Headnote: My mother died in August. Rest in Peace.
Call me a time traveler: From 1926, just three years after my mother was born, I found a romance novel for young ladies, Coming Through the Rye. Mum would have liked it—maybe she did. Here is the land of roadsters, mirthful illegal drinking, and girls with their hair bobbed. The heroine, as someone older remarks with approval, still has her hair long. Her name is Romayne, recently finished high school. (Now she is marriageable, to be read about by girls still in school) Romayne’s mother has long passed away; her father is what I would call “shabby rich”: distinguished, honest and proud. Her older brother has an honest job. Or so it all would seem, at first.
The story opens with Romayne taking a suitcase by train alone to spend a few days, along with other girls, at the home of a truly rich girl. But when she arrives, no one is there but the rich girl. No party. The girl, the very next day, will be going with her mother to Europe (by ship, of course) so she has canceled the party. She claims the notice of the party cancelation must be still in the mail. Claims. The truth is, the seemingly “honest” rich girl forgot Romayne. Here is the novel’s main theme: Some people are not what they seem, and some people don’t have good character.
In the book before me, half hidden by the end flap, is a pasted award notice: A girl in fifth grade, in a Canadian Atlantic province, was awarded the book for winning an essay contest. I wonder what became of her? That girl was like my late mother, who once won a big thick Robin Hood book by Howard Pyle. As a boy, Mum let me neatly pencil crayon in the full-page illustrations. Mum would have protected herself from feeling “less than” the rich society surrounding her by saying she was “poor but honest,” and muttering about “the English,” to feel ethnic pride. Maybe like an Arab-American today, who might mutter about Islam being a victim, and call herself Muslim, not Arab.
Poor Mum: She not only grew up poor, but then lived poor as a housewife. (Her first fiancé was shot down in the Battle of Britain) We seldom had new books. All of our Hardy Boys books came from Grandma. Those books, Nancy Drew, and, in the 1950’s, Tom Corbet, Space Cadet, were all published by Grosset and Dunlap, as was Coming Through the Rye. I recognized the font like an old friend.
On the back of Rye are listed many titles. I suspected the lady called “Mrs. Hill” on the end flap was a shared pen name, as fake as Franklin W. Dixon. (Not so) Across the top reads: Inspiring, Wholesome Novels by Grace Livingston Hill. I am sure her view of Life and Romance was common in her time, which makes her book so fascinating, like traveling by time machine.
My wholesome mother once made her sister jealous by earning a prayer rug. Maybe, just like Romayne, my mom taught Sunday school and visited her students when they were sick in bed.
Back to Romayne: In her world, there are girls who don’t even try to be wholesome, girls who have never embraced honesty as a lifestyle choice. (I remember how one of my brothers, as he finished high school, hung around with cads: He said that, unlike his athletic and academic friends, they believed in “having a good time”) The dialogue in Rye shows such girls slurring their words: obviously a marker of their lack of self-discipline. Also, to show their lower class.
One such girl’s mother becomes angry at finding out that her daughter, who has been claiming to be staying overnights with a friend to study stenography, has in fact been riding in cars with boys. (Sounds like a movie title: human nature never changes)
QUOTE (p 62) “Ain’t it bad enough to go with a young man that drinks and carries whiskey round in his car? I ask you, Frances May Judson, was you brought up to do things like that? You, a baby, that oughtta be goin’ to school yet, running round in the night to hotels in the woods, dancin’ with men you don’t know their names! I ain’t got words to tell you what I feel about it. It’s no use.”
“But, Mamma, he’s a real classy young man, and his car was something swell. We didn’t have whiskey either. It was a real refined kind of wine.”
“Fiddlesticks end! Don’t talk like as fool! … And whaddaya think a classy young man wants with a girl like you outta tha ten-cent store, an’ her papa runnin’ a truck? You don’t s’pose he was meanin’ to make real friends with you, did you? Them kind don’t. They wouldn’t wipe their feet on you before their own home folks. They just run with you to act crazy and then they throw you away and don’t care what becomes of you. Talk about classy young men, Frances Judson! There’d be some class to you ef you kep up that sortta thing. You wouldn’t be even in the workin’ class. You’d be outside where folks don’t count you at all. There ain’t never any of family been like that, child. We’ve always ben respectable, an’ that’s a sight cleaner an’ better than bein’ classy. Some time you’ll find that out. Now go upstairs and I’ll do my duty by you.” UNQUOTE
Through the window of our time machine we see that parents use corporal punishment, and we observe the police, portrayed in Coming Through the Rye, as not being too finicky about violence either.
In the end, Romayne finds romance—a proposal of marriage!—from a nice, young, highly respected attorney. Readers know before Romayne does whom she will wed, from reading the front flap: Can a girl bring herself to love a man who has sent her father and brother to prison? The jailing happens in chapter two. Of course Romayne is shocked. Alas, people are not what they seem.
Romayne desperately needs to make a living. She ends up as a servant-secretary in a remote huge mansion with wide verandas. (Eventually, she faces gothic danger) The estate echoes the girl’s canceled party in chapter one: Here rich people drive up and stay; here the “beautiful people” break the law (during prohibition) by drinking liquor. A girl from high school days arrives as one of the guests; she spurns Romayne for being only a servant, and further, with ill will, she informs the host, Romayne’s employer, that Romayne is a criminal’s daughter. Again the theme: one can be rich and still be of poor character. (Romayne’s father and brother were bootleggers)
Character always counted with my mum; she always remembered how a certain prominent businessman cheated in high school. Mum would tell us this whenever he was mentioned on the radio. My dear mother, needless to say, was a happy virgin when she married—just like everyone else who read Mrs. Hill. One might ask: Did our post-Victorian ancestors, back in 1926, know about sex? What would you dare write about “romance” to that girl who won the book in fifth grade?
Perhaps you could hint, as in the above “…and then they throw you away and don’t care…”
The Victorians, of course, at the time of our western settlements, according to the written records they have passed on down to us, believed that men married women because women were so angelic, offering qualities that men lacked, such as tenderness, and so forth. Well, it wasn’t quite that way in 1926. After Romayne is reduced to selling her household furniture, a boy she knew in school tries to help, but he turns beet red and mops his forehead. Romayne speaks:
QUOTE (p 257) “What on earth are you trying to tell me, Chris? What is it you want to ask? Don’t be afraid to say it right out?” urged Romayne.
“I’m asking you to marry me, Romayne!” broke forth the earnest boy. “I know I ain’t good enough. I don’t have your class and all that, but you’ve gotta be taken care of and that’s the only nice way I could do it. I’ll love you lot if that’ll make up any way. I’ve always loved you. You’ve been like an angel in my life, so pretty and so good, and so little! And I’ll learn anything you want’ and get to be the best I can—“
“Oh, Chris!” said Romayne with sudden tears in her eyes. “You dear Chris! Please don’t! It’s wonderful of you, but I couldn’t! I couldn’t possible ever marry you! I’m not going to marry anybody! But it’s not because you’re not good enough! Chris’ you’re the best thing I know. But I just don’t feel I could. I think a lot of you, but there’s something more to marrying than that. You have to love people in a different way. And I don’t love anybody that way! I don’t really! It wouldn’t be fair to you, you know.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t ask you to do that!” said Chris wistfully. “I’d do the loving, and you could have things your own way. I wouldn’t mind!”
“Chris, you are wonderful! And I’ll never forget it of you, never! That’s the biggest sacrifice a man make for a woman, to just put aside himself and let her have her way, and if I live a hundred years I’d never find a greater love than that, I knew. But Chris, that isn’t real marriage. I’m sure it isn’t. My mother has told me that. I could love you like a brother, and I will. My own brother has forsaken me, but you’ve done more for me than he ever did. But I couldn’t marry you! It would be wrong!”
“…, but you tried to give me yourself. I think it’s that’s the most beautiful thing anybody ever did. I shall keep it in my memory like a treasure and some day when you find a dear girl who loves you and whom you love, I shall tell her what a wonderful brother you’ve been to me, and how glad I am I wasn’t selfish enough to let you do what you offered, and saved you for her.”
“There’ll never be anybody else like you, Romayne!”
“There’ll be somebody better, Chris! Somebody who loves you that way! Somebody God made for you!” UNQUOTE
Yes, our ancestors knew about sex, and “that way.” If not the fifth grade boys, then at least the fifth grade girls. I’m still laughing at a teacher’s quip, “Girls at age fifteen are going on twenty-five, boys at fifteen are going on five.” Incidentally, Romayne and her fiance become dreamy lovebirds after an embrace.
A time machine vacation to 1926 is all very well, such a nice escape, but could there be any serious lessons to be learned from the trip?
You may recall how in the 1960’s, during my boyhood, hippies lived by handouts, as part of their hippie lifestyle. My mother, as a poor girl, once had sores in her mouth, so bad that she couldn’t talk, because she wasn’t eating balanced meals. Later, as a housewife with six children, Mum desperately tried to scrape pennies to give us proper nutrition. Of course she had no use for the longhaired hippies she saw eating stupid potato chips. (Crisps) I remember those hippies, and in later years computer pirates, justifying their drugs and their stealing by saying, “Prohibition never works.” I say, “(Expletive deleted!).”
For this next quote, think of any drug you like. In 1926 prohibition was for alcohol. Romayne is isolated, serving in a mansion:
QUOTE (p 305) There really was only one thing about her new position that troubled her, and that at times was very hard for her to endure. She found that it was almost unbearable to have so much drinking going on about her…. These people were the kind who had helped father to sin, and dragged her brother into what she could not help feeling was degradation. They drank partly to assert their right to do so, against the law of the land and the protest of a few fanatics—as they called them—who were trying to force everybody to do as they did
They drank on all occasions. Highballs and cocktails were ever being passed. Flasks were the order of the day upon all rides and picnics. It was everywhere and apparently all their kind used it. They drank when they were hot and when they were cold, when they were gay and when they were sad. Sometimes their high, excited voices and flushed faces made Romayne turn sadly away and feel that she could not possibly spend her days among people who were so utterly different from what she wanted to be. UNQUOTE.
“They” said the law came from fanatics. Peter Drucker, citizen and business writer, said the law came from parasites.
Those parasites were like today’s Green Party members, who have an overly focused green agenda, but the fanatic’s agenda was even more focused, they were even less concerned with the good of the country as a whole. Like today’s radical terrorists, the prohibitionists wouldn’t acknowledge the complexities of society, let alone try to weigh and balance funding, actions and priorities, all for the greater public good. No. As regards the body politic, then, they were not conventional citizens: The prohibition movement would use the structures of democracy, but without the spirit of democracy, using “swing” marginal votes to elect a politician based solely on their single issue.
When my mom learned to drink, it was at a kitchen table with my Auntie Flora. For the rest of her life, whenever she got drunk, poor Mum would sound just like Flora. As a boy I could see Mum loved her beer, and in her old age she loved her hot water with whiskey. And all the while, as little boys and girls would be seeing their aunts and uncles drinking, the children would be playing at drinking too, by pretending to be cowboys in saloons. Against these facts, of course prohibition would not work—who’s going to deny dear Granny her hot toddy?
But if a drug like heroin, say, is not yet established in the civil ecology, if children don’t yet see beloved aunts shooting up with a needle, if no hero on TV is shown pirating, then yes, prohibition may work… If you do drugs in the privacy of your own home, then please don’t happily show me your needle, and don’t show my niece. As for piracy, please don’t show me what you’ve pirated—and don’t you dare try to justify yourself to me by saying, “Prohibition never works.” (Expletive)
Call me straight, but I’ve chosen to “take the high road,” same as Romayne and my dear mother.
There is another lesson from the days of 1926, back when there was a focus on social class, and I’m sorry to say it brings me no cheer.
As a boy I watched a TV series, later a 1987 movie with Sean Connery, called The Untouchables. Based on a book, pictured in the weekly TV credits, a book inspired after one of the detectives unthinkingly used Mum’s old phrase, “I’ll tell the cockeyed world.”
I remember a TV scene, where the city crime boss, on neutral ground, is criticizing the head of the detective squad, saying how poor he is. The detective ducks his head when the boss reaches out to show he can’t even afford a good haircut. At one level, this is crime versus being straight, rich city mouse versus country mouse. At another level, this reflects a society with only a little shrimp-sized middle class. Not the jumbo-sized class of my favorite decade, the 1950’s, but instead, an era where the many worked to keep the few in a good life. I don’t want to return to that 1926 world, but that’s where we are headed. Yes, we are.
The graph lines—which I have never seen shown in the media—are clear and utterly unmistakable. A fellow in a Robert Heinlein novel once said, sarcastically, “Water runs downhill, but praise the Lord, it’ll never reach the bottom.” The graphs are going down, down, down… while Michael Moore documents such things as the government secretly helping American businesses to relocate to foreign countries, and on and on. Unless something changes, the graphs won’t level off.
I don’t know the future. But I have seen 1926.
~I wrote of U.S. citizens being in denial where I reviewed the book A Time to Start Thinking in my essay America Down the Chute, archived May of 2015.
~I documented Michael Moore’s secret agent work in Mexico in The Madness of Michael Moore, archived March of 2016.
~As for the book’s title, the song Coming Through the Rye is as meaningless as the name for a car or racehorse. It happens to be an old tune in Japan, from before the post-war occupation, from before the Japanese would kiss. I once heard a Japanese boy at college, hanging around a working Japanese girl, using the tune to flirt.
There was a Japanese novel (translated to English) where a starving girl, at death’s door, at the war’s end, is hiding in a cave. She hears the tune and uses the last of her strength to come out, only to find an American devil-soldier was the one whistling. (Such fearful determined Japanese: the Bomb saved a lot of lives)
…During the occupation Japanese housewives devoured romance books by a G.I. that featured kissing. Decades later, his death of old age made the newspapers. Back in Scotland, Rye is a very old folk song where lassies have to lift their skirts with both hands to walk across the shallow Rye River, giving the lads a chance to kiss them in passing, according to the Art Linkletter Picture Encyclopedia for Boys and Girls. We sang Coming Through the Rye (in English) in school.
~The book cover sticker reads:
The Sons of Temperance
KINGS COUNTY, NOVA SCOTIA
is pleased to present this book to
…Darlene Rogers… student
of Grade …5… of … L. E. Saw Avonport… School
as a prize in the ESSAY CONTEST conducted by the
District Division and associates.