- Pub. Date:
Our story begins in a dusty little town in California, a bustling place called Hollywood...
Isobel Ransom is anxious. Her father is away treating wounded soldiers in France, leaving Izzy to be the responsible one at home. But it's hard to be responsible when your little sister is chasing a fast-talking, movie-obsessed boy all over Hollywood! Ranger is directing his very own moving picture... and wants Izzy and Sylvie to be his stars.
Izzy is sure Mother wouldn't approve, but scouting locations, scrounging film, and "borrowing" a camera turn out to be the perfect distractions from Izzy's worries. There's just one problem: their movie has no ending. And it has to be perfect—the kind of ending where the hero saves the day and returns home to his family. Safe and sound.
It just has to.
The Wild West atmosphere of early Hollywood and the home front of a country at war form a fascinating context to award-winning author J. B. Cheaney's new novel about the power of cinema in helping us make sense of an unexpected world.
"I Don't Know How the Story Ends will grab you by your shirt and drop you right into the early days of Hollywood and movie making. Peopled with delightful characters who find that real life is not just like the movies, this is a funny, insightful, and touching celebration of friendship and family, the imagination, and the power of the movies."—Karen Cushman, Newbery Award-winning author of The Midwife's Apprentice
"This book is a love letter to the art of storytelling, exploring how the creative process becomes something bigger than ourselves. It's a celebration of the way stories help us see our own lives more clearly."—Caroline Starr Rose, author of Blue Birds
"J. B. Cheaney masterfully combines a family's pathos in wartime, a vivid sense of old Hollywood (including appearances by the era's superstars), PLUS a suspenseful, creative adventure through an entirely new kind of storytelling: MOVING PICTURES!"—Cheryl Harness, acclaimed author of Mary Walker Wears the Pants and The Literary Adventures of Washington Irving
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How We Came to California
The first I heard of Mother's big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street. That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.
It wasn't all my fault. She pushed me before I pushed her-figuratively, I mean.
She'd picked a bad time to tangle with me, for I was in a drippy, dismal mood, like our Seattle weather that day. While walking from my room to the stairs with an open book-Jane Eyre, my new most-favorite-I heard a moaning noise behind me, starting low and growing louder: "AhhhhWOOOO!"
I turned around. "Whatever you're doing, stop it."
A cobwebby ghost was creeping up behind me: Sylvie, draped in gauzy curtains she'd somehow pulled down from our parents' bedroom window. "AWOOOO! I'm the ghost of the battlefield. No-I'm Daddy's lonesome spirit come back to haunt you, and... Quit it, Isobel!"
I had smacked her on the shoulder with my book. She smacked me back, so then I pushed her against the banister and she stumbled on the wads of curtain under her feet. The next moment, she was bouncing down the stairs, howling at every bump.
The noise brought Mother from the study and Rosetta from the kitchen. Both could only stare at first, flummoxed by the noisy cocoon I was frantically trying to unwrap. Sylvie had made it all the way to the bottom without breaking anything, I was pretty sure. Father used to say he was going to take her on the road as a scientific curiosity because her bones were made of rubber. But the fact remained that she had been pushed, and someone had done the pushing.
"Isobel," my mother said accusingly.
"I'm sorry! But she was acting silly, as usual, and saying she was Father's ghost, and we know that Father's alive and well, but I can't stand it when she..." Et cetera. And all this time Sylvie was yelling that it wasn't her fault-she was just playing, and I hit her before pushing her, and so on.
Rosetta stepped in to lend a hand, and finally Sylvie was standing on her own two feet, both of us waiting for Mother to send us outside for a switch from the forsythia bush. But she just looked at us, lips pressed together, the silence lengthening like the long shadow that had fallen over us ever since Father left for France.
"That does it," Mother said at last. "I've had enough of dreary days and melancholy daughters. We're going to California for the summer."
Once the idea was in the open, I learned it had been building for a while. Mother was California born and bred, and her sister, my aunt Buzzy, had been begging her to come for a long stay ever since Father volunteered to serve his country in the Great War. Father had left in November, and now it was almost June-a very wet and gloomy almost-June, all the wetter and gloomier without his quiet smiles and bad jokes. But that didn't mean I was ready to turn my back on home.
"We always spend July on San Juan Island!" I protested when Mother bought our train tickets. "And what about digging clams with Grandpa or taking Sylvie to Pike Street Market? You know Rosetta needs me to do the shopping for her when school's out. And I don't know anybody in Los Angeles!"
"You soon will. Your aunt married a very wealthy man with a child about your age. Thirteen, I think."
"He's a boy!"
"Boys can be human. You have fog and rain in your soul, Isobel. As for me, I've been longing for the sunny hills and orange groves of home. A trip south will wring us both out."
"I don't want to be wrung out," I whined. "And California is not my home." To no avail: in Father's absence Mother had swung about and pointed south, like a contrary compass needle.
I didn't understand it. The calling of a Seattle doctor's wife had always suited her like gravy took to a roast. (Even though Mother photographed much better than a roast, with her dark eyes and stately beauty flawed only by a slight vertical scar on her upper lip.) Hardly a month went by without some item in the newspaper about a tea or charity show hosted by Mrs. Robert F. Ransom, Jr. And now she was ready to throw over all those radiant good works for a dollop of California sunshine!
She did have a point about the melancholy daughter though. All winter and spring, I'd moped about the house and snapped at Sylvie when she got unbearable, which only made her more unbearable. Jane Eyre was teaching me to accept new challenges-and besides, there's not much a twelve-year-old can do about her immediate destiny. So I tried to think like Jane Eyre, setting off for Thornfield Hall and a fated meeting with Mr. Rochester. Perhaps I was destined for my own fated meeting, and besides, we'd be back by the end of August.
But that didn't mean I should not feel a little teary when we gathered at King Street Station on a drizzly afternoon, the tenth of June. Granny kissed us one more time, and Grandpa stood aside, looking like he didn't care all that much, even though I knew he did. He took a swipe at his eyes as Granny told us to get lots of sunshine.
My stiff upper lip trembled, for I couldn't help remembering the last time we'd lingered on a station platform. That was the day Father left.
He is just the best, kindest man in the world-tall and handsome too, especially in his uniform with the captain's bars on the shoulder-and the harder he worked to cheer us up with his jokes and ha-ha's, the worse we felt. Finally my mother said, "For heaven's sake, Bobby-" and grabbed his shoulders and boosted herself on tiptoe to kiss him, right on the mouth! Firmly too.
Father was as shocked as the rest of us, but at least it stopped the ha-ha's. Some honest and dignified sniffling followed the kiss, and Father wiped his glasses, after which he picked up Sylvie and bear-hugged me. Just before letting me go, he whispered, "You're the responsible one, Isobel-look after your sister and be good for Mother. I know you'll make me proud."
That was last November. Now it was June and we were the ones climbing into the coach, California-bound, saddened by farewells past and present. At least I was. Mother, who took her seat and faced resolutely forward, seemed no sadder than the proverbial clam. As for Sylvie, any excuse to get on a train thrills her to no end. While I waved through the window at my grandparents receding from view, Sylvie was climbing the brakeman's ladder on the back platform. The porter pulled her down before she could kill herself.
I will admit to cheering up somewhere south of Portland, as we dined on oyster stew and filet of sole while gazing out our dining-car window at an orangey sunset. After dinner, Sylvie wandered up the aisle making the acquaintance of all our fellow travelers, including a gentleman in a soldier's uniform three seats ahead on the opposite aisle. Being the responsible one, I kept an eye on her in case she overstayed her welcome, which usually didn't take long.
There was something odd about the soldier's face: while he seemed to be speaking, his mouth never moved. With a start, I realized that it wasn't a mouth. It was a mask. When Sylvie's hand went out to touch it, I jumped out of my seat and started up the aisle, saying, "Sylvie! Don't be rude-"
"It's all right, miss." The soldier's muffled voice came through a narrow slit in the mask. His eyes tried to smile as he touched his painted-tin jaw, which was attached by almost invisible threads to his ears. "She means no harm. Unlike that exploding shell that got me in France."
I smiled sickly as I murmured an apology and pulled Sylvie back to our seat. "Well done," Mother said when I explained. "Sylvie, I think you can stay put until time for bed."
"I wonder where he was when he got hit," I mused. "Maybe Father was the first one to treat him!" This thought, dreadful as it was to contemplate, made me think of striking up a conversation with the wounded soldier myself.
"Who knows?" was Mother's only comment as she turned a page of the Ladies' Home Journal, adding, "Leave the poor man alone."
I didn't just miss my father-I was slowly starving for him. Or I was living each day in the half dark, without the light of his easy smile. (Mother's smiles were not so forthright; I guess you would call them ironic.) Every week we faithfully sent letters to him, and at first he'd written back long, detailed replies about roughing it in a barn and trying to buy fresh vegetables from the Frenchies and the funny things his orderly said and how he'd improvised a scalpel from a British colonel's penknife and helped the nurses put up a scraggly fir tree at Christmas, decorated with cutouts from sardine cans. He was at pains to reassure us that his ears were within range of the fighting but the rest of him wasn't: Bullets won't get me but the bedbugs might, ha-ha.
Since January his dispatches were much shorter and farther between. "Maybe there'll be a letter waiting for us in California," I said.
"Don't count on it." Mother still gazed at the magazine but her eyes weren't moving. "We've talked about this, Isobel. He's extremely busy and too exhausted after a long day of patching up soldiers to write anything funny." She turned a page with a snap. "And if he can't write anything funny, he can't write at all."
She sounded almost angry at him for trying to keep a cheerful countenance, but then, she was angry at him for going in the first place. It would have made more sense, it seemed to me, to be angry at Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who started the whole thing. Still, her irritation showed almost every time I mentioned Father going to the war, so I usually didn't.
But I longed for someone to talk to about it. All through the winter, my school chums and I had sold war bonds and marched in parades and knitted socks for soldiers, but the war felt so far away, and so did Father. What was it really like, tending to the wounded in a field hospital lit by the rockets' red glare?
Grandfather Ransom would know, since he had served as an army surgeon in the Philippines back in '98. But he never wanted to talk about that part of it-only steaming into Manila Bay with Admiral Dewey, banners flying and artillery roaring. When I asked about his work, he usually just chewed his mustache and looked preoccupied.
Before long, Sylvie started kicking the seat, and Mother put her magazine aside. "When the seat-kicking begins, it's time to get ready for bed. Suppose I read not one but two chapters of Robin Hood tonight?"
For one so proper, Mother is a very good read-alouder, giving a bearlike growl to Little John and a thin sinister tone to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Sylvie begged for a third chapter, but by then the porters were coming through to turn down our beds-literally I mean, pulling down upper berths from the walls and nudging lower seats together to be made up with starchy sheets. I took an upper berth, with Sylvie opposite me. Mother tucked us in and kissed us good night before settling below.
Sometime in the wee hours, a rare thunderstorm rolled up and Sylvie tried to leap across the aisle from her berth to mine. I can't say why she thought this was a good idea, and she couldn't either. That may have been because-after the hubbub caused by her catching her foot in the drapery pull and hanging upside down hollering like a banshee until the entire coach was awake and scrambling to her aid-it slipped her mind.
"Hoo-law," the porter said, chuckling as he unwound the cords she'd wound herself in. "Derrin'-doin' like Mister Douglas Fairbanks."
He meant the Mr. Fairbanks who was renowned for derring-do in the moving pictures, but Sylvie did not get it.
"I'm not a mister!" she cried, still undignifiedly upside-down. "I'm a girl!"
"Oh, for heaven's sake." Mother was holding Sylvie up by the waist and trying to keep her nether half decently covered while gravity ruled otherwise. "As if every roused soul in this car didn't know that by now!"
In the confusion, I blundered into a shape behind me and turned to meet a horror: a ghostly face with no jaw and a shapeless lump of a mouth: "Ahhhh!"
"Sorry, miss!" the soldier slurred. He'd forgotten his mask. "So sorry-trying to help-"
He backed into his berth, pulling the curtains closed, and I felt as small as a shrub for hurting him like that. But really, what other response was possible for such a face? Those soldiers my father was patching up-how many of them looked like him?
That was enough excitement for one night, even for Sylvie. She crawled in with me so I could talk her to sleep with a story, though I was hardly in a storytelling mood. Thunder boomed and lightning throbbed through the window blind as I tried to launch a plot: "Once upon a time, there was a little girl, six years old-"
"Just like me!" she interrupted, as usual.
"...who lived happily by the Northern Sea with her mother and father-"
"And sister too?"
"Sylvie, can't you just go to sleep for a change?"
She insisted, so I made up something about the girls traveling south to the mysterious land of California, and fortunately she was asleep before I could get very far. I almost never got a chance to end my Sylvie stories, which might be why I wasn't good at endings. As Sylvie snored softly, my surroundings took on a sinister character, looming like a ghost.
Trains have a special kind of aloneness about them, especially at night in the sad glow of dim lights with restless sleepers all around. Our little bed, closed off by heavy curtains, began to feel like a box. It reminded me of Jane Eyre being locked up in the Red Room and made me glad of Sylvie's company, twitchy though she was.
The locomotive whistle moaned in the night and the iron wheels clacked relentlessly over the rail joints, their sharpness muffled by the rain: ch-click, ch-click. Ch-click, ch-click. I drifted off in the middle of a prayer for Father's safety, but sleep for me was iron-riddled and trembling with the shaky glow of the ceiling lamps.
In my dream, the earth turned, rotating to a field of splintered trees and plowed-up ridges. As cannons rumbled and bombs flashed, the ridges became bodies, tossed like grain sacks. And lying apart, a body in a uniform, the captain's bars still smartly gleaming. I knew who it was even while knowing it couldn't be: Bullets won't get me, bullets won't get me, bullets won't-
Hs cap was knocked aside and his face turned away, but as I came nearer, the gleam of wire drew my attention to an object on the ground by his head: a pair of glasses, both lenses shattered in the light that flashed behind them.
Sorry, miss. Sorry-
I jerked upright in the berth, clutching my throat. Just a dream-Father never got that close to the fighting-but my fear felt as real as if he were leading every charge. Sylvie moaned and turned to one side. The wheels rolled on, inexorably: ch-click, ch-click...
The soldier got off at his stop sometime in the early-morning hours. Later, I awoke with sunlight bursting through the blind and Sylvie taking up most of the berth. My body felt like it had been wadded up and pushed in the corner. Later still, rumpled and blinking, we three stepped down from the coach at Los Angeles Central Station.
No one rushed up shouting our names. We walked down the platform, away from the chuffing locomotive with its shroud of steam and coal smoke that smells the same wherever you are. At the end of the platform, the midmorning sun leaped upon us.
It wasn't just strong-it was muscular, like a burly masseuse at a Turkish bath, kneading our arms and faces and backs with such energy that Mother arched her back and almost purred, "Ah, California..."
When I tried arching my back and breathing deeply, the sweet, dusty air just made me sneeze. Meanwhile, the sun was poking fingers (in a manner of speaking) into my very bones.
"Mattie!" came a cry from the other end of the platform, and we turned in that direction. Aunt Buzzy was flying at us, followed by an Oriental fellow in a blue uniform, who managed to not look like he was rushing, though of course he was.
Aunt Buzzy's real name is Beatrice, but the story is her brother started calling her "Buzzy" when she was born because he was only three at the time and couldn't manage three syllables. Now that same brother, my uncle Moss, is a banker in Santa Barbara and can manage any number of syllables, but Buzzy's nickname stuck. Everyone calls her that except Mother. Buzzy doesn't buzz, but she is busy as a bee, so the name is not too amiss. Also, she's honey-colored from her ankles to her golden hair, with a clover field of freckles (whence Sylvie gets them) scattered across her nose.
She sped toward us with such determination that I felt a breeze. "Little Sylvie, how you've grown!" Our aunt squeezed my sister's arms until she peeped like a baby chick. "Belladonna!" This was her pet name for me, after Mother put her foot down on Izzy. "I declare, you look more like your mother every time I see you!" I got my face squeezed instead of my arms, which mangled my smile but didn't hurt.
"Dear Mattie." This is short for Matilda, which Mother doesn't like but puts up with. The sisters-who don't look like sisters because one is fair and flyaway, while the other is dark and reserved-embraced while Aunt Buzzy whispered a few words in Mother's ear. Probably regarding Father, for both looked solemn for a moment.
"But now," said my aunt, as if one solemn moment was quite enough, "we're going to have such high times. I can't wait to show you the house and introduce you to my new family, and, oh! to begin with, this is Masaji, our chauffeur."
Still catching his breath, the denizen of the exotic East bowed to us, and Sylvie and I bowed back. Mother tipped her head, but I could see she was much impressed. We knew Buzzy had married well, but didn't know it was well enough to employ a chauffeur-and where there was a chauffeur, there was bound to be a large, shiny automobile.
There was-and what an auto! My father owned a Model T, black and plain as his medical bag, to get around to patients in Seattle. But Aunt Buzzy's vehicle was a long, pearl-gray Packard Town Car with morocco leather seats and a fold-down top, now open to the dazzling sunshine. Mr. Masaji tucked Sylvie and me into the rumble seat, snug as birdies in a nest. Then he handed the ladies into the backseat, clucked around to the front, and sped away as Sylvie shrieked in delight.
"Well!" Mother remarked, adjusting her veil against the wind, "I must say, Bea, you've done well for yourself."
Mr. Titus Bell had hired my aunt some years back to tutor his only child and finally ended up asking for her hand in marriage. It was just like Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, although we were pretty sure Titus Bell kept no mad wives in his attic to complicate matters. Thus with an "I do," my aunt became Buzzy Bell, a name I thought I would never want to be saddled with-although, on second thought, if it came with a vehicle like this, it might be worth considering.
Bare brownish hills rolled along both sides of the highway. "Look!" Sylvie squealed, pointing. "Palm trees, just like in the Bible!"
Her christening Bible has a picture labeled "O Little Town of Bethlehem," in which gigantic palm trees tower over houses that look like building blocks. Aunt Buzzy turned sideways in the backseat, reached around, and squeezed Sylvie's knee with an affectionate smile. "It will be so lovely to have little ones in the house again. It's too quiet with Titus gone half the time and Ranger acting so serious and grown up. I miss the madcap he used to be."
(She meant Mr. Titus Bell's son, her former pupil. I had never met him, but soon would, and "serious and grown-up" were not the first words that would come to mind.)
"What's that smell, Bea?" my mother asked. "Not the orange blossoms. Something spicier I don't recall."
"Pepper trees. Ten years ago they were all the rage. When Titus built his house out here the scent was overpowering, but they're starting to go now. The new people don't care for them."
"New people?" Mother asked.
Aunt Buzzy nodded. "From back east. Titus has become quite thick with some of them for business reasons. Very interesting...people."
Mother, sitting directly in front of me, raised her eyebrows-that is, I only saw one eyebrow, but I know her looks, and this one indicated that "interesting" meant something you didn't talk about in front of the children. "So I hear."
"Look!" Sylvie shrieked again. "Cowboys!"
In the direction she pointed, four horsemen were galloping along the crest of a barren hill. "Where are the cows?" I asked.
"They're chasing him." Our auto was pulling even with a lone rider, galloping desperately. As the other four gained on him, they drew pistols and began firing!
"Oh!" I bolted upright in the rumble seat. But Aunt Buzzy just glanced in that direction before assuring me, "It's nothing, dear-I'll explain later." Then, turning back to Mother: "Now, where was I? Oh yes, the queerest look came over his face, and then he said..."
Our touring car passed the lead rider, who was now hanging over the saddle as though wounded. I noticed an open auto on the ridge, keeping an even distance while another man stood behind the driver's seat. His face was obscured by some kind of box on a tripod. Sylvie and I stared at each other-my eyes, I am certain, as big and round as hers. What kind of place is this? I wondered.
Abruptly Mr. Masaji turned onto a narrow unpaved road, bumping over railroad tracks. Our shining chariot crested a small, round hill and looked down on a valley of orchards and meadows, crisscrossed by straight roads. Inside each square or rectangle was a house, surrounded by outbuildings and gardens, all very picturesque.
Aunt Buzzy turned to us again, beaming. "Welcome to our little paradise, loves. Welcome to Hollywood!"
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: How We Came to California,
Chapter 2: The Boy with the Hat,
Chapter 3: Tales of Babylon,
Chapter 4: Truth, Beauty, and Flickers,
Chapter 5: A Start in the Pictures,
Chapter 6: Interiors,
Chapter 7: By the Beautiful Sea,
Chapter 8: Buy Bonds!,
Chapter 9: Hearts of the World,
Chapter 10: The Night the Stars Came Out,
Chapter 11: Chips and Blocks,
Chapter 12: The Rescue,
Chapter 13: Talmadge and Prospect,
Chapter 14: A Love Story,
Chapter 15: Miss Blanche,
Chapter 16: News,
Chapter 17: The Perils of a Life of Crime,
Chapter 18: Down at the Station,
Chapter 19: Another Way to Lie,
Chapter 20: Love's Wait Rewarded,
About the Author,