A delightfully surprising find

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.

11 thoughts on “A delightfully surprising find

  1. Su Clift June 25, 2018 / 7:25 am

    I don’t want your Prairie Avenue, but I thought I’d let you know Amazon appears to have a copy or a few too. It lives! I agree about that cover.. no one could resist that. I once bought a whole SERIES because I saw a picture of this cover somewhere… oh crap, I’m not getting the photo on here somehow… but go look it up. It’s Georgette Heyer’s Country House mystery series. And the cover that sucked me in was on Why Shoot A Butler. I still have not read any of them…


  2. julie1774 June 25, 2018 / 8:32 am

    Being from Chicago, loving architetural history, and books about anyone with more monet than myself, this book sounds great!


  3. Liz Dexter June 25, 2018 / 9:36 am

    Lovely cover and I’m so glad it bore out the cover inside!


  4. Susan in TX June 25, 2018 / 12:00 pm

    I’m not putting my name in the hat (just because you warned me off with the ‘smelly’ description), but will say that I love finding older copies of Miss Read books – the covers are definitely the type that would cause me to purchase them even if I didn’t know the contents would be good. I love serendipity stories like this. I can’t remember if you’ve read any of the Miss Reads, but I definitely think you’d like them (the part of your wheelhouse that includes small British village stories with knitting ladies and lots of gossip).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. akagracie June 25, 2018 / 1:00 pm

    You’ve never led me astray, Thomas (I particularly enjoyed The Hunters and Free Air; thanks for the recommendations), so I’ve added a copy of this book to my abebooks wishlist. Your description of Prairie Avenue sounds a bit like Louis Auchincloss transplanted to the midwest. I’ve been reading some of his work this year and love the specific placement in a particular time, place, and social class. Susan in TX, I agree with you about Miss Read: I love those books (and their covers).


    • Thomas June 25, 2018 / 7:32 pm

      Yes! I was thinking the same thing about Louis Auchincloss. I almost worked it into this review.


  6. Kim June 26, 2018 / 2:50 pm

    Hi Thomas — I thought of you as I read “The Turning Tide” by Evelyn Ward McDonald, because you like Maine. It was an impulse buy for me and I was concerned that it might be a sappy love story based on its cover picture, but it turned out to be an interesting and enjoyable (to me) family saga based on the coast of Maine in the 1800s. The family starts a shipbuilding business and sails commercial vessels. I never thought about family members going along on the trips, literally all over the world. Anyway, if you find a copy and read it, I’d be interested in hearing what you thought of it. And, thank you, but I’ll pass on the offer to win a copy of your Chicago book. Your full disclosure of the aroma kind of makes that decision easy…


  7. Jill L June 28, 2018 / 5:10 am

    This cover reminds me of a domestic fiction series I’m reading called Thrush Green by Miss Reads, set in a village in England. Maybe a little twee, but in this world of baby jails and such they’re a wonderful escape

    You can find them new on amazon, but it something if about the vintage covers that I find charming.


  8. Bronwen January 30, 2019 / 7:14 pm

    Hello there the same copy ages ago I ordered just arrived to my office. I had no idea how I had heard about it and then guessed (correctly) your blog!


Leave a Reply to Kim Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.