Christmas with a reel librarian in ‘My Side of the Mountain’

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.

Shall we?

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!

Reel Librarians | DVD front and back covers of 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

DVD front and back covers of ‘My Side of the Mountain’ (1969)

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.

Reel Librarian | Title screen for 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Title screen for ‘My Side of the Mountain’ (1969)

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.

Reel Librarians | Public library interior in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Public library interior

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:

SamDo you have any books on falcons?

Miss TurnerFalcons?

SamEspecially the peregrine falcon.

Miss TurnerPeregrine 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]

Reel Librarians | Screenshot of a librarian on a ladder in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Librarian on a ladder alert!

Miss TurnerHere’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.

SamOh, that’s ok. I can sit here and use them.

Miss TurnerWell, have fun.

SamDo 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]

SamThank you.

Miss TurnerWhat’s your name?

SamSam. [says reluctantly]

Miss TurnerSam.

Sam then takes the books and goes into another room, a reading room lined with more bookcases and a table in the center.

Reel Librarians | Screenshots of reading from 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Reading room and reference book closeup

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 TurnerYes, 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 TurnerSam… 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.

Reel Librarians | The reel librarian, with and without her glasses, in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Miss Turner, with and without her glasses

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.

Library lady

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!

SamYou know, sometimes when you get like that, when you start quoting something that you read in a book, you remind me of someone else.

BandoOh? Who’s that?

SamOh, it’s this library lady down in the village. She’s that way.

BandoMy, oh, my. I didn’t think you’d ever communicate with any human animal. Apart from myself, of course.

SamWell, 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… 😉

Birdwatching

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 TurnerI was just on the trail of a beautiful speckled grouse, and I think it got away from me somehow.

SamYou remember me?

Miss TurnerYes, 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.

SamOh 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 TurnerOf course I would.

Sam is so excited he grabs her hand to show her to Frightful.

Reel Librarians | Screenshots of the librarian meeting Sam's falcon in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Librarian and falcon meet cute

Miss TurnerShe’s a beautiful bird, Sam.

SamWait til you see her in the sky. [Frightful takes off and swoops back down to Sam.]

Miss TurnerShe’s glorious. She loves you, too… Come on down, take a look at the new book I found.

SamWell, I don’t get into town much, and I like to be alone.

Miss TurnerIn 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! 😉

Reel Librarians | Screenshot of the reel librarian's facial expression in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Miss Turner’s startled facial expression!

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.

Reel Librarians | Screenshots of the librarian and snow from 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Librarian to the rescue!

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!

Reel Librarians | Christmas with the reel librarian in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Christmas with a reel librarian

Miss Turner also reveals that she kept thinking about Sam:

Miss TurnerI 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.

BandoAnd then I showed up. See, I remembered about the library lady.

Miss TurnerI invited myself along.

SamI’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).

Reel Librarians | Screenshots of the public library from 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Screenshots of the public library and sign

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:

Info about the real-life public library in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada

Website info and drawing of the public library in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada

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.

Sources used:

History.” Pettes Memorial Library, 2017.

My Side of the Mountain. Dir. James B. Clark. Perf. Ted Eccles, Theodore Bikel, Tudi Wiggins. Paramount, 1969.

My Side of the Mountain,” Wikimedia Foundation, is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0.

Rotherham, G. A. “The History of the Pettes Memorial Library,” 1983.

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The reel librarian in The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s classic and award-winning book, The Handmaid’s Tale, has never been out of print since its initial publication in 1985. It struck a chord then, and it continues to strike a chord today, recently returning to bestseller lists. A new 10-part series starring Elisabeth Moss will premiere next week, on April 26, on Hulu.

The Handmaid’s Tale Trailer (Official) • The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu” uploaded by Hulu is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

This series, which looks like it will be pretty faithful to the source material, is not the first cinematic adaptation of Atwood’s book. That distinction belongs to the 1990 version of the film, starring the late Natasha Richardson in the title role. The film was directed by German director Volker Schlöndorff and the screenplay written by English writer Harold Pinter.

This dystopian tale is set in a world under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship, called the “Republic of Gilead,” in which fertility has become rare, and fertile young women, trained as Handmaids, are treated as slaves in the households they are assigned to.

The 1990 version

The 1990 film was received with a lukewarm reception, both by critics and at the box office. I agree with Washington Post movie critic Rita Kempley, who wrote that the film “is also a touch dated, though it remains an intriguing quilt of what-ifs.”

Here’s a trailer from the 1990 film version:

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) – Official Trailer” uploaded by Shout Factory is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Having watched the 1990 film multiple times and read the book (I need to reread it!), I also agree that the impact of the storyline is weakened in the 1990 film version, including the ending and even the costuming (the handmaids wear sheer red scarves over their hair instead of the white “winged” headgear described in the book).

But the sheer power of the story and its all-too-familiar dystopian possibilities continue to linger in one’s mind, which makes the 1990 version still a worthwhile experience to watch.

Differences between the book and the film

In the book, the narrator — known as “Offred,” literally “Of Fred” — never reveals her “real” name, although it is implied that her name is June. She also never reveals many details of her occupation before the Age of Gilead, simply that she worked in an office. Very little is revealed in the book about the narrator’s appearance, except for this brief passage:

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.

In the film, however, we learn early on Offred’s real name, which is Kate. We also learn about her former occupation, that she was a librarian. And of course with film being a visual medium, we immediately see what she looks like.

Getting to know the narrator

So let’s get into how the film reveals the reel librarian part of the narrator’s character.

At the beginning of the movie, right after the credits, Kate/Offred and her husband (Luke) are driving. Kate was the one driving, as we see her get out of the driver’s side. She wears glasses — a detail that we never see again in the film.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The narrator, first seen wearing glasses, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Kate, along with her husband and daughter, attempt to cross the border and escape. This attempt fails. Kate is separated from her daughter and sent to a camp to be trained and conditioned in her new role as Handmaid.

Fifteen minutes into the film, Offred meets the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (played by Faye Dunaway), in her first placement interview. Serena Joy states bluntly to Offred:

Here’s how it works… If I get trouble, I give trouble back. Is that clear?

I’ve read your file. I know you’re not stupid.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Offred and Serena Joy meet for the first time in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

This detail — that others know that Offred is not stupid — is a thread the Commander (played by Robert Duvall) later picks up. It is obvious to all, including the audience, that Offred is educated and intelligent.

Scrabble and revelations

Forty minutes into the film, the Commander invites Offred into his private office for the first time, because he wants to “get to know [her] a little.” The narrator is understandably wary, but the Commander surprises her by wanting to play Scrabble! He asks her if she has ever played Scrabble before, and she responds that she had played when she was young.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The Commander and Offred play Scrabble for the first time, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

As they wrap up their first game of Scrabble, their conversation continues, and this is when we first hear of the narrator’s former occupation.

Offred:  I can use my last three letters in one go. I’ve won.

Commander:  You certainly have won. Congratulations. I think you play this game a lot better than I do. I know you do. But I knew you would.

Offred: Why?

Commander:  Because you’re a librarian.

Offred:  Was.

Below is Natasha Richardson’s facial expression right after she says that last line, “Was.” It is an expression that is simultaneously wistful, proud, and defiant.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

A closeup of the narrator’s face in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Ten minutes after this scene, the Commander gives Offred a surprise gift for winning another game. This time, he brings out old copies of Vogue and Cosmopolitan, magazines he usually keeps locked up in a cabinet. The only books in the house are also in his private study.

Commander:  Now, what do you like? There’s Vogue, Cosmopolitan.

Offred:  I thought all this stuff was supposed to have been burned.

Commander:  It was. It was bad for people’s minds. It confused them. It was ok for me because I’m mature.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The Commander shows Offred his secret stash of women’s fashion magazines, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

The significance of knowing how to read

The importance of these two scenes between Offred and the Commander is not really explored in the movie, but in the book this is significant because one of the ways the women are kept submissive is that they are no longer allowed to read. This comes out in the movie by the signs and grocery tokens that are in the forms of pictures, not words. The fact that they play Scrabble — in secret, of course — means she has to know words and letters, that she knows how to read. This adds an extra layer of subversiveness to these scenes.

Ten minutes after the scene with the magazines — another scene in the Commander’s private study — he tries tries to explain why “they” had to cleanse the nation, after Offred asks about what he does and why he works with “them.”

Commander:  Why? Country was in a mess, that’s why. A total mess. All the garbage had risen to the top… So we had to clean it up. We took a big hose and washed the place clean.

Offred:  I had a family and a job I was good at. I didn’t need cleaning up.

Commander:  I don’t mean you.

Below is Natasha Richardson’s facial expression after she says the line about having “a job [she] was good at.” She still clearly identifies with her former life, as a mother and as a librarian. Her facial expression, while still wistful, now seems to have a shade of hardened anger in it. This will prove important later in the film.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Another closeup of the narrator in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Naughty Librarian fantasy?

At one hour and 18 minutes into the film, the Commander takes Offred on a secret outing to a building full of party-goers, businessmen, and prostitutes. He has forced her to dress up — for his fantasy of a “Naughty Librarian,” perhaps?

As they enter the illicit party scene, the Commander seems to take pride in knowing several of the women and referring to them by their former occupations, saying one was a sociologist while another was a lawyer. It’s almost as if he were collecting them, that in the future, he looks forward to boasting, “I knew a librarian.”

Below is a look at how Offred dresses up for the Commander — old Hollywood movie-star style, with a long black dress, gloves, and a feather boa — and reconnecting with her friend Moira, who tried to escape but has ended up instead a “Jezebel,” a prostitute.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Offred dresses up for a night in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

I won’t go into details of the film’s ending, only to say that it feels rushed and vague and doesn’t include the epilogue from the book.

What reel librarian role does Kate/Offred play in the movie?

This is a more difficult question to answer. Her character, as written for the film, is kind of the opposite of the Liberated Librarian character. She is forced to become LESS feminine in the film — except for the party scene — and it’s unclear by the end if she truly becomes liberated. On the other hand, her story arc (and her escape from the horrific reality of living as a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead) drives the film forward.

When I wrote my thesis years ago, I added Kate/Offred in the chapter on Atypical Portrayals. Atypical Portrayals of reel librarians, as I’ve defined them, include major characters whose portrayals go beyond stereotypical constraints. They are intelligent, well-rounded characters with lives outside the library.

Here’s what I wrote then:

She is independent, quietly rebellious when she needs to be but also openly rebellious when the time comes. Desirable to men, Kate also demonstrates a maternal instinct toward her lost child and to the men around her. Her job as a librarian is revealed only once, when Robert Duvall mentions it—the audience doesn’t need to hear that she was a librarian, but it does not detract from her strength as a character, either.

What do I think now? I would still put the narrator’s character, as written in this film, in the Atypical Portrayal category — mainly because she defies categorization. It’s clear that Kate did have a full life outside the library in her former life, but she is forced into a stereotypical box as Offred. But she continues to quietly rebel, in her own way and in her own mind, against these stereotypical constraints.

Why a librarian?

Like I mentioned before, there are many differences regarding the narrator’s character between the book and the 1990 film, one of which is that her former occupation as a librarian is clearly stated in this film adaptation. So why did screenwriter Harold Pinter give her both a real name and a defined former occupation in the movie adaptation? To give her more of an identity, as a shortcut to gain audience’s sympathy/empathy with the main character? Perhaps it was simply a way to provide a shortcut to the narrator’s intelligence that is referred to by several characters throughout the film. That as a former librarian, she’s not just intelligent but also that she knows how to read. That fact then makes her internally dangerous, however docile she appears on the outside.

As (real-life) librarians often say, “Once a librarian, always a librarian.” 😉

Ultimately, this detail of being a librarian in her former life lands The Handmaid’s Tale in the Class II category, in which “the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot.” Like I wrote in my thesis, it isn’t necessary to the story to hear that she was a librarian — just as it wasn’t necessary to know details about her occupation in the book — but it does not detract from her strength as a character in the film, either.

I don’t now when I will be able to watch the upcoming mini-series, as I don’t currently subscribe to Hulu, but I will definitely put it on my list to keep an eye out for. If the new mini-series is going to be more faithful to its book source material, then I suspect the narrator’s character and former occupation will no longer be a librarian. But I will watch it, just in case!

And if you’ve seen the 1990 film and/or are looking forward to watching the new series, please leave a comment and share.