Oh Lord I Go for Penguins

Mr. Popper’s Penguins
Richard and Florence Atwater

Childhood maladies that recur in one’s adult years are no fun. I’d much rather the regimen of corn starch baths and phenobarbitol I recall than the loopy steroid-fueled course of therapy I’ve been on the past week. Believe me, the election was small beer by comparison.

Maybe that’s not so. But what’s definitely true is that I found myself sidelined in my various reading projects, let alone writing about them. Even reading the Potter corpus aloud was hit or miss. Luckily, I was able to finish a book I insisted on reading to the kids in the wake of finishing the monster-volume in the Potter series.

I haven’t the strength to address Harry right now, but penguins offer a proven therapeutic respite.  There once was a time when one of the most soothing balms I could offer my tortured soul was to stand staring as the penguins at the Central Park Zoo swam, dived and cavorted. Watching them, I still find it hard to keep a smile off my face, no matter how blue I may feel.

Maybe that goes back to the joy of this book from my childhood. I  hoped to share that feeling with my own kids, but I did have some concerns. From what I remembered, the book was set more or less around the time of its publication: the late 1930s, so the back end of the Great Depression.

Go ahead, try not to smile. I dare you.

In the early 1970s, when I first encountered this misplaced flock, the Depression was an event that had shaped a couple of generations. We didn’t lack for consumer goods, but they were few and singular: one TV (color only arrived in 1971 or 72), one car, one record player, one AM radio in the kitchen. My grandparents told tales of how radio offered much better entertainment than television, even as my grandfather settled in for an evening of Gomer Pyle and Gunsmoke.

So I, at least, had a reference set. My kids, raised in a world of YouTube, DVRs and on-demand video can’t even comprehend the idea of scheduled television let alone reruns. How were they going to react to a world as alien to them as it was familiar to me?

Turns out, pretty well. I think it must be the birds, although Robert Lawson‘s illustrations, recognizable from our earlier encounter with The Story of Ferdinand, probably helped. Let’s see why.

An entire city, it seems, can have a thing for penguins–at least when the city is Pittsburgh.

Mr. Potter is a somewhat scatter-brained house painter living in Stillwater. What I said to my kids when we read this was that I thought Stillwater was like Springfield, common enough for everyone to relate to but not in any particular state, though I knew there was one in Oklahoma. My friends in the Wiki kingdom, though, claim the town is in Minnesota. I’ve no reason to understand why they believe that, the state is never mentioned in the book. So beware the authority of all online oracles and go look for yourself.

I said scatter-brained and that may be unfair. He might be, in his own daydreaming way, a nascent genius. He’s certainly responsible for the still-popular interior design trick of painting one wall a different color, though in his case it seems more a matter of mistake than intent. He’d much rather be lost in the books of polar exploration he spends his free time immersed in.

When we meet him, Mr.Popper is about to settle in for a long winter with his books. It turns out that house painting is a seasonal business and that each year comes with a built-in 6-month sabbatical. Here’s my proof that a story can transcend time: my 9-year old son, upon hearing Mrs. Popper say that money was tight and they’d just have to eat more beans to make ends meet, almost burst into tears. It probably helped that the Popper children, Bill and Janie, are close to his age.

There were plenty of penguins in my own childhood, of course.

Mr. Popper no sooner settles in for his winter routine than when, in a radio address from the South Pole, Admiral Drake calls him out and tells him to look for a surprise. It soon arrives: an Emperor penguin immediately christened Captain Cook after the explorer.

The bird turns the household upside down. Accommodations–costly accommodations–are made. But the bird also attracts attention. Then his spirit and health seem to flag. Mr. Popper contacts an expert at an aquarium. The response comes in two parts: a statement of not knowing what the problem is and delivery of a female penguin who is also ailing. Now the Poppers have two birds and money is even tighter.

But wait, there’s more, much more! Greta, as they quickly christen the new arrival, perks up, then just as quickly flags. But this isn’t ennui; it’s pregnancy. And Greta–an exceptional bird–lays ten eggs. Soon enough the Popper’s have a dozen penguins, each with its name painted on its back so they can be identified. They also have a frozen and flooded basement where the birds romp and, eventually, pick up a trick or two.

Habits of dress like this led the Blues Brothers to call nuns penguins.

It’s those tricks that save the day. The Popper Penguins become a vaudeville act, signed at a movie-star like salary of $5,000 a week. That’s a lot of money even today; in the depths of economic misery, it must have seemed astronomical.

The money solves many problems, but it creates new ones. The act pays its own expenses. Traveling, feeding and bedding down a dozen squawking birds is neither easy nor cheap. Worse, as temperatures begin to rise the birds begin to fail. What to do?

Enter Admiral Drake, back from the South Pole. He has a proposition for Mr. Popper. So, too, does Mr. Greenbaum, a Hollywood producer who’s approached the vaudeville promoter with a film deal. Mr. Popper must choose: say goodbye to his beloved birds, who will seed the first arctic colony of penguins, or hit the show biz big time. (One glory of kid’s books: you can ignore that both these choices are wildly improbable and prone to failure.)

You should read the book to find out what choice Mr. Popper makes. My kids understood it and, seeing as how this was for them (which is what I always tell myself when it’s really for me), that’s what counts.