Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

The Doll of Lilac Valley
Cora Cheney
Nancy White Cassidy, Illustrator
Green Mansion Press (2003) 107 pages
Originally Published in 1958

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Cora Cheney Partridge (1916-1999) was a dear friend of my late grandmother's, as well as being one of the foremost children's book authors of her generation. So in a very real sense, she was the first "real" author I made contact with after I determined this was to be the path I would take for myself (I was about eight) and my first literary role model. She also wrote quite a bit of other neat stuff, by herself or with her husband and others, had a large and loving family and moved to Vermont and became an Episcopal Priest. Women didn't do such things very much in those days (I forget when she was actually ordained) but I do recall that my very southern-looking Southern mother was a bit scandalized (it never took much). I also remember my late grandmother, whose name was Kitty Morris and who'd been to college and worked for a living as an interior decorator, putting a stop to that train of thought (at least as it pertained to me) rather fast.

I remembered all of this in the time it took this book to come up after I typed "Cora Cheney" into Amazon to see what was still in print. And more on that in a minute.

But as a child, at seven or eight or nine—about 2nd or 3rd or 4th grade—I was really into Cora's books. She lived in Vermont by then, not near Birmingham, and my favorites, Skeleton Cave and The Christmas Tree Hessian were by then over what we then termed a generation old—and at that age, you don't care, if it's good! And these were good. Sixth grade, that's when the brainy kids got into Tolkein and The Chronicles of Narnia, just as they start getting into Harry Potter and... Tolkein, I guess, now. When I was on my personal quest to read everything Agatha Christie had ever written that was then in print (and I did so) but we were reading a bit above our range and knew it. Yet at eight or nine, you're in that never-never land in so many cases most important in the development of budding lifelong readers—before the "pre-teen" or "young adult" books (I always hated those), and after Dr. Seuss.

And children today can find that niche in Cora Cheney just as they could in the 1950s. I've been trying out the present volume, one of Cora's "girl" books I never read then, on various friends' children—and the children love it! It's about a nine-year-old girl named Laurie (cool—Cora always DID make the hero/heroine children a little older than their audience, which for this book is roughly seven) who loses her favorite doll, Katherine, while staying away with strangers in a place called Lilac Valley. It has a happy ending, though : ) And precise dialogue and narrative throughout.

As with other children's books from this age range, it is what it is, and while one can relate the mother's absence (at school) to reflect changing (now commonplace) realities in society, anything beyond that is silly. As it is with the other titles Green Mansion Press has put out thus far, ALL of which Madelene Towne was kind enough to send me: Greenwillow by B.J. Chute, The Wonderful Winter by Marchette Chute, Adopted Jane by Helen Daringer, Wilderness Bride (my other favorite) by Annabel & Edgar Johnson, and The World of Henry Orient by Nora Johnson, to name a few. Ms. Towne also sent bound galleys of a book called Just Mrs. Goose by Miriam Clark Potter to my son, Holden, which was so sweet... Holden's about four, and the book should just now be out.

Madelene Towne (doesn't she sound rather like a children's book author too?) explains that Green Mansion Press is "a three-year-old old company founded for the purpose of republishing quality out-of-print books, primarily for children and young adults." You can see their full line at www.greenmanshionpress.com, and I assure you the production is fabulous: the books are pretty, sturdy, readable, and just the right size for a child's hands. This is a wonderful undertaking and, as I've suggested, one that fills a purpose beyond the purely nostalgic—but that's part of it too, or I, a man in his late 30s, wouldn't have been typing "Cora Cheney" into a search engine, and if you type a phrase such as "retro children's books" or "vintage 1950s children's literature" into Google and not into eBay, one assumes you're looking to read, which is also why I included that phrase in this review.

Cora Cheney wrote my 3rd-grade class a beautiful letter after we sent her a fan letter following my reading of Skeleton Cove during after-lunch Reading Time. So I did The Christmas Tree Hessian later in the year (it's much shorter). Mrs. Emily Bowdoin was the teacher and a very good reader herself, and kind to have let me do all that—but Cora Cheney and I had already exchanged one letter before that and exchanged a few after that and now I wish to God I'd kept it up. I'd love to hear from any of her family, though—I really took a few of her kind admonishments to heart. I should have sent her my M.F.A. poetry, my own stories (the ones without the bad words I was so fond of in those years). Or not, I don't know—like my own grandmother, maybe she'd have seen it all as a part of the extended process of Growing Up. She'd have just missed Holden, but also my divorce, and my... and wow, what a life! And it's mine, I guess—measured by the huge affect of a children's book writer.

Madelene Towne and Green Mansion Press understand all of this, and also the need for quality children's work to endure. I'm grateful to them, to my late grandmother Kitty Morris of Birmingham, and to Cora Cheney Partridge who, her grandchildren may be at least interested to know, was recited under the "God bless... " section of my nightly prayers for the duration of my practice of that form. I'd say " ...and God bless Cora Cheney, Audrey Hepburn (‘cause I always wanted a sister or a daughter to read to—tough luck) and ALL the little boys and girls out there everywhere Amen."

So this one's for you, Cora, and may God bless your family always—and all the little boys and girls out there. Everywhere.


Previous Piece Next Piece