Friday, January 4, 2008

Reading Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

Christmas gifts in the Bibliophagist household tend to be flat and rectangular. And the ones that are not chocolate bars are books. Fillius Minor gave me a copy of The Hearthstone of My Heart by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. I'd never heard of it before, so I was delighted to receive it. (She's best known as the author of I, Juan de Pareja which was the Newberry winner in 1966.)

I had previously read My Heart Lies South, her account of how she, a thoroughly modern, American journalist married the very traditional Mexican public relations director who had been assigned to meet her at the border when she arrived to cover a story for The Boston Herald. Because of their cultural differences, she did not at first realize that he was courting her! The role of women in the U.S. had begun to change, so her married life in Mexico in the 1930s seemed like a journey back in time both to her and to her readers in 1950. The book has currently been republished by Bethlehem Books in a slightly revised Young People's Edition "to make it more suitable for general family reading."

(Naturally I had to find out how this edition differed from the original. As it turns out, it was abridged in only two places. The first deletion is a account of her servant problems, the most awkward of which was the tendency of her unmarried maids to become pregnant. The second was a description of one of her husband's aunts who had a deathly fear of being accidentally buried alive. Some of the annecdotes related to this topic might have been considered a bit gruesome for Bethlehem's market. Digression: Apparently the fear of being prematurely buried was very common in the 19th century, giving rise to many patents for coffins with escape hatches or signaling devices like this one. In some areas this fear lingered into the twentieth century.)

I'd always wondered what her life was like before her marriage. In her memoir, The Hearthstone of My Heart, the author begins by describing her childhood in Bakersfield, California in the early part of the 20th century. Not only did she live in a very different world than ours, but she and her family were happy in a way that must have already begun to seem unusual to her audience in 1977. Her respect for the strength and integrity of her parents shines through her narrative. And she also conveys a sense that strong women capable of academic and professional achievement existed well before the advent of "Women's Lib" -- a term she uses several times which now seems somewhat dated and quaint.

The author earned her undergraduate degree in Spanish language and literature, and then went back East to study music. In need of funds, she first worked for a publisher and then segued into journalism, first writing concert reviews and later becoming a reporter. Interviews with well known celebrities became her specialty. At this point, a lot of the references in her stories began to go over my head since I'd never heard of most of the musical and political people she met. Her newspaper also sent her back to California every summer to interview Hollywood actors and actresses. (I knew a few of those, but I guess everyone's heard of W.C. Fields.)

For years she'd been trying to write and sell fiction without success. Interestingly, it was her Hollywood experience that led to her first book contract. She was approached by the publisher of the Pollyanna books and asked to write one set in Hollywood. (The original author had died after writing only two books. Since they were wildly popular, the publisher was continuing the series using various authors who wrote the books on contract and to specifications.) She asked for time to think it over because she was afraid that being associated with Pollyanna and her "glad game" would tarnish her image as a sophisticated and intellectual young woman

"Among my sophisticated friends, this procedure of always being glad about something was anathema. The climate of thinking was changing; it was generally thought to be much more intelligent to be angry about things. This elevation of anger to a position among the virtues has attracted an amazing number of partisans in recent years."

Fortunately she asked the advice of a friend who was already an author. He advised her that if she wanted to be a professional writer she should, "Take every job you are offered, and do it to the best of your ability. Beethoven was not ashamed to work on contract and deliver work that was ordered . . . The publishers are willing to take a chance on you. Grab it, and do as good a job as you possibly can." Then he added what I consider to be the best writing advice ever: "Don't keep anything back, thinking it is too valuable a pearl for this job. Put your best into everything. If you are ever going to be any good, new ideas will come, and you will not find yourself without resources when you need them."

And it turned out she ended up writing four of the Pollyanna novels, and the job was invaluable in teaching her how to structure and write a novel. The exciting part is that I actually have one of them in my collection. But I had never realized that she was the author since it was written while she was still using her maiden name. And she made her peace with Pollyanna's optimism and cheerful, stiff upper lip.

As I reflect now on much of the current writing for children I wonder if it is wise to assume that they must be hurtled into the "real world" of sex, murder, incest, abortions, and violence in all their reading. It is a rougher, harder world than I knew as a child, and I agree that children must be made as wise as possible by their parents before they are allowed to roam freely in it. But aren't children entitled to escape literature , too? Shouldn't the imagination of what could be a beautiful world, be kept, in their stories, in their entertainment? If not, how will they envision it? Man has always dreamed of improvements before he was able to effect them.


samantha said...

Love that little bit about balancing wise children and protecting their innocence.

I haven't read anything except I, Juan de Pareja--which was absolutely wonderful.

Good post!

Catholic Bibliophagist said...


As a result of writing the above post, I just reread My Heart Lies South. I like it even better than before.