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Parnassus on Wheels

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Parnassus on Wheels

Christopher Morley’s classic Parnassus on Wheels is as good a read today as when first published in 1917.  And in some ways, given today’s book world, it is even better. 

When I first worked at Bonanza Books in Clayton, California,  two young coworkers gifted me a used copy of Parnassus on Wheels, telling me that even if was published in 1917, it is a book every bookseller should read. The author? Christopher Morley. Never heard of him. But they were right; it was a delightful read about a strange little fellow who sold books from a horse-drawn caravan to folks who lived in the most rural New England environs.

It is still in print, and, 107 years later, bookseller or reader, Parnassus on Wheels is still a great read. Roger Mifflin, the strange little fellow, sells books from his horse-drawn caravan in rural New England communities lacking nearby libraries or bookstores. His establishment on wheels is called Traveling Parnassus. The sign on the side of the wagon also says that he has been selling books from his caravan (and living in it) for many years. On a bright October morning in 1915, Roger Mifflin drives his caravan onto the small farm where Andrew McGill and his sister Helen live. Andrew has recently become a well-known author, and Roger Mifflin hopes that Andrew will buy his traveling bookstore. Mr. Mifflin is looking for the chance to stop selling books and start writing the book of his dreams.

Helen McGill has been stuck on the farm for years, cleaning and cooking for her brother, whose fame as an author takes him away from the farm increasingly more often. She may be an overweight 39-year-old single woman, as she thinks of herself, but she’s no fool. Had her brother been home when Mifflin arrived, Helen knows he would jump at the offer, and she’d be even more stuck than ever. Helen recognizes an opportunity. Mifflin’s offer is possibly the last chance she will have for an adventure all her own, and before her brother returns from town, she accepts Mifflin’s offer on her own behalf.  She packs up and is on the road with Mr. Mifflin and his Traveling Parnassus. They have only to reach the town where Roger can cash Helen’s check and get a train ticket to Brooklyn, where he intends to write his book.

What happens in the next forty-eight hours is drama, treachery, history, betrayal, humor, and even romance, as told by bright, gutsy Helen.

Remember, this is 1915. Not only is feminism light years away, but a woman’s right to vote is not rarified until 1920. A woman’s right to think for herself is seldom expected or tolerated. When first read, Parnassus on Wheels enlightened me about America’s book world in the early twentieth century. Mifflin is not only a book lover, but he and his enthusiasm for progressive ways of selling books and choosing the books to sell is remarkably modern, and Helen is a quick study.

What I liked most about re-reading this novel is discovering that the book is first and foremost a romance! And not your fancy schmancy romance. Helen, who calls herself fat and past the likely age of marriage, not only has the courage to take on a business venture with little more than a love of books, but also the heart to fall in love with wiry, charming, and balding Roger Mifflin. And, wonder of wonders, Mr. Mifflin has the good sense to recognize this wonderful woman with whom he not only wants to write a book but to marry as well.

If possible, I recommend the edition of Parnassus on Wheels with the Footnotage by John T. Winterich. I hope many of you will look past the book’s age, buy a copy, (thus supporting a local bookstore) and read it for yourselves.  –  Sunny Solomon

Bookin’ with Sunny strongly supports Independent Bookstores and Public Libraries.

Parnassus on Wheels

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