Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Innocents from Indiana, a memoir by Emily Kimbrough

Title: The Innocents from Indiana
Author: Emily Kimbrough
Illustrator: Alice Harvey
Publication: Harper & Brothers, hardcover, 1950
Genre: Memoir
Setting: Pre-WWI Chicago
Description: When Emily was 11 and her brother 4, their family moved from Muncie, Indiana to Chicago. Used to a small community where everyone knew them, the big city was a shock, although the youngest member of the family had the most painless adjustment. From residing in a hotel to getting used to apartment living and an elite girls’ school, Kimbrough looks back on their misadventures with affection and humor, describing her own callow behavior candidly. The book concludes with Emily’s high school graduation and her partially failing the admissions exam to Bryn Mawr (math is her nemesis) but we know she’ll get there eventually because she will meet Cornelia Otis Skinner. After Emily graduates, she and Cornelia will travel to Europe and later base the best-selling Their Hearts Were Young and Gay on their experiences.

My Impression: While this is a pleasant story about the Kimbroughs’ experiences in Chicago, it was primarily of interest to me because of the contrast to the Betsy-Tacy books. Emily Kimbrough was born in 1899 so was seven years younger than Maud Hart Lovelace/Betsy Ray and five years younger than Emily Webster. Yet she is also from the Midwest and comes of age just as the United States enters a world war. There are other similarities: her family, like the Rays, has its place in upper middle-class society – Mrs. Kimbrough expects to receive calls in Chicago the way she did in Muncie and is surprised when her son (called Brother) makes friends with children whose parents she does not know (and is not eager to know, the apartment building’s janitor). She persuades her husband to add a sleeping porch to their apartment, like the one in Carney’s House Party, although it is less successful.
Emily Kimbrough (undated)
The Kimbroughs live in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago and Emily attends Miss Faulkner’s School, where she is labeled the Hoosier Hayseed for her gauche behavior. Used to a more casual environment, she goes for a walk in the middle of her first day of school and the teachers call the police. She studies the Isle of Delos in Geography, which Betsy Ray first encounters at her Carnegie Library. Surprisingly, Emily is fascinated by and gifted at Latin and Greek, due to her mother’s enthusiasm for the classics. Emily Kimbrough lays out her graduation gifts just as Emily Webster and her cousin Annette do. There is even a handsome acquaintance from Yale, who escorts Emily to her graduation dance but ignores her once they get there (he is nicer than Don Walker, however). 

I would have liked to know how Emily's mother, born in Indiana in 1875, was able to learn Greek and what Mr. Kimbrough’s job was in Chicago that allowed him to be his own boss, unlike in Muncie, and provide a lavish lifestyle to his family. Mrs. Kimbrough is devoted to the arts and attends the symphony (like Boston, Chicago appears to have had afternoon concerts for white-gloved ladies to attend), as well as bringing her children to Chicago’s great museums. It is clear that her goal for their move was to provide cultural advantages for her children, in an era where people did not often move that far from home and family. Another coincidence: her name was Charlotte and she was called Lottie like Emily Webster’s mother, born two years later than the fictional Charlotte Benton Webster. Emily of Deep Valley was also published in 1950.

My favorite anecdote from the book is when a classmate, admired for her athleticism, invites Emily to come play after school. The girl lives at a hotel and they are playing basketball on the lake shore when a handsome man asks if he can join in.  A book set in the 21st century would not be so enthusiastic about a stranger accosting pre-teens but it turns out to be Douglas Fairbanks! They have so much fun he provides tickets to a matinee the next day – he is performing in Officer 666.
This is one of my 20 Books of Summer.  I am not sure I would recommend paying for a copy but it was an entertaining read. Another coincidence I noticed was that Kimbrough’s New York Times obituary was written by Constance Hays, a year behind me in college, who wrote an article about Betsy-Tacy that resulted in many kindred spirits finding the listserv and/or Greater New York Betsy-Tacy Society. As both Kimbrough and Lovelace lived in New York at the same time and were writers, I’d be surprised if their paths never crossed but we will never know.

Source: Personal copy acquired in 1996. I was amused to notice for the first time that the previous owner of this book was named Thelma, which was the real name of fictional Tib in the Betsy-Tacy books.


Lex @ Lexlingua said...

Loved the comparison with the Betsy-Tacy books! I still need to run with the older Betsy Tacy books, but it's great to get some context, always. :)

Lark said...

I loved the Betsy-Tacy books growing up. I'd probably enjoy this book, too. :)

Cath said...

I know none of the authors and characters mentioned in your review but I loved reading it. It's no good me saying that I'll keep an eye out for the various books as it's pretty certain I would never see them, but never mind.

CLM said...

It is always interesting to read a book set at approximately the same time as Betsy-Tacy to see the similarities. Lex, you have never read the high school books? You are missing out! Cath, when I come to the UK next year, I will bring you Heaven to Betsy, although I think the book you will enjoy most is later in the series, Emily of Deep Valley.

JaneGS said...

What an interesting, personal post. I love the parallels you saw in the Kimbrough memoir and the Betsy-Tacy books. I love it when that happens--a lifetime of reading converging!

I still haven't read the Betsy-Tacy books, and I keep on reading to read more by Emily Kimbrough. I read Our Hearts Were Young and Gay as a teen and really enjoyed it then and when I reread 10 or more years ago. It was always a favorite of my mother's.

Dixie Lee said...

I've read quite a few of Emily Kimborough's books, starting with Their Hearts Were...which was required reading at the Girls' Latin School. Emily and Cornelia played deck tennis on the way to England in that book, and we learned deck tennis at school. We were actually told we would need to know it for our trips to England. Ethel and I were devastated when we took the QEII and it turned out to be the first ever sailing without deck tennis! We were all set to slay 'hoi polloi' with our knowledge of the game.

And Cath, there's a killer line delivered by Otis Skinner, the famous actor and father of Cornelia. They were all horrified (as was I at Cambridge in 1986) to find that toast, at breakfast, was not hot and buttery as we are used to in the US but served cold in toast racks set on the table before the meal. One afternoon, gazing pensively out the window at dusk, he said "just think, all over England housewives are making the toast for tomorrow's breakfast."

Andrea said...

I was intrigued by your review & the similarities to the Betsy-Tacy books, so ordered this up at my library. My assessment: so-so, but I'm burning for more information about the mother in the story--who taught her daughter Greek first before English (because everything looks jumbled to kids anyways), and trained her children to recognize the motifs in Wagner, etc. That's a woman I need to know more about!

CLM said...

Andrea, I agree that Innocents was primarily interesting for its comparisons to BT but the mother was very intriguing for the reasons you mention!