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House of Happy Endings: A Memoir Paperback – September 2, 2008
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“[Garis] deftly works through the evidence, constructing moving and memorable portraits of her family members . . . There is no happy ending to this strange tale, which weaves its spell in the telling.” ―William Grimes, The New York Times
“Anybody who read Uncle Wiggily and The Bobbsey Twins thinking, ‘Why isn't my family like that?' will count their ancestral blessings when they pick up this riveting tale, which unmasks the agonized reality behind the idyll. The prose is lucid, unornamented, but full of feeling. To enter this book is to assume the watchful air of a child who feels that it is up to her to hold together a family that is spinning apart with terrific centripetal force.” ―Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club and Cherry
“House of Happy Endings conveys an exquisite restraint, a measured thoughtfulness that is simply eloquent. At the same time it renders the terrible pain of its people in the most urgent way. A sense of the helplessness of love in the face of an ongoing personal disintegration, the panic of articulate educated people enduring a progressive disaster, give the story a fearsome suspense that is absolutely riveting. Its balance of judicious, insightful reflection and the evocation of heartbreak is truly rare; it's what distinguishes the best memoirs from the rest. Some exist beyond their subject as works of literature and I truly believe that this is one.” ―Robert Stone
“Leslie Garis' grandfather wrote Uncle Wiggily, her grandmother The Bobbsey Twins--between them Tom Swift and hundreds of other children's stories. These benign characters of America's childhood float over the Garis family like a Macy's Thanksgiving day Parade in hell, exacting a fearful penalty on three generations. Leslie Garis has written a searing and chillingly objective memoir, House of Happy Endings, that so transcends the ‘problem family' genre it becomes a dissection of the American family itself, its values, its mores, its dreams.” ―John Guare, author of The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation
About the Author
Leslie Garis, author of House of Happy Endings, has written on literary subjects for many national magazines and newspapers. She is best known for New York Times Magazine profiles of such writers as Georges Simenon, Rebecca West, John Fowles, Harold Pinter, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag.
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Leslie's grandfather wrote the long-running "Uncle Wiggily" children's series, and her grandfather and grandmother also wrote, under pen names, many popular series books for children, including "The Bobbsey Twins." Their son, Leslie's father Roger, was a successful writer of magazine stories and television plays whose Broadway aspirations were cut short by the onset of severe mental illness and addiction, probably inherited from one or both of his parents. Based on some of the reviews I'd read (though not all and certainly not the ones here on Amazon), I was apprehensive that this book would be a "Mommie Dearest" type memoir and was relieved to discover it wasn't. In fact, for all her plaintive paraphrasing of the line from "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," - "We were a nice family once, weren't we?" - the book is half over before anything particularly awful happens. At that point Leslie's father develops serious symptoms of what, in hindsight, appears to be a lifelong depressive-anxiety disorder. As the father becomes drug-dependent and traipses in and out of various well-known mental institutions of the time, his children and his long-suffering wife are forced to sell their beloved house (which the author hints was probably beyond their means all along) and eventually come to grips with the family history of mental illness that appears to have visited all three generations to some degree.
To me, the biggest tragedy of this tale was that Roger Garis's illness occurred in the 1950s before the advent of Prozac and other effective treatments for mood disorders, as well as the lessening of the associated stigma. I also felt empathy for Roger's indomitable wife Mabel, who seems constantly overtaxed in her expected role as loving, supportive wife and daughter-in-law. The Mabel of today would hopefully have a career of her own and thus not be wholly dependent on an unreliable husband and her in-laws' gifts and bequests to support an outsized house, three children and herself. But in keeping with the memoir format, Leslie keeps her lens focused on the time frame in which Roger and his family were living, and her book is more about expressing the feelings and coping mechanisms of the family than in providing an impartial analysis (which would probably be difficult given that she is an affected family member, not a third party observer). Mabel and the children do fairly well with the bad hand they are dealt, and Leslie herself has a "happy ending" marriage to (of all things) a successful Broadway playwright - shades of her emotional bond with her aspiring father.
At times, Leslie and/or her mother, Roger's wife, seem to be casting about for someone or something to blame for Roger's downfall, whether that's his eccentric, domineering mother Lily (whose eccentricities and rudeness are hard to dislike once you realize that she, too, probably suffered from mental illness and overprescription of addicting drugs by her doctor) or the publisher who insisted on titling Roger's serious biography of his parents, "My Father was Uncle Wiggily". If Roger hadn't been mentally ill, probably for reasons more related to heredity than environment (as at least one of his doctors opines), these factors might have been viewed more as mere blips, perhaps even mildly humorous at times, rather than ominous roadblocks. Lily dotes on her son well into his middle age, is imperious towards her daughter-in-law, and prays incessantly and sometimes hysterically. But her behavior, while obviously upsetting at times, doesn't seem that different from many depressed Irish Catholic mothers (or mothers-in-law) of that era. Anyone who has grown up in a large Irish Catholic family probably saw some of the same. The author, to her credit, realizes that Lilian must have been a strong, intelligent, and vital young woman ahead of her time, who managed to escape a sad and mundane background and succeed as a writer/ reporter in the early 20th century when opportunities for women were few. Leslie mourns the fact that she never got to know her grandmother before illness set in and changed the energetic young woman to a querulous, sick old lady. I too would like to know more about Lilian, given that she only appears in the book for a short span of time and primarily from Roger's disturbed and negative perspective.
Wrong! Instead, a group of various authors worked for Edward Stratemeyer to create many of those children's books. Stratemeyer was a shrewd man who hired writers to work for his syndicate, allowing him to maintain control and most of the profits.
After reading the book, House of Happy Endings, written by Leslie Garis, I had a whole new perspective on the world of peaceful families, solid values and the sugar-coated world of those children's series books, ones populated with the names of Tom Swift, Baseball Joe, Dorothy Dale and the Bobbsey Twins. Our home had a fair number of these books, although I admit I found them a bit too formulaic for my tastes. Still, I have memories of those covers and the beaming faces and idyllic scenes that graced those covers.
In the books I'd read, everything generally ended well and the children and adults went off to bed to dream happy dreams -never nightmares. I do feel compelled to warn potential readers of House of Happy Endings that if you have cherished memories of those books - as well as illusions of kindly authors spinning these lovely fantasy tales - ....you might want to avoid reading the book. But if you like wonderfully told memoirs that are both powerful and enlightening, I'd suggest you get a copy of this and sit down for a good read.
Why? Because House of Happy Endings openly examines the life of one author, Leslie Garis, and her family and how their lives were seriously twisted by trying to live a life modeled on illusions of perfection like those reflected in the books. Leslie Garis's grandfather, Howard Garis, was the creator of the famed Uncle Wiggily books. He couldn't walk down the street without children clamoring for him to tell them stories about Uncle Wiggily and he'd often do just that. He was seen as a kindly gentleman who love children and eagerly looked forward to coming up with more tales to enchant them. The truth was far darker.
Imagine being the son of the man who created Uncle Wiggily. The son of "the man who created Uncle Wiggily" was Roger Garis. Try to think about how that might impact your life. Intrigued? Then you'll want to pick up the book, House of Happy Endings, because Leslie Garis reveals exactly how intimidating it was for a budding writer (her father) to try to compete with the reputation of his own father. You'd think he'd want to avoid becoming anything but a writer but his father encouraged him to continue the family tradition even as his mother undermined him.
By now it should be clear that the Garis household was definitely not one of life imitating art, of the sunny, cheerful Bobbsey Twins, but of a family struggling desperately to hold things together in the wake of impending crisis. Leslie Garis's father, Roger Garis, had terrible mood swings, drug addictions and the ill luck to be overshadowed by his famous father. She describes his struggles, mental breakdowns and odd behavior in an open, but also loving, style. I consider this book to be one of the best I've read in quite some time.
At this point, you may be cringing and wondering why on earth anyone would ever want to pick up this book, one which tears apart the illusions anyone might hold about the beloved Bobbsey Twins and Uncle Wiggily and the authors behind them.
Here's some quick reasons you should put this on your "to read" list of books:
1. It reveals a piece of American social history, especially children's literature and book history, that is both personal and engaging. There are larger truths and insights here about what people wanted to read, the ideals they cherished and the type of books they bought for themselves and their children - especially in the 30s and 40s. Author Leslie Garis had rare access to some of the letters sent by those readers as well as the demands of the publishing company.
Reading this allows one to get a "behind the scenes" looks at children's book series authors, their readers and the way the work was written and published. As a reader and a writer, I found it impossible to put down!
2. The book is written with enough drama to be completely riveting but also a certain amount of restraint. This could easily have seemed like a "Mommy or Daddy Dearest" story but the author has the good sense to pull back from that and to simply reveal what life was like at The Dell, a family home bought with much hope and promise and one that was indeed expected to be a house of happy endings. Instead, life in that large home turned into a downward spiral and a steadily worsening nightmare. Leslie Garis was witness to it all and reconstructs the entire situation with amazing clarity.
3. There is previously unrevealed information about the inside workings of the Stratemeyer syndicate. They really held dear the illusions they created, including the fact that there was one author named Laura Lee Hope who wrote The Bobbsey Twins. Even today, many unknowing readers assume that there was a single author who wrote all those books. I really enjoyed learning the truth as well as the impact that trying to keep secrets had on the Garis family. The Stratemeyers could be cruel, demanding and vengeful!
4. The book is inspirational, although not in the way that many "inspirational" book fit that genre. It is a sideways kind of inspiration, one that can be intuited by reading the author's bio and learning that she went on to write New York Times Magazine profile of many authors, including John Fowles and Joan Didion and Georges Simenon.
Before that, however, she had her own breakdown and struggles. For all readers of House of Happy Endings, one message could well be that life can be hard but resilience can be found even when all hope truly seems lost.
5. Leslie Garis doesn't pull any punches. She describes the weaknesses of her father, grandfather, mother and grandmother in graphic detail. The family was like a turbulent cloud of dysfunction and yet there were happy moments and even touching ones. From hysterical fits to money troubles, Garis gives a first person account, first seen from the eyes of a child and then as the emerging woman she was becoming. No one was left untouched, from her brothers to Garis herself. All suffered from the family dynamics.
Perhaps most touching of all is the plaintive question that opens the book but which I find to be an excellent summary of how Leslie Garis felt so much of the time, the question she seem to return to - time and again:
"We were a nice family once, weren't we? "