In the Great Green Room
The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown
By Amy Gary
Flatiron Books Copyright © 2016 Amy Gary
All rights reserved.
Once upon a summertime
A bug was crawling on a vine
A butterfly lit on a daisy
While a little bee
Buzzed himself crazy in a wild pink rose
And a child ran through the wet green grass
In his bare feet and wiggled his toes
"Once Upon A Summertime" The Unpublished Works of Margaret Wise Brown
The moon and sky over Brooklyn, New York, was bathed in the golden hue of an aurora borealis in the early morning hours of May 23. Sheet lightning to the south and east illuminated the shifting rays in a staccato dance of light. As the rising sun diminished the auroral lights, panic rose in the house of Bruce and Maude Brown. The baby they had been expecting more than two weeks earlier was now arriving in a rush. But the doctor was nowhere to be found.
Bruce was seriously ill with malaria contracted on a recent business trip and could be of little help. His nurse and Maude's mother prepared, as best they could, to deliver the baby. Anna, their stern Irish nanny, paced the downstairs entry with the Brown's two-year-old son, Gratz, waiting for the doctor to arrive. Maude's screams in the final throes of labor were heard throughout the house and out the open door as the doctor dashed in. He bounded up the stairs, rolling his shirtsleeves as he climbed, reaching the bedside just in time to deliver the baby girl. He held her up for her mother to see, his cuff links still dangling from his sleeves.
That night, the sky was again ablaze with gold, green, and blue of the borealis that illuminated another celestial phenomenon. The earth's shadow slowly stole the light of the full moon in a total lunar eclipse. It seemed as if the heavens were putting on a show to welcome the little girl Maude named Margaret Wise Brown.
* * *
Four years later, Maude Brown pressed Bruce for them to move from Brooklyn to Long Island. She found the walls of their neighborhood claustrophobic and believed the abundant nature Long Island offered would be good for their children. Bruce was reluctant to leave their formidable home on a hill. From there he could see the East River, and their house was a short walk to the docks and American Manufacturing Company's warehouse, where he worked.
It was his job to travel to distant lands to purchase hemp and jute that were loaded onto massive cargo ships like the ones that streamed up and down the East River. Day and night, tiny tugs twirled about in the river, leading those large boats into port or out to sea. The whistles of the ships often drifted up the hill to the open windows of the Browns' home. Transients from the docks, too, sometimes wandered into their neighborhood. The brick walls and wrought iron fences that lined the yards and streets silently declared that those people weren't welcome. Even the cathedral at the end of their road appeared hostile instead of hospitable. Its imposing red doors cast a fortresslike air over the neighborhood.
The day Margaret and Gratz came home with a stranger, Bruce changed his mind about moving. The children were playing in their neighborhood park when they saw the man lying on the grass, looking up at the sky. They asked him what he was doing. He said that the sky's shade of deep blue reminded him of his beloved homeland, Ireland. They delightedly told him that they, too, were Irish, so he shared captivating tales of the land he had left behind. The children invited him home for lunch, certain that their parents, who were quite proud of their Irish heritage, would want to meet this fellow countryman. Maude was gracious to the obviously impoverished man who sheepishly joined them at the table. Margaret and Gratz were not chastised for bringing the stranger home, but it wasn't long before the Browns bought a sprawling home in Beechhurst on Long Island.
On the day of their move, Margaret sat in the back of the family's open-air car with her grandmother as her father drove out of Brooklyn toward their new home on Long Island. She was named after this grandmother, a jolly Welsh woman with a beautiful singing voice. Margaret adored her and her lovely, lilting accent that sounded like music. She was much kinder than Margaret's nanny, Anna, who dunked the little girl's head under cold water every time she held her breath until she turned blue or threw a temper tantrum. Anna's treatment had no lasting effect on Margaret's innate stubborn streak. She liked the feeling of cold water on her face.
As the Browns left Brooklyn, they drove past the skyscrapers of New York City. When the veil on her grandmother's hat billowed like a streamer behind their car, Margaret felt like they were in a parade. Once they reached Long Island, they rolled slowly past opulent mansions lining the coast and then rode inland toward fields and hills topped by towering trees. Bruce turned the car into the long dirt driveway of their new home. On either side of the car, tall green grass stretched out as far as Margaret could see. It looked like they were in the middle of a bright green ocean. When the car stopped in front of the newly built house, Margaret leaped from the car and ran straight into the meadow. The grass was higher than her head, and it felt like she were running through a wild green forest. It was the freest, happiest moment of her life.
Cecily Cerisian powders her nose
For a powder puff uses a rose
Her nose gets yellow and off she goes
Up to a mirror she stands on her toes
And dusts it off where she can see
What kind of lady will Cecily be?
Pretty Poll has a little doll
Dresses it up in folderol
Makes it dresses to go to a Ball
And dresses for winter and summer and fall
By her patterns you can see
The kind of a lady Miss Polly will be.
Mary Madorn climbs in trees
Scratches her arms
And scratches her knees
Isn't afraid of dogs or bees
Swims in crashing cold green seas
It's a little hard at this time to see
What kind of lady brave Mary will be?
What Will They Be? Unpublished
Seven-year-old Margaret and her younger sister, Roberta, sat in their child-size rocking chairs, facing the lit fireplace. The hearth was decorated with tiles depicting characters from nursery rhymes. In dark blue lines against white tiles were Little Boy Blue, Mother Goose, from "Hey Diddle, Diddle" the Cow Jumping over the Moon, and other nursery rhyme characters in dark blue lines. Their spacious room was painted a soothing robin's egg blue, and in the middle sat a large rocking horse, worn from years of loving attention. Margaret's very first memory was of stuffing long cotton strands into the horse's nostrils and around its neck to give it fluffy white reins. Currently, the horse's mane and tail were adorned with colorful ribbons the girls braided into its hair. On the far wall, a built-in bookcase was lined with dozens of books. Ornate scrolls and letters were stamped in gold onto most of the spines, including a set of books, bound in burgundy leather, called The Book of Knowledge. These childhood encyclopedias contained a vast array of information and were Margaret's favorite. She had a knack for memorization and was able to recite dozens of works from those pages. Every page was illustrated in color or with photographs and filled with fascinating facts, stories, poems, and songs. On Margaret's lap was a book of fairy tales from that collection. She read the story of Hansel and Gretel aloud to Roberta, who hadn't yet learned to read.
The little girls looked nothing like sisters. Margaret had long, golden waves of hair and Roberta a short mop of bright red strands. Margaret's delicate face, full lips, and bright gray-blue eyes were accentuated by her little sister's plain looks. It wasn't unusual for their mother to be stopped on the street by strangers who remarked on the fair-haired girl's remarkable beauty. They rarely noticed the little red-haired girl standing next to her dressed in identical clothes.
Roberta listened attentively as her sister read, although Margaret didn't relay the story verbatim. She added an extra character, as she often did during their story time. In Margaret's version, Hansel and Gretel had a little sister with red hair. The heroines in Margaret's twisted tales usually had blond hair and blue eyes. Just as often, something terrible befell the red-haired little sister. This time, she was gobbled up by the cannibalistic witch. Courageous Gretel, though, saved herself and her brother by outwitting the witch and shoving her into an oven. They took the witch's treasure and then returned home to live happily ever after with their father.
Gullible Roberta was eager to hear the story again, but Margaret snapped the book shut. She proclaimed it to be time to go to sleep and crawled into her bed. Her sister reluctantly followed. It was their ritual to say good night to their toys, rocking horse, chairs, books, and pictures on their walls. Margaret first, then Roberta. Before long, their door opened, and Anna whispered good night to the two little girls, then turned off their light.
* * *
A light snowfall swirled around nine-year-old Margaret and her father as they walked along the bustling port of the East River. Aromas of coffee, tar, and sea met them as they passed cargo being loaded into vast warehouses along the docks. They stepped into the largest building, the American Manufacturing Company, where the scent of hemp and jute permeated the air. Workers stood beside row after row of tables piled high with fibers they twisted into ropes and bags. Margaret followed her father past the tables and up the stairs into his office. It was common for the little girl to come here with her father when he wasn't traveling to a far-flung land. She preferred to be by his side whenever he was home.
In the office, she took her usual perch on a stool next to the window and looked out on the river. Below, squat tugboats moved slowly because layers of ice had formed in the river. Frozen white chunks bobbed and tumbled in the dark green water of the river. She loved the way each season changed the port's tempo, sights, and sounds. It seemed she had always known the language of the tugs' captains, spoken in blasts from their horns as they pushed and pulled enormous ships past each other on the waterway.
The Great War had ended that year. The unrest that enveloped the world over the last six years only increased Bruce's business, and the Brown family remained comfortably situated in their new home. Long Island suited Margaret far better than Brooklyn. She played in the woods and fields whenever possible, and their home was rural enough for the children to have dozens of pets, including rabbits, squirrels, dogs, and horses. When one of Margaret's pet rabbits died, she skinned it and proudly displayed the pelt to her family. Her father, who taught her how to hunt, fish, and sail, was no doubt amused by this antic, unlike her mother, who tried to counter the girl's roughness by enrolling her in ballet and refinement classes.
Margaret cared nothing for the typical society girl parlor niceties. She shared her father's love of the outdoors and adventure. When her father was home, he and Margaret spent weekends sailing, golfing, and fishing. Bruce was raised in a family that expected as much, if not more, from the daughters as the sons. There were many accomplished men in his family, but their success was attributed to their matriarch, Elizabeth Preston, the brains of the dynasty. It was the boast of each consecutive generation that every male in the line had a sister with greater intellect and stronger character. At a time when high society dictated a path for little girls that favored polite conversations and needlework, Bruce encouraged Margaret's athleticism and independence.
She stared out of her father's office window, and tears filled her eyes. Her father would board a ship docked on the other side of Manhattan later that day. Those boats were so large they often needed three or four tugs to escort them safely out to sea, and once there, they kept going, carrying people to far-off lands. Margaret was always eager to hear stories of her father's exotic travels, but she hated to see him leave. Every time he boarded a boat, she was convinced she would never see him again, so her tears soon turned to sobs. The father held his daughter in his arms and, as he dried her tears, told her she shouldn't worry about him, he would always return.
* * *
Margaret grew used to her father being away. She also grew used to solitude. For much of the year, her brother, Gratz, and most of the neighborhood children were away at boarding schools. On walks to and from school, she often stopped to watch the comings and goings of bugs, birds, and butterflies. Roberta had no patience for her sister's dawdling or cloud watching — another favorite pastime of Margaret's. Roberta preferred to be inside reading with their mother.
When summer came, Margaret's domineering personality, quick wit, and endless imagination made her an unquestionable leader of the neighborhood band of children. She led daylong expeditions through the forests or fields and relished being able to outwit her companions. She once convinced them that she alone owned the woods. Anyone who wanted to enter had to pay her an entrance fee, which, not surprisingly, they paid.
In the summers when they went to visit their cousins in Virginia and Kentucky, it was common for the children to sleep on huge screened porches designed to capture cooling night breezes. It was routine for Margaret to be the center of attention on those nights. She stood on her cot, one in a long line crowded onto the porch, and crooned to her cousins. As they fell asleep, she told stories — some from memory, others from imagination. She could make up a story about almost anything they asked her to. She knew a great deal about a great many things and enjoyed spouting trivia on a variety of topics. If anyone doubted her, she told them she knew it to be so because she had read it in The Book of Knowledge.
* * *
Margaret's best friend, Jayne Thurston, had a father who was a famous magician. Playing at their house was always an adventure because he liked to test his latest illusions on the neighborhood children before performing in front of a paying public. It wasn't unusual for his crew to parade giraffes, monkeys, and elephants up and down the streets. Teatime there once included a fake cobra that slithered across the table and poured their tea, and the girls often dressed up in glitzy stage clothes in the warehouse where theatrical props were stored. Deadly pets also were kept there, including a lion. Margaret was astonished by its sheer size as he paced in his cage. She had seen a lion in the zoo, but this enormous beast was close enough to touch. Jayne's father also let them hold a lion cub, and that moment filled Margaret with awe. The warm tenderness and soft fur of the small beast was like holding a living toy.
One day, Margaret, Roberta, and Jayne found a dead bird at the edge of the forest, and it was Margaret who decided they should hold a funeral for the unfortunate creature. She dispatched Roberta to gather the other neighborhood children while she and Jayne headed to the Brown house to collect a Bible and shovel.
Margaret held the oversized Bible as she led the children back to the edge of the woods. None of them had ever been to a funeral, but Margaret instinctively knew what to do. They dug a small hole and then lined it with ferns from the woods. They wrapped the bird in leaves and placed it into the ground. Margaret read a passage from the Bible, and another child said a prayer. They sang a sad song, then covered the grave. On top, they placed flowers collected from the field, and Margaret spoke for the group. She promised they would return every day, bring new flowers, and always remember the poor little creature. And for a few days, they did, until the warm days of summer made them forget.
Up in a cherry tree in the sun
The cherries ripened one by one.
Big red cherries, there they hung
And I ate them in the sun.
Some were yellow, some were red
And birds were singing round my head. On their stems they hung
And I ate them one by one.
Spring was late, I couldn't wait.
"Red Cherries" Mouse of My Heart
When Margaret turned fourteen, her father's work required that he move to India for two years. Maude would live with Bruce, and they would send their girls to Château Brillantmont, an exclusive boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, that catered to upper-class families from around the world. Placing Margaret and Roberta in Europe would make it easier for Maude to visit on school breaks and for the three of them to tour different countries over those two years.
Maude and her daughters bought matching hats for their passport photos and planned an excursion for the weeks preceding the start of school. They would shop and dine in Paris. In Italy, they would see museums in Florence and the Vatican in Rome. Their house was sold, and the possessions Margaret held so dear were placed into storage along with the family's furniture. It seemed a good trade-off for the adventures that lay ahead. Margaret wanted to see more of the world. (Continues...)
Excerpted from In the Great Green Room by Amy Gary. Copyright © 2016 Amy Gary. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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