What is more exciting than buying a book on a hunch or a whim, knowing only what’s on the cover flap, only to find you love the book? When that book is an old one, by an author you’ve never heard of, and out of print, the excitement is a little bittersweet. It’s a fantastic feeling of finding a needle in a haystack but it’s also frustrating because I always fear that I have the last known copy and if I don’t somehow do something to ensure its future survival that it will disappear forever and it will be my fault. It’s moments like this when I wish I had my own publishing house and could do a fabulous reissue. A Persephone or Capuchin Classics all of my own.
I don’t remember where I picked up my copy of Prairie Avenue by Arthur Meeker. I do remember that I bought it for the cover. Who wouldn’t be charmed by the illustration? And you know I love historical fiction that isn’t really historic fiction–or in this case historical fiction written by someone who can remember the time in which the book is set. Despite its cover and its promises about ye olde Chicagoe, I was a little worried that it wasn’t going to be very good. Either too dry or too twee. But it wasn’t either. This how Kirkus described it in 1949 when it was published:
Prairie Avenue, in the era of its grandeur, 1885 to the turn of the century, is really the hero of the story– Aunt Lydia, grande dame, whose past could not be unearthed is the heroine — and Ned Ramsay is merely the interlocutor, the interpreter of the passing scene. Ned had had no roots, his early youth was patterned by the good times and the bad times as his father’s fortunes ebbed and flowed. Only when he went to Aunt Lydia and Uncle Hiram, in one of the bad times, did he find that Prairie Avenue claimed him as her own. Wiser than his years, he explored the reasons behind the facade:- Aunt Lydie’s coterie of men was more than just “company”; and Mrs. Kennerly’s “nerves” had a less fashionable significance. But Ned kept his knowledge to himself, and became the staff on which the others- old and young alike- learned to lean. The novel takes the reader behind the scenes, and the mores of the bombastic young city of 1885 to 1904 become real. There’s nostalgia here for an older generation; there’s a march of time, American-wise, for those who would explore the not so distant past of bedizened splendor and easy wealth; and there are the stories of the loves and deaths that made up life on Prairie Avenue. Chicago was their monument; Prairie Avenue was their background; money their goal.
I really loved slipping into this story and picturing Chicago as it once was. As I alluded to earlier, the fact that Meeker wrote this from a mere 60-year remove, having been born into it in 1902, and having first hand background accounts from his relatives makes it so much more of a treasure for me. It allows me the freedom to trust the author and not second guess their research and dialog like I do with contemporary historical fiction. Even if Meeker’s 1949 mind got it wrong, his mistakes are less apparent (if at all) and carry their own historical charm. I realize with each passing day I love to live in the past. Not a very sophisticated approach to literature I agree. But it’s cozy there.
Also interesting is a throw away moment at the ice skating rink that made me think “This author must be gay!” It was a subtle moment but one that had me convinced that if the author had written Prairie Avenue 40 years later Ned’s love interest would have been a he not a she. Turns out I was right. Meeker’s Wikipedia page supports my notion.
Regular readers will remember my delight over finding the hitherto unknown to me novel Victoria 4:30 by Cecil Roberts. Although Prairie Avenue doesn’t quite thrill me as much as that one, it is definitely a delightful book.
And to that end, I have an extra copy that I am going to give away to a good home. If you live in the U.S. (sorry rest of world) and would like to be placed in a drawing for my extra (and somewhat smelly) copy, leave me a substantive comment below. Takers who just say “I’ll take it” or “Put my name in the hat” will not be eligible. You don’t need to be Scheherazade, but give me something, anything. Why you want to read it, what’s the last serendipitous book find you had, you’re favorite book, something. I love to talk about me, but I do like hearing what other people have to say.