mrspwfarmThis was always my least-favorite of all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, mostly because she no longer uses magic cures on the children who need them. Instead, she’s left town and bought a (not the) farm full of intelligent animals. With their help (and, if you think about, some really fucked-up manipulation–more on this later), she dishes out:

  • The Not Truthful Cure
  • The Pet Forgetter Cure
  • The Destructiveness Cure
  • The Fraidy-Cat Cure
  • The Can’t Find It Cure

With the exception of “The Not Truthful Cure” (where exercise, farm work and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s patience solve the problem), the other cures come about by rather serendipitous occurrences that place the children in situations where they have to overcome their own faults. These cures also come with the children facing scary consequences if they don’t change their ways–injury to themselves, to animals or to Mrs. P-W herself.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Rebecca Rolfe, the pet forgetter, is left alone on the farm to take care of the animals. The caveat she’s given is to make sure that the ducklings and goslings are locked up safely at night so that Pulitzer the owl can’t get them. She, of course, “forgets the pets” and, in an eerie nighttime scene, has to rush to fend off the hungry owl with a broom. Surprise, though–it turns out that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has “forgotten” Rebecca, and she spends several hours locked out of the house at night, crying.
  • Jeffie Phillips, who takes things apart without being able to put them back together, hence, destructiveness, unsuccessfully tries to “fix” various things on Mrs. P-W’s farm, including the gate of Fanny the pig’s pen. Fanny’s an unpleasant bitch to begin with, but Jeffie tickles her with a switch until she breaks free and chases him, snapping. He’s stuck, hanging upside down in a tree while she bites at him until Penelope, the talking parrot, saves him by imitating her owner.
  • Phoebe Jackstraw is a fraidy-cat who is waiting for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to return from the basement with some apples to peel. After waiting a long time–and searching the house and farm–she goes down to the cellar and finds Mrs. P-W in the dark with a heavy barrel of apples on her ankle, “faint with pain.” She has to ride the horse to the neighbors’ farm for help.
  • Morton Heatherwick gets the “Can’t Find It Cure” when Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle sends him to search for her cow Arbutus’s newborn calf before a coyote gets it. After some half-hearted searching, he naps and daydreams the day away before coming home and getting verbally smacked down by Mrs. P-W: “I am very disappointed in your, Morton. You haven’t been looking for the calf at all and the sun is going down and pretty soon it will be night and the coyote will come sneaking down from the hills and find the little calf and kill it.” Yikes, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle!

Eeriest of all–Betty MacDonald drops little hints showing that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle planned all of these events!

  • Even though she locks Rebecca out “by accident,” Mrs. P-W somehow remembers to fill all the animals’ food dishes and to leave them outside, where Rebecca can get to them.
  • Despite the fact that her cellar accident is supposedly just that, somehow Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle just happened to have saddled and bridled her horse so that Phoebe could ride for help.

The case could be made, cynically, that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is willing to endanger the lives of her animals (the goslings and ducklings, in case Rebecca couldn’t scare off Pulitzer) and to even injure herself to cure these kids of their faults.

But I’ll let that slide and mention what I really did like about this book: its prickliness compared to the sweetness of the others. This is best embodied by Penelope the talking parrot.

Fetlock ran to the barn door just as a large green parrot plummeted to the ground out of the willow tree.

“Hi, parrot,” Fetlock called.

“Hi, yourself,” said Penelope crossly. “You mind your business and I’ll mind mine.”

“Polly want a cracker?” Fetlock called.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Penelope said waddling up toward the farmhouse.

Along those lines, there’s more of a wry sense of humor at play in the writing. Mrs. Harroway and Mrs. Workbasket are discussing a cure for Fetlock’s untruthfulness:

“Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle,” said Mrs. Workbasket. “She is a dear little woman who adores children and knows just how to handle them. Really she has cured almost every child in this town of faults.”

“But how does she cure them?” asked Mrs. Harroway beginning to cry again as visions of Fetlock locked in a dark cellar and being beaten with chains floated in front of her eyes.

A little bit later, Mrs. Workbasket passive-aggressively suggests that farm work would be beneficial for Fetlock, because he “looks awfully puny for his age.”

“It’s his tremendous brain,” said his mother. “His brain is so huge it takes all the nourishment from his little body.”

“Be that as it may,” said Mrs. Workbasket drily…

Finally, there are still plenty of delightful little details that I’ve never forgotten.

The luncheon the next day should have been an overwhelming success. The table was decorated with pink tulips, a pink tablecloth, pink candles, pink napkins, and pink nut dishes. The main course was a maraschino cherry, walnut, marshmallow, pineapple, strawberry, cream cheese and cabbage molded salad, accompanied by pink biscuits. There were also pink mints and pink gumdrops. And luckiest of all, Mrs. Harroway just happened to be dressed entirely in pink with even pink gloves and pink roses on her hat.

I love how, with this book, this world is drawn a little more satirically but still lovingly. It’s obvious (and not surprising) that MacDonald sees the hardworking farm virtues as superior to the foolishness of the suburbs. And, more than any other book in the series (except Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic), there’s a strong, poignant moment on the part of the good lady.

After being cured, Morton Heatherwick can now find anything, including Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s lost cameo brooch that he finds, wonderfully, “under the mash hopper in the chicken house.”

He put it in the egg basket and when Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle saw it she got tears in her eyes. She lifted it out very gently, washed it under the pump, pinned it on her dress, and said, “That was the very first present Mr. Piggle-Wiggle gave me. It means more to me than anything. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Morton.”

As I said, this was always one of my least-favorite books in the series, but I appreciate it with new eyes now. I like how little glimpses into Mrs. P-W are doled out, like rewards for careful readers.

If only there were a prequel-type book about Mrs. (and maybe Mr.) Piggle-Wiggle…but, like finding out who and what Mary Poppins really is, perhaps mystery and magic are preferable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to imagine the possibilities, though…

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