassus on Wheels

Title: Parnassus on Wheels
Author: Christopher Morley
ISBN: 1879923017/Booksellers House
Protagonist: middle-aged Helen McGill
Setting: New England around 1910
Rating: A+

First Line: I wonder if there isn't a lot of bunkum in higher education?

There are a few days when the world seems to hang still in a dreaming, sweet hush, at the very fulness of the fruit before the decline sets in. I have no words (like Andrew) to describe it, but every autumn for years I have noticed it. I remember that sometimes at the farm I used to lean over the wood pile for a moment just before supper to watch those purple October sunsets. I would hear the sharp ting of Andrew's little typewriter bell as he was working in his study. And then I would try to swallow down within me the beauty and wistfulness of it all, and run back to mash the potatoes.

Such is the life of forty-year-old Helen McGill, a woman who began her working life as a governess. For the past several years, she's been on a New England farm, taking care of her brother, Andrew, who's become a successful writer. Andrew's begun to vex the pudding out of Helen. Now that he's famous, he thinks nothing of packing a bag and taking off for weeks at a time, leaving her all the work on the farm. Helen's had enough. The day Roger Mifflin appears, rolling up the drive in a homemade book wagon pulled by a fat old horse, she panics. Mifflin wants to get out of the book trade and return to Brooklyn to write his own book. From reading her brother Andrew's books, Mifflin feels that he is just the person that will buy his "Parnassus on Wheels". Helen agrees whole-heartedly. In fact, she can already see Andrew loading up the wagon and disappearing for months (instead of weeks) at a time. In a move to forestall Andrew, Helen buys the wagon, all the contents, the horse and the dog for $400--the money she's been saving to buy a Ford.

But something else grabs hold of Helen. She's never had a vacation. She's never even had a tiny little adventure. Thinking that it would serve Andrew right if she took off on her own jaunt, she packs a bag, climbs into Parnassus the wagon, and Mifflin takes her out on the road to show her how to survive in the traveling book trade.

In 1917, Morley, a lowly editor of the Doubleday, Page & Company of Long Island, was miffed because he was refused a raise. He started writing Parnassus on Wheels during spare moments. The book was accepted, and the print run of 1500 sold out. Nice, but not spectacular. What this 130-page book did was launch him into fame as a writer in the early twentieth century. I can see why. I think I had a smile plastered on my face the entire time I read this book. Morley has a cast of brilliant characters, especially Helen, and the autumn in New England setting was so well done that I felt as though I had my own seat on the book wagon. The illustrations were a perfect counterpoint to the text. Even though some of the terminology may confuse readers who aren't familiar with that era, they should still find it a delightful story. Give it a try--I seriously doubt that you'll be disappointed!


  1. Thanks for linking me to your review. I enjoyed reading it. Yup, this book sure brings a smile. Have you read the companion novel, or any or Morley's other works? I hope I can get them from my library, but as this one was a library discard that I bought at the book sale, I am not sure

  2. I've got the Haunted Bookshop on my wish list. So far I haven't had any luck locating a copy.


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