Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is just as charming and delightful as I was expecting it to be. Definitely one of those why did I wait so long to read books! I absolutely adore Helen McGill and she elicited more than one chuckle and the odd guffaw out of me. If I had a brother like her, though, I think I would have 'run away' a little sooner. Then again, in his way he does save the day, so I guess he redeems himself in the end. Actually I quite admire Helen and think she's a woman of much wisdom, a lot of practicality and just enough desire for romance in her life (but not exactly actively pursuing it, if you know what I mean) to make her story rather enviable. At almost forty, and maybe a little frumpy, she makes me feel as though maybe there's hope for me yet. I just might find a little adventure and romance in my own life, but if all else fails I have books like Parnassus to entertain me.
In case you're not familiar with this lovely novella, Parnassus is a travelling bookshop in the form of a caravan that is pulled by a horse named Peg and accompanied by a dog called Bock. It's owner is a spry little gentleman, a contemporary in age, who Helen refers to as the Professor. He's been the sole proprietor of Parnassus for years. He travels up and down the east coast with his supply of books proselytizing the joys of reading. But he's getting a little tired of the wandering life and wants to settle back in his native Brooklyn to write his memoirs. His idea is to sell Parnassus to someone he knows appreciates literature--Andrew McGill, Helen's brother, is a literary man. He's a successful writer but is known to take off at a moment's notice in search of a story or following an inspiration.
When Helen hears of the Professor's plan to offer Parnassus up for sale to Andrew, she decides to intervene and buy it herself, loathe is she to let him go off once again while she stays at home taking care of their farm.
" . . . all the time I was counting eggs and turning out three meals a day, and running the farm when Andrew got a literary fit and would go off on some vagabond jaunt to collect adventures for a new book."
"I made up my mind to give Andrew some of his own medicine. And that's my story."
Helen estimates that over the course of fifteen years she's baked more than 400 loaves of bread a year which comes out to more than 6,000 loaves total. And then there are the meals she's cooked and all the eggs she's collected and sold (giving her a reasonably comfortable nest egg, which she dips into to buy Parnassus) and the care and support she's given her brother. She leaves Andrew a note, packs her bag and sets off with the Professor. She'll give him a ride to a train depot and he'll give her a little hands on training on how to sell books as they go. Yes, indeed, Helen deserves a vacation!
What follows are all sorts of adventures and misadventures with Andrew hot on their heels. He thinks Helen has been hoodwinked, and she fears he'll spoil her fun and then take Parnassus for his own. The Professor is well known and well respected and a talented and enthusiastic bookseller. His yearly stops at familiar farms and businesses are looked forward to and he's invited in to share meals and partake of free board in exchange for his literary expertise of matching reader with book. Helen watches with admiration and picks up his skills, but knows she is in his shadow and as long as he travels with her, she'll never feel quite so comfortable in the job until he is on his way back home to Brooklyn.
It's 1907 and not many women travel on their own in the way Helen plans. While she's entirely competent in taking care of herself, it's just not quite the same traveling on her own. Both animals obviously miss the professor and even Helen finds over the course of their short acquaintance he's grown on her. All of a sudden this solitary life of bookselling is not quite as appealing. And then there is the matter of the strange footprints she finds outside the caravan one morning and a lost horseshoe that pains Peg . . . Helen is a practical woman but maybe, too, just a little soft-hearted as well.
This is a story made for bibliophiles and surely written by a bibliophile. Christopher Morley knows what we're thinking, just how make his reader mentally nod their head in agreement, turn down pages and make notations in the margins.
"'Lord!' he said, 'when you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue--you sell hm a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night--there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean."
* * * * *
"A good book ought to have something simple about it. And, like Eve, it ought to come from somewhere near the third rib: there ought to be a heart beating in it."
* * * * *
"When you see the marvellous insight into human nature which a truly great book shows, it is bound to make you feel small . . ."
* * * * *
" . . . all the great things in life are done by discontented people."
Hear, hear! The last is something the Professor had written in his journal, and considering my own discontent in life of late, it makes me somehow feel better about it all. See, isn't this a wonderful little book. It's just the sort you press into a friend's hands. So, I am 'virtually' pressing it into yours. You can read it for free via Project Gutenberg. Helen's adventures continue in The Haunted Bookshop, which I have at the ready and will be starting to read later this week. I suspect it is going to be a treat of a book, just like Parnassus on Wheels was!