I have mentioned the reel librarian from My Side of the Mountain (1969) before, most recently in my library ladders round-up post. I had forgotten, however, that there was a Christmas scene in that film, so it’s perfect timing to spend some quality holiday time with a reel librarian.
The movie plot and the book it’s based on
My Side of the Mountain (1969) is based on the Newbery Honor Award-winning book of the same title by Jean Craighead George, published a decade earlier in 1959. The librarian, Miss Turner, is a character in both the book and the movie adaptation. I haven’t yet read the book, although I have read other titles by that same author. I had watched this film years ago, but I recently rewatched the film for purposes of this post, borrowing the sole copy available throughout our various regional library systems.
Here’s a copy of the DVD cover, and I was happy to see the librarian is included on the back cover!
The basic plot? An independent-minded boy, Sam, leaves home to spend a year in nature, like his hero, Henry David Thoreau. It’s a coming-of-age story, one in which Sam learns about himself while he learns how to survive in the wild.
Where does the librarian fit into this plot? Sam travels to the public library in one scene, where librarian Miss Turner (Tudi Wiggins) helps him find information about peregrine falcons. Using the information he learned at the library, Sam then captures and trains a peregrine falcon to hunt for him. Wiggins receives third billing in the cast list, and she shows up at crucial times throughout the rest of the film.
Public library scene
Almost a half hour into the film, Sam announces to his pet raccoon, Gus, that he’s “got to go into town… to read up on falcons.” The nearest town is Knowlton, which is a village around Lake Brome in Quebec, Canada (and also the inspiration for Louise Penny’s “Three Pines” mystery series!). The movie was shot on location in and around Knowlton, and the public library scene lasts about five minutes.
Here is a look at the interior of the public library, which is encased in wood panelling and lined with bookshelves. The librarian is seated at a large wooden desk, which has piles of books stacked on it, and she appears to be filing cards.
Sam walks in and goes straight to the librarian and does not waste any time asking for what he needs. Here’s how their reference interview goes:
Sam: Do you have any books on falcons?
Miss Turner: Falcons?
Sam: Especially the peregrine falcon.
Miss Turner: Peregrine falcons. Peregrine falcons were famous in England, I do believe [leading him into the stacks]. As a matter of fact, they were known as hunters for kings [reaches up on a library ladder to a top row]. If my memory serves me right, and it usually does. [hands him a book]
Miss Turner: Here’s another one that might be of help [hands him another book]. The only trouble is, you can’t take these books out. They’re just for reference.
Sam: Oh, that’s ok. I can sit here and use them.
Miss Turner: Well, have fun.
Sam: Do you think I could borrow a pencil?
Miss Turner: Of course. My name’s Miss Turner [sits down and takes off her glasses]. If you want anything, just call out. [hands him a pencil]
Sam: Thank you.
Miss Turner: What’s your name?
Sam: Sam. [says reluctantly]
Miss Turner: Sam.
Sam then takes the books and goes into another room, a reading room lined with more bookcases and a table in the center.
Sam then goes back into the main room of the library, back to the librarian, to return his books. He continues their conversation.
Sam: I guess I got everything I’ll need. Those birds sure are interesting. If I could only catch me one.
Miss Turner: [quoting Proverbs 1:17] ‘Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.’
Sam: Yeah, I guess so. Those birds are darn smart.
Miss Turner: Yes, they are, Sam. I often go up on McCracken’s Hill and watch them soaring over the mountains. I’m an old birdwatcher from way back.
Sam: I guess that’s how you knew about peregrine falcons right off. Well, goodbye.
Miss Turner: Sam… you’ll need a leather glove.
My reaction to this reference interview? The exchange sounded pretty spot-on to me, and it is one of the better reference interviews I’ve witnessed onscreen. In a brief amount of screen time, Miss Turner manages to:
- listen to Sam and anticipates his needs (the “leather glove” comment at the end)
- share relevant and information about herself to make a personal connection with a patron (her name and her interest in birdwatching)
- quickly establish trust and interest in the patron’s needs (her knowledge about the history of peregrine falcons)
- establish trust with the viewer by establishing trust with Sam
- get across the idea that she is intelligent — quoting the Bible and knowing about peregrine falcons — in a way that is not condescending or off-putting
- efficiently explain how reference books are different from other books in the library
Throughout the scene, she is warm and friendly.
Plus, we know that she has a life outside the library, because we learn that she loves the outdoors and birdwatching! This scene plants a seed that will pay off later in the film.
I thought it interesting to note that we first meet Miss Turner when she has her glasses on — to visually establish the fact that she’s a librarian? However, she takes them back off again as soon as she’s done finding the books, and we never see her wear her glasses again.
Soon after Sam captures and trains a peregrine falcon, who he christens “Frightful,” a traveling folk singer, Bando (played by Theodore Bikel), stops by his campsite. Bando sticks around for a number of weeks and teaches Sam more survival skills.
Bando is a collector of folk songs and also is no stranger to spouting quotations, either. He even quotes from Shakespeare at one point.
A little over an hour into the film, when Bando is packing up to leave before winter sets in, Sam asks him to post a letter he’s written to his family. Bando then quotes from Proverbs 25:25: “As cool water to the thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.”
Sam is instantly reminded of the librarian!
Sam: You know, sometimes when you get like that, when you start quoting something that you read in a book, you remind me of someone else.
Bando: Oh? Who’s that?
Sam: Oh, it’s this library lady down in the village. She’s that way.
Bando: My, oh, my. I didn’t think you’d ever communicate with any human animal. Apart from myself, of course.
Sam: Well, I only went down there once, to read up on falcons. She knew quite a lot about them, too. She belongs to some kind of bird-watcher’s club and all. She’s a great lady. You’d like her, Bando. I did. I even trusted her. And I almost told her my plan and all.
Miss Turner definitely made an impression! “Library lady” and a “great lady” all in one… 😉
About 10 minutes later after Bando sets off, Sam walks to the edge of the woods and announces to Frightful that he’s going into town. “Even Thoreau left his retreat at Walden Pond to go into Concord sometimes.”
As Sam ties Frightful up to a tree stump, he spies Miss Turner walking along a path, birdwatching. (She’s dressed in an outfit — a cardigan and skirt — that seems more suitable for working in the library than for birdwatching… perhaps she stopped by the trail after work?)
Miss Turner: I was just on the trail of a beautiful speckled grouse, and I think it got away from me somehow.
Sam: You remember me?
Miss Turner: Yes, I think I do. Aren’t you the Peregrine falcon boy? You do look different. Your hair’s so long now. Did you manage to observe those falcons at close range? I was only wondering because I found another very good book on them. I mean, if you’re interested.
Sam: Oh yes. You see, I caught one. Oh, I take the best care of it. I’ve even got it out here with me now. Say, would you like to see it?
Miss Turner: Of course I would.
Sam is so excited he grabs her hand to show her to Frightful.
Miss Turner: She’s a beautiful bird, Sam.
Sam: Wait til you see her in the sky. [Frightful takes off and swoops back down to Sam.]
Miss Turner: She’s glorious. She loves you, too… Come on down, take a look at the new book I found.
Sam: Well, I don’t get into town much, and I like to be alone.
Miss Turner: In any case, if you ever want to, come and see me. Please. As Cicero said, ‘We are never less alone than when completely alone.’
Later, in his journal, Sam writes:
I walked down the mountain today, when who did I meet on the outskirts, but Miss Turner, out on a hike. I showed her Frightful. It was good talking to her.
I couldn’t help but include the (hilarious!) facial expression on Miss Turner’s face at the moment Frightful swoops back down onto Sam’s leather glove. Frightful lives up to its name! 😉
Once again, Miss Turner demonstrates her warmth and kindness in this brief exchange. She shows that she remembers Sam — and his reference question! — and that she is observant, through her remark about his hair. And although off duty and outside the library, she is still a librarian! She has still been thinking about his reference question about peregrine falcons and set aside a book if he needs more information.
Up to this point, the librarian’s role has basically been that of an Information Provider. She has literally provided information to Sam about peregrine falcons, which he has made good use out of.
But this reel librarian is already something extra by this point — Miss Turner’s warm, friendly, caring personality goes beyond that of an Information Provider. She is not there to just find a book and provide a pencil. Rather, she is also there to provide a human connection with Sam — to remind Sam that he is not all alone in this world and that he has resources outside the forest. Like Bando, she is a vital link to the outside world, where there are people who care about him.
Librarian to the rescue
Fifteen minutes from the end of this 100-minute-long film, Sam gets snowed in inside the tree he has made into his home. Just as oxygen is running out as Sam tries to dig through the snow, guess who comes to the rescue? Bando and the librarian, of course! (The film does do a nice job of setting up this exact scenario.) Miss Turner is outfitted more appropriately this time for the outdoors, wrapped up in a long hooded coat, ski wear, gloves, and snow shoes.
Christmas with a reel librarian
Best of all, Miss Turner comes stocked with a picnic basket filled with a Christmas feast. Librarians are *always* prepared, y’all. RESPECT.
And in a scene that has to be unique amongst all reel librarian cinema, the librarian has Christmas dinner in a tree! “That was the best Christmas dinner I ever had.”
Bando also plays Christmas carols, and Miss Turner even joins in the singing!
Miss Turner also reveals that she kept thinking about Sam:
Miss Turner: I couldn’t get you out of my mind, Sam. I kept trying to think, how to get up to see you after the big storm.
Bando: And then I showed up. See, I remembered about the library lady.
Miss Turner: I invited myself along.
Sam: I’m glad you did, Miss Turner.
Bando then reveals that quite a few people are worried about him, as he takes out newspaper clippings from his pocket. Sam then decides that it is time for him to go home, and that he’s learned a lot about himself. They then set off back down the side of the mountain.
The significance of the reel librarian character
Although Miss Turner may start off as what seems to be a typical Information Provider character type, she ends up, in my opinion, as an Atypical Portrayal of a reel librarian. She goes above and beyond her role as a librarian to provide research help. We learn of her interest in the outdoors in her introductory scene, and we then see her outside the library, birdwatching and hiking. She demonstrates that she really cares about her patrons, by remembering them and continuing to anticipate and think about how to meet their needs even after they have left the library. A true librarian at heart, and a truly positive portrayal of a reel librarian.
I had previously added Miss Turner to my “Hall of Fame” list, and here’s my write-up on that page:
An admittedly odd film (a 12-year-old boy leaves home and spends a year alone in nature—but that’s okay because he left a note to his parents and told them not to worry?!), but it does contain one of the most caring and thoughtful of all reel librarians. A public librarian helps a young boy find information about peregrine falcons and goes out of her way to find him more resources. She also gets a few scenes outside the library, where we see that she is an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast.
I have ultimately classified this film in the Class I category, in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, and the librarian’s occupation serves as catalyst or is otherwise integral to the plot. Miss Turner definitely fits that description. The information she provides is vital to Sam’s survival in the woods, of course, but the librarian’s personal connection with Sam also proves vital to Sam’s survival.
The reel librarian ends up a savior and a hero.
The reel/real library
I wanted to end this post with a brief spotlight on the real library in Knowlton, Quebec. Below are screenshots of the exterior of the library, as seen in the film, as well as a close-up of the library’s sign (which you’ll notice, is in both English and French, as befitting a Canadian locale).
It’s obvious that the exterior of the library served as the library location in the film, as the brick exterior seen in the film exactly matches the drawing of the library highlighted on the library’s website:
I have to wonder if the library sign in the movie is one they created especially for the movie, however, since the real public library in Knowlton is known by the name of “Pettes Memorial Library,” as you can see above. And the library has always gone by this name, as according to the library website, it was “built and bequeathed to the people of Knowlton and the Township of Brome by Narcissa Farrand Pettes in memory of her late husband, Nathaniel Pettes.” According to this booklet, “The History of the Pettes Memorial Library,” available online, Narcissa Pettes’s donation specified the name of the library, “a building known as the Pettes Memorial, which forever hereafter is destined for a free public library.” The Legislature in Quebec also passed an act in 1894 “incorporating the Trustees under ‘An Act to Incorporate the Pettes Memorial.'”
I also found it interesting that this library, founded in March 1894, was the first free rural library in the province of Quebec. You can read more about the history of the library’s founding here on the History section of the library’s website.
“History.” Pettes Memorial Library, 2017.
My Side of the Mountain. Dir. James B. Clark. Perf. Ted Eccles, Theodore Bikel, Tudi Wiggins. Paramount, 1969.
Rotherham, G. A. “The History of the Pettes Memorial Library,” 1983.