Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, illustrated by Mary Shepard

Rating: 3.5 stars

Lorelei and I read Mary Poppins for two reasons: First, it was on a How Many Of These Children's Books Have You Read quiz and I wanted a higher score; second, I haven't seen the movie in nearly 30 years and thought it would be a good one to view.  Reading the book first would make a movie a literary experience, at least in my book, and therefore the extra screen time would not induce any mommy guilt.

I loved the movie as a child but had never read the book.  There's a reason for it: the movie, I think, is better than the book.  The book was just okay.  There were a handful of really wonderful parts, including:

After Mary Poppins first arrives, she takes them to visit her uncle who is unburdened by gravity.  He simply floats on air.  The children and Mary Poppins are lucky enough to share in this magic and they float up towards the ceiling, too, and have a tea party high in the air.  They also have a bit of laughing gas, so they roll around the air, laughing hysterically.  Lorelei and I loved that part, and we talked about what it would be like to go to school or hang out in our house without gravity.

We also liked the chapter "Full Moon."  In it, the children wander to the zoo in the middle of the night, only to find that the humans are behind bars and the animals are walking about, visiting them and feeding them and commenting on how wild the humans are acting.  It's a scene where the switching of humans and zoo animals really has dark implications, but Lorelei didn't pick up on anything but the funny mixed-up-ness.  Why did this happen, you might wonder?  As it turns out, it is Mary Poppins birthday, and this mixed-up zoo happens under the direction of a Snake King once a year to celebrate.

What I didn't like was actually a who.  I didn't like Mary Poppins much at all.  As a child, I loved her character (played by the delightful Julie Andrews, of course); I remember her to be a stern woman who would give a wink on the sly so as to assure you that she wasn't so uptight.  And she would laugh and smile as she sang--I still have a warm feeling thinking about her.  In the book, she's stern without the reassuring, warm wink.  She sniffs (is this a British thing?) to show her displeasure--and she sure sniffs a lot.  There is hardly any warm feeling at all.

Her abrupt departure is odd to me in two ways: First, who leaves children without saying good-bye?  I know that she forewarned the children (and us, the readers) that she would leave--fly away with her magical, posh umbrella--but the end seems abrupt and cold.  Second, the kids are totally distraught, and as a reader I'm surprised by their emotional response to her leaving.  Having a magical nanny does have its perks, but she was so quirky and cold and unpredictable that their attachment to Mary Poppins seems unearned.
Julie Andrews was so delightful as Mary Poppins!

And yet, I'm glad I read this book with Lorelei, because the book's ending, unsatisfying though it was for me, was priceless because of what happened while we read it.

Lorelei and I were lying on her little twin bed, on a quilt bursting in little girl pink and butterflies. I lay flat on my stomach, reading the last chapter.  She lay next to me, on her side, propped up on her left hand, which meant her right hand was free.

As she listened, she doodled on my arm with her small finger.  She ran her finger up and down my arm, first in circles and then in zig-zags.  She made her pointer and middle finger walk along my arm.  She played with my shirt sleeve, seeing if she could push it up and then down again.  When she had had enough of that she moved on to my hair, which is usually unruly in its current state.  She tried to pull it behind my ear. It flipped back out.  She tried to pull it behind my ear again, then giggled when it flipped back out.  She brushed the hair on my forehead out of my face with her whole hand, just playing with it, maybe wondering what it felt like, and then letting her hand figure out the answer.

I didn't remark on any of this.  I didn't want to break the spell.  Honestly I didn't want the book to end because I loved these sweet gestures.  I loved that Lorelei felt so comfortable she could twirl my hair in her fingers just as easily as she could twirl her own.

We finished the book and talked about the ending a little; I was honest about how I didn't like the last few pages.  It didn't seem like a true ending to me in a few ways, I explained.  I tried to explain why I thought it was unsatisfying--didn't give me that aaaahhhhh sighing-out experience that great books have at the end.  But in my head I knew that the whole experience was very satisfying.  Lorelei's sweet little touchings on my arm and in my hair made the book's ending very memorable to me.

It reminds me that I read books with her and with my boys for literary purposes, sure, but also because sharing a book together can be a sweetly intimate, completely priceless experience.

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