Friday, January 14, 2005

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, and other fading memories

My Aunt Helen grew up between League Park and East Cleveland in the period 1925 to 1964, then she followed her employer out to Jefferson, in Ashtabula County. Three years ago she fell and now lives in an assisted living home in Mentor. The only family she’s ever had were me and my siblings, her only brother’s kids, so I visit her twice a week.

During one visit last spring, she remarked that there was a book she'd read decades ago and wanted me to find and read to her sometime, as macular degeneration prevents her from reading any more. She couldn’t recall the title, but it was about a boy and his wagon and the “big fire or something, in Cleveland.” Helen has always been a bit vague about details and in the past year, as she approaches her 91st birthday next month, her memory of the past has almost completely vanished, except for some key family people and events. Fortunately I was able to make a lucky guess and identify that “big fire” as the East Ohio Gas Company explosion, probably because the 60th anniversary of that tragedy was coming up on October 20th and it was on my mind. But beyond those details, I was stumped.

Doing what most everyone does these days, I fired up the computer and Googled “East Ohio Gas” and “boy” and “wagon,” and got several hits. One turned out to be the Past Winners page for the Cleveland Arts Prize, but that didn’t seem promising for some reason, so I moved on. I shouldn’t have, as the book turned out to be The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, a novel by former Cleveland Press writer, Don Robertson, who won the prize for literature in 1966. This is a largely forgotten book today, but it shouldn’t be and I’ve been plugging the story for the past few months, in the News from Cleveland Memory e-newsletter and anyplace else I could. I’m doing it again here.

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, is the fictional account of young Morris Bird III and his expedition across Cleveland’s east side to visit his friend Stanley Chapulka, who’d recently moved from the old neighborhood to one next to the gas company plant. Morris has several adventures along the way, which don’t begin to compare with what happens as he reaches his friend’s house in time to witness the explosion of the company’s huge liquefied natural gas tank, the part of the story which is not fiction.

Each time I visited Helen last fall, I’d get the book off her shelf and put it on the bed, where I could later reach it from the couch. Then I’d read a dozen pages and we’d journey together with Morris Bird III (Don never shortened it or use a pronoun for his hero) from East 91st Street and Hough to East 63rd and St. Clair, as he dragged his kid sister in a red wagon across city block after block. It’s not a long book and we finished all too soon. Helen’s memory of the details has faded again, but she regularly looks at her bed and asks what was it about her bed that she’s trying to remember. It’s the anticipation she’d feel last fall, looking at the book on the bed and knowing I was going to read it to her before much longer. We’ve since tried The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and M*A*S*H, but nothing satisfies like Morris Bird III and his wagon, on the way to adulthood.

8 Comments:

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Victoria Wright said...

I found Robertson's book thirty years ago in a secondhand book shop, and loved it. I found it again a couple of weeks ago when I was opening some boxes of books in my basement. I'm reading it again now, and I love it just as much. It still holds all the same charms. We see life through the eyes of young but wise Morris Bird III, with the Robertson's subtle sense of humor carrying us along. Such a sweet style!

I'm so pleased to see that I'm not the only person in the world who appreciates this terrific book.

 
At 11:12 AM, Blogger Bill Barrow said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the book and wrote to say so. I know Don's wife will be happy to hear of your note, too, as I'll share it with her.

Aunt Helen died in October and I think the weeks when I was reading this book to her was the end of the period in her life when she really could follow and enjoy stories like this.

 
At 12:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread as a lonely eccentric teenager in a small town in Canada in the early 1970s. I remember being enthralled by the way Robertson combined fiction and history so seamlessly, and also by his gift for characterization and dialogue. This book, the other two in the Morris Bird III series, and several others of Robertson's novels made my adolescence a lot more bearable. I was interested to find recently that first edition copies of his books are selling for up to $300 American. This makes him collectable, which the man undoubtedly deserves. What a prolific and fearless writer.

 
At 9:11 PM, Anonymous Andrea G. said...

Found this site by trying to find out more about DR. Anyone with info, please post. (I'm pretty sure he's passed away, but when? How many books has he published? Is there a website about him?) Thanks.

I must have read most of Robertson's books close to the times they were published and am happy to say that I own 6, including "The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread." Absolutely loved this writer. Am about to recommend him to a friend.

 
At 5:48 PM, Blogger Bill Barrow said...

Andrea G, would you please send me your email address via the Cleveland Memory Project "Contact Us" feature (www.ClevelandMemory.org)? Thanks. Bill.

 
At 2:07 PM, Blogger Carol said...

In going through a box of old letters from my mother's home in Chardon, I discovered one from her to her brother who was in the army in Italy at the time, with a marvelous 'first-hand' account of the East Ohio Gas explosion and fire. She was Caroline Sorn, co-proprietor of Sorn's Restaurant on St Clair and E 61st Street, and was right in the middle of the action! If you'd like, I will transcribe the letter for you to post - I really am enjoying your blog! Also, I will definitely pick up a copy of "The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread", sounds like a great book.

 
At 11:51 AM, Blogger Robert said...

"The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread" may be my favorite book from when I was a kid. I'm glad to hear it being praised, though sad that it is out of print.

 
At 1:52 PM, Blogger Bill Barrow said...

I learned recently that a major publisher is looking to put out a new paperback edition of this book. Stay tuned for details.

 

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