Penguin.com (usa)

Reading Guides

Cordelia Underwood
Van Reid
Paperback

 

INTRODUCTION

In the idyllic summer of 1896 in Portland, Maine, several residents are embarking on adventures of a most audacious and entertaining nature. The young, redheaded Cordelia Underwood has inherited from her uncle Basil a large tract of land in northern Maine. In a chance but portentous meeting, she crosses paths with Tobias Walton, a wise and adventurous gentleman whose portly stature is dwarfed only by the size of his heart, and John Benning, a dashing bachelor with designs on Cordelia and her gentle character. It's the first of many encounters they will have with one another and with a wealth of Yankee originals.

At the Shipswood Restaurant near Portland's bustling waterfront district, we are introduced to Ephram, Eagleton, and Thump, the bumbling founders of the Moosepath League. Awed by a newspaper account of Mister Walton's extraordinary (if seemingly incidental) exploits and by his amiable character, the members unanimously nominate him as leader of their clubshortly after the incident of the moose and the red flannel underwearand a small but intriguing piece of Maine's history is born.

Soon the Underwoods are off to explore Cordelia's inheritance, and accepting Mr. Benning's generous offer to accompany them, they head north while quietly entertaining hopes of deciphering the cryptic message that Uncle Basil left with the land deed: "Our Minmaneth is a young goatt." Busy with escapades that include a haunting deathwatch, a lady's parachute drop in her "attractive suit of tights," and a boxing match between two aging politicians, Mister Walton enlists the clever and talented Sundry Moss as his assistant and traveling companion. Upon learning that Cordelia and her family have found Uncle Basil's legacy to be more perilous than at first it seemed, the Moosepath League's chairman leads his exuberant cohorts to the Underwoods' aid. At the story's climax, all parties play crucial roles as they attempt to unravel the riddle of the sea chest and discover what elusive treasures may be hidden within.

Van Reid's tale is a classic story of generosity versus greed, honesty versus deception, good versus evil. But more than a captivating narrative, Cordelia Underwood is a stylistic achievement that harkens back to the works of Charles Dickens. Like its Victorian antecedents, the novel was originally serialized in a local newspaper, forcing the author to keep the action moving and the characters memorable so that the readers would await the story's continuation with eager anticipation.

Beyond simply the circumstances under which the story was originally published, Cordelia Underwood shares certain characteristics and plot devices with many nineteenth-century novels. It's peopled with good-natured characters, eager to lend a hand at the first sign of someone, preferably a complete stranger, in need. Even the villains seem to elicit the occasional sympathetic response from the reader. Digressive storytelling was prized in Victorian fiction, and the many anecdotes shared by Van Reid's characterstales of ghostly apparitions, grizzled woodsmen, and bears of various sizes and temperamentsgive the book a folklorish quality that sets it apart from much of today's fiction. This style, so appropriate given the characters and events of which Van Reid writes, complements his unrestrained enthusiasm for Maine's history. The result is a novel that brings to vivid life an arcane and wonderful piece of Americana that otherwise might have been forgotten.

In Van Reid's sequel to Cordelia Underwood, Mollie Peer, or The Underground Adventures of the Moosepath League, a throng of Moosepath originals return, from the wise, courtly Tobias Walton and the exuberant founders of the Moosepath League to the furtive Eustace Pembleton and his ragamuffin ward. New to the saga are baseball player Wyckford O'Hearn, spiritualist Madame Blinsky, and the remarkable Quibbling Society. They all cross paths with feisty young social columnist Mollie Peer, whose pursuit of smugglers (and a good story) leads them from the resonance of an unexpected kiss to a perilous October chase on the coast.

 

ABOUT VAN REID

A lifelong resident of Maine, Van Reid writes about what he knows. Cordelia Underwood takes place in his home state, as will further installments of the Moosepath League series, including the next volume, Mollie Peer. Reid always knew he would be a writer, and decided to skip college in favor of the education he received working at various jobs near his home. "I was afraid I'd lose my individuality. I just had a feeling I could live here and learn what I needed to know and develop my own style." He currently lives (and for the foreseeable future, most likely will live) in Edgecomb, Maine, in a house that he and his brother built, on land that his family has owned since the 1800s. He and his wife have a four-year-old son and a newborn daughter. In addition to writing, Reid works as an assistant manager at the Maine Coast Book Shop in Damariscotta.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH VAN REID

In Cordelia Underwood, historical fact and your own fictional inspiration seem to merge seamlessly. Did you undertake the writing of the novel hoping to bring to life Maine's colorful history, or was history more of a vehicle, or starting point, for the telling of your own tales?

If history and fiction do merge seamlesslywhich, of course, is greatly to be hoped forthen perhaps that is because my motives, even to myself, are difficult to separate. What is most conscious, however, and what I tell people is that I hope to create something of a "Northeastern myth." United States destiny and legend almost always point west, and in the process much has been left behind, even forgotten. Storytelling has always been an important aspect of my family's interaction, and the tales about my parents' childhoods and of the lives of my grandparents would fit right in with some of the adventures under discussion. It is here that my vision of people who are good and decent and wise finds its foundation. Two separate works might also exemplify this point of view. The first is a history by Elizabeth Ring entitled Maine in the Making of the Nation, which was published while my book was in the midst of its serialization, and which corroborated a lot of personal feelings I had which were drawn from my own researches. The second is a movie that I first saw when I was thirteen or fourteen. It was a western entitled The Big Country, which stars Gregory Peck as a sea captain from the East who goes out west to marry his fiancée. Peck's character was a great inspiration to me as an easterner who loved westerns and yet felt a little left out, and certainly his civilized manner, under which lies the tough nature one would expect of a seafaring man, must be an antecedent to the decent individualistswhether Mister Walton or Dresden Scottin my own work.

Critics have likened your writing to that of P. G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain, and John Irving, but perhaps the most acute and frequently mentioned comparison is to Charles Dickens. How has his writing influenced your own work?

You are what you eat, they say, and that goes for what you read, I suppose and hope. It has also been said that one should write about what one knows, which must include people, environment, learning, and also the books in which you have lived. Dickens's works have certainly afforded me a lot of room and board, and perhaps the literary elements I loved the mostthe panoply of characters, their range and dichotomous nature, the headlong rush of events, the digressive nooks, and what I call left-handed comedy. There is a passage in Oliver Twist in which two servants are described in heroic language as they do their best not to catch a group of fleeing thieves. It is brilliant and hilarious, and I must have read it twenty times before I entirely understood how Dickens did it.

Like much of Dickens' s work, Cordelia Underwood was originally published in weekly installments in a newspaper. How did this affect the evolution of the story? Will the same technique be used for future books in the Moosepath League series?

There is indeed a rhythm to the events in Cordelia Underwood that was encouraged by its having been constructed in weekly installments. Fortunately, this same rhythm continues to work when the book is taken as a whole. The sequel, Mollie Peer, developed a rhythm of its own that I think is very compatible with, if different from, the first book's. Reader reaction also had, in a couple of instances, some effect on the proceedings.

The tall tales and anecdotes that various characters relate throughout the novel keep the listeners within the story captive, and work the same magic on the reader as well. Can you discuss the origin of these tales, and your thoughts on how they contribute to the novel as a whole?

There are really three levels in these booksrepresented by the ever-present three plot threadsthat yet inevitably verge and entwine. There is the comic level of Ephram, Eagleton, and Thump. There is the Cordelia/Mollie level of everyday people thrust into extraordinary events. And there is the level occupied by Mister Walton and Sundry Moss, who always have one foot in the land of legend. Cordelia may hear a tall tale from Mr. Tolly, but Mister Walton is witness to the manifestation of a ghost ship. The tales we tell are as important as the history we know, and Mister Walton in particular I think understands how much might be learned about his people and his home by the stories they choose to impart. Laurence Sterne said about his extraordinary novel Tristram Shandy that the best part of any story is the digression, so his must be a great story since it is all digression. I love digressive stories, and these side tales gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge this propensity; people have responded with great fondness for these tales.

Throughout the story, Tobias Walton is reminded time and again of the humble delights and unexpected intrigue that Maine offersa sharp contrast to his previous misconceptions of his home state as a sleepy cultural backwater. Does his enlightenment reflect a similar change that occurred in your own relationship with your home as you've come to know Maine and its history more deeply?

What might be represented here is a lifelong awakening and education to the extraordinary people who have lived and the remarkable things that have happened in the state of Maine. In a conscious manner, the conversation with Captain Leeman in chapter 48 of Cordelia Underwood just touches this subject, but much more could be said about the effects of Maine and its people upon, among other things, Indian affairs, the Civil War, the arts, the history of technology and invention, and American politics.

The historical background that permeates the novel (i.e., social conventions, details of travel, styles of conversation) is effective at re-creating the environment of late-nineteenth-century Maine. Was this detail something you picked up naturally, or did you actively research the cultural particulars and social mores of that era?

In some ways, much of the Victorian milieu was not very far from my childhood. I was surrounded by many of the daily objects and, by the way of the old folk I knew, observed much of the social manners characteristic of that time. My reading, again, must have some proper effect upon my vision, and the newspapers of the day helped to top all this off, giving me a source by which to gauge the attitudes and concerns of the 1890s.

Like many of the players in Charles Dickens' s novels, the characters' names in Cordelia Underwood are memorably distinctive, and often lend insight into their habits, morality, or demeanor. Can you comment on the significance of these names, and how you came up with them?

The redheaded Cordelia's name was inspired by Anne of Green Gables, who wishes she had been named Cordelia. (Perhaps this was my humble literary equivalent of granting her wish.) Tobias Walton's name came from Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy and Izaak Walton, who wrote The Compleat Angler. Sundry Moss's name just happened in the process of writing, and when the sheriff informed Mister Walton that Sundry had a brother named Varius, I was as surprised as anyone. Then, quite naturally, the tale of how they came to be named was expressed from the mouths of my characters. It was all news to me. As was the case with Sundry, many of the characters were named as they stepped upon the stage, though Dresden Scottthe name and the characterhad buzzed about in my head for years. The names Ephram, Eagleton, and Thump have to me the rhythm of something falling down stairsbut where the names came from (outside of Thump's, which seems somehow obvious) I couldn't tell you. Wait'll they meet Durwood, Waverley, and Brink.

The Maine you depict in Cordelia Underwood is an irresistibly charming one. It is perhaps testament to the effectiveness of the writing that the reader can't help but long for some aspects of that time and place that are missed in society today. In what ways is your conception of Maine at the end of the twentieth century similar to, and different from, the Maine of Cordelia Underwood's time?

There is a great deal more ethnic and experiential diversity in Maine these days (obviously a positive trend), and yet the geography and the climate can have their effects so that many people, those who care about what went on before they arrived, often develop certain Yankee characteristics. There are those, of course, who come to Maine thinking it merely quaint, a condescending and uninformed attitude if there ever was one; these are the folks who believe that culture arrived with them, and they will probably never grasp how late and mistaken they are. They will always be "from away." Dialect and folkways are disappearing here as they are everywhere, and I can only hope that there have been enough people recording what passes away before it is entirely gone. African American culture has been wise enough to nurture and respond to the oral tradition, saving that which is above value. I fear Maine's culture has not been so discerning.

In the second Moosepath League novel, Mollie Peer, you introduce several more eccentric characters, including the spiritualist Madame Blinsky. How and why did you light upon the famous historical figure, Madame Blavatsky, for the creation of this new character?

The character Madame Blinsky was indeed inspired by the historic figure of Madame Blavatsky. I have always been fascinated and amused by Victorian spiritualism, and I reveled in the tales my father told about an elderly woman named Etta Place (rumored to be the Sundance Kid's widow) who lived in Wiscasset in the 1930s. She owned two monstrous black cats and held séances and "table-tippings" that my grandmother sometimes attended. I owe some of my inspiration for Madame Blinsky to Peter Washington's fine work on this subject entitled Madame Blavatsky's Baboon.

Can you give us a hint of what to expect from the next Moosepath League novel? Will it be the last?

I often tell people that Cordelia Underwood is the Fourth of July: fireworks, bright sunshine, and happy crowds; Mollie Peer is Halloween: rustling leaves and bare trees, people masquerading, and dark deeds accomplished in the shadows. The next book seems to be developing its own personality, but will, I believe, center around Christmas, with whatever that might entail. Mister Walton celebrating Christmas seems particularly pleasant to me. When I first spoke to Carolyn Carlson, senior editor at Viking Penguin, I had three stories concerning the Moosepath League and attendant matter in my mind, and fully expected (and rightly, as it turns out) that more would be suggested during the process of writing. Certain side stories have suggested themselves as well. Much depends upon what bubbles to the top.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Horace McQuinn and Maven Flyce appear only briefly in the novel, most notably at the story's beginning and end. What is their significance in the book, and why do you think they are positioned as such within the narrative?
     
  2. How does Cordelia herself stand apart from the many other protagonists of Cordelia Underwood? In the larger sense, what does her character represent, and why do you think the book was named in her honor?
     
  3. While many characters play important roles in the story, the three founders of the Moosepath League seem to appear at many critical junctures in the book, and the name of their club provides the foundation for what will unite the Moosepath League series. As a group, consider their words, deeds, and intentions. In addition to being merely players in the unfolding of events, what does their presence add to the book?
     
  4. John Benning appears early in the story as a suitor to Cordelia Underwood, but by the end of the book, his relationship to the other characters has changed greatly. Considering his character throughout the course of the novel, how did the author's handling of John Benning differ, markedly or subtly, from that of other protagonists?
     
  5. Besides treasure, what does the mastermind of the plot to steal the sea chest have to gain? In what ways does he get his comeuppance? In what ways does he not?