Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone;
But when she came there
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.
When we sold our Minnesota home and moved to England, I was working on a revision of a revision of a revision of a novel called The Far End of the Park. In the course of time it had become an old bone long buried, unearthed, and then again buried.
First written in 1977-78, the story had attracted favorable attention from Frances Kiernan, then fiction editor of the New Yorker magazine, and later Harriet Wasserman, literary agent for Saul Bellow and Reynolds Price. In such company I could not have staved off optimism. In the air was the whiff of anticipation accompanying the aromas of a Sunday roast at home.
Francis Kiernan thought the short story very much like what her magazine published in the 1930’s and 40’s when the likes of E. B. White and James Thurber were yet at work there. The comparison was flattering to say the least, an association with Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but I was thirty years behind the times and losing ground fast.
A year later The Far End of the Park became a novel. You might say that like my mother, I took some choice leftovers to make a soup or stew, with somewhere in it the bone so essential for flavor.
I still have my note from agent Wasserman. She and a colleague had both read the manuscript and liked it very much, would be happy to send it around, etc.
Thirty more years went by. We had a for sale sign outside our home. The Far End of the Park manuscript—I fancy—wound up under the leg of a wobbly office table in a turbulent time for agent Wasserman herself. She set up her own agency and seems to have gotten into a literary agency muddle of some sort.
As they say in books like The Lord of the Rings, my story ‘fell out of time’. It would have stayed there, but for possibly some canine instincts in my bloodline. I cannot help digging up old bones.
In England I unearthed The Far End of the Park and gnawed some more, wondering—really—what was the point of it? So it is with instinct. A novel written in the late 1970’s, suited perhaps for the readership of its time, could not be updated and still be itself. My young protagonist Jude Henley had never heard of smartphones, computers, and Twitter. In the cabin where he lived with his mother, the nearest phone was in a roadside booth a half-mile away. These days even roadside phone booths were an endangered species. Nobody played pinball anymore. Nobody daydreamed. An isolated young man finding his way in an isolated rural park—anyone like Jude—would have found his way out of this fix long ago or died of sheer loneliness. My potential readers back then were now grandparents with failing memories…
My wife Kate, as usual, saved me and put a stop to all this digging up and burying. Finality is about the best thing to come from story publishing. She found an old oil painting of mine from the same period, slapped it on the cover, and published The Far End of the Park herself. At least from now on, that particular old bone unearthed would stand on a shelf in any home we purchased after the one we sold. At least now it would merely gather dust.
Still, there is a sequel of sorts: Both of us remember that about the time we moved from Minnesota, it was easy to find beef roasts for sale with bones in them, chuck roast and the like. On our recent trip home we asked around. Given the wintry climate, we had homemade soup in mind, the kind our mothers used to make. None of the younger butchers had heard of such a thing as ordinary roast with bones in them. Mothers making homemade soup had become sexist—what was that about? Roasts with bones used to be as common as hotdogs, we said. “There’s an old butcher shows up here once in awhile. He might be able to tell you what happened—he might remember”, someone suggested.
We were still behind the times and losing ground fast, fifteen years or so when it came to soup bones, and now a half century or more when came to stories. I guess old novelists and old dogs alike must do without bones, or be happy for those they buried long ago just in case famines happen.
Further sequel: Kate read this, and thinks it a personal reflection essay, of a sort published in the Nineteenth Century. Next thing I am going to try is emailing it to Daniel Defoe to see what Robinson Crusoe thinks.
Editor’s note: Readers can purchase The Far End of the Park at this link.