Friday, May 09, 2008

Flashback Friday! We Shook The Family Tree - Hildegarde Dolson

We Shook The Family Tree, first published in 1946, is a humorous memoir of Hildegarde Dolson's growing up in Franklin, Pennsylvania with her slightly eccentric family and neighbors. The book begins with her trying to explain to her buddies in New York exactly what kind of Pennsylvanian she is (not Dutch, in spite of her name, she insists) and then follows her through her childhood and young adult years in a series of hilarious vignettes.

Some of the episodes I remember are: Hildegarde's mother calmly talking her brother down from the town flagpole; the mother using a goat to keep the lawn trimmed instead of a lawnmower; Hildegarde sending off for "beauty mud" and leaving it on her face so long that it hardened to the consistency of cement and she and her brother had to crack it then pry it off with a knife; the Dolsons' neighbor, Deirdre's jealousy over a new baby sister and her subsequent regression into babyhood (at age 11!) and Deirdre's father's (a classics professor) unconventional solution; Hildegarde deciding that she wanted to quit college and telling the dean that she was mentally ill so could they excuse her; and Hildegarde's early adventures in New York City -- she arrived in town on Black Thursday (October 29, 1929)!

Dolson (1908-1981) was a master at humor; this book is right up there with the best stuff James Thurber wrote about his family. The Scholastic edition I read was illustrated with witty New Yorker-ish-looking cartoons that matched the story perfectly; it's easy to see that the illustrator had read and loved the book as well. If you see it at your local library, it's worth a check-out. Even better, if you see it at a library sale or flea market, snap it up for a breezy entertaining read.

I would be so happy if I found this book again; it would get a nosebleed from zooming right to the top of my re-read pile. Almost as good is Sorry To Be So Cheerful, more humorous episodes all about Hildegarde, now grown up and living in New York and working as a free-lance writer. My favorite chapters in that book are "Say Hemlock And Flop", about Hildegarde's frustrating bout with insomnia and her friends' well-meaning attempts to provide the perfect cure; and "Spilling Tea With Emily Post", about her interview with the (then) queen of etiquette.

Dolson had great success as a humor writer, then in the late 1950s or early 60s re-invented herself as a murder mystery writer also successfully. I'm sad she left a genre I loved for one that I don't care for at all, but I'm pleased that she had the talent to make the transition.


Eva said...

This sounds great! I'll be on the lookout for it. :)

Bybee said...

It's really a fun book!

Mariel said...

I'm going to try to order this book, to see if it's the book I remember reading ~17 years ago at my hometown library. Do you recall if the family goes to visit a Chautauqua? Someone on Goodreads suggested this book might be the one I recall.