Miss Pickerell Goes to the Arctic (McGraw-Hill, 1954).
Miss Pickerell and the Weather Satellite (McGraw-Hill, 1971)
Recently I did something I hadn’t done for 50 or more years: Read a Miss Pickerell book. Two of them, in fact. These are children’s science fiction books, part of a series of lighted hearted tales written during the 1950s and later; at first by Ellen MacGregor, then following her death, by Dora Pantell. The series introduces children to science and natural phenomena through the entertaining adventures of the protagonist, Miss Lavinia Pickerell.
Miss Pickerell is an active, determined, somewhat middle aged unmarried woman who lives on her farm near the fictional New England town of Square Toe City. She has a multitude of nieces and nephews who visit her often, bringing outside interests and news of technological progress. She has many friends among the people of Square Toe City; she wears old fashioned clothing and usually carries an umbrella; she has several hobbies including rock collecting.
But mainly her focus is her cow, of whom she is very fond and goes to great lengths to keep happy and near her. Even to the point of loading the cow into a trailer and taking her with her when she makes trips into town. Miss Pickerell is a quirky, capable, extremely appealing heroine. She has a great deal of courage, strength of will, intelligence, resourcefulness, unflappability, and most of all, tremendous common sense. As well as an interest in learning new things.
All these serve Miss Pickerell well because she has an odd talent for being in the right place at the right time to get involved in amazing things. For instance, her first adventure, Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars, started out when Miss Pickerell came home from the fair one day to find someone had landed one of those needle nosed, towering 1950’s rocket ships in HER pasture. Frightened but also angry at this act of trespass she climbed up, up, up the ladder set into the side of the ship and entered the open airlock, determined to have a word with whoever had done this!
Then suddenly the airlock closed after her, the ship took off, and the next thing Miss Pickerell knew, she had accidentally become part of the first U.S. expedition to Mars. This tendency to be in the middle of things whether she wanted to be or not stayed constant all through the series.
Miss Pickerell Goes to the Arctic is one of MacGregor’s books – her last book, in fact – and the story begins in the middle of summer, with Miss Pickerell worrying about the coming winter. The previous winter had been harsh, and her cow had not been happy. If this winter was also going to be unpleasant, Miss Pickerell intended to take her cow south. To find out what the weather would be like, she went to the weather bureau; sure that with all their scientific equipment they’d be able to tell her.
Unfortunately the weather bureau was unable to give her a six month forecast, since they didn’t know enough about weather cycles. Although the somewhat harassed man at the weather station told her that an Arctic expedition would be starting out soon that planned to take ice core samples – at that time an extremely advanced technique – from the Ice Cap and these might provide enough information to enable them to tell if there was a pattern that would make such long range predictions possible. To Miss Pickerell, it was quite unsatisfying.
The Arctic Expedition began to loom even larger in the story when Miss Pickerell made the acquittance of a young man, an Alaskan bush pilot, who had moved to Square Toe City but now wanted to go back north. He was hoping to be hired by the Arctic Expedition to help ferry them to their destination, if he could just get his big cargo plane ready in time. Unfortunately, the Expedition wound up having to leave suddenly a day or two later to avoid worsening weather, and he missed his chance.
Next Miss Pickerell met a salesman – a salesman / engineer, he insisted – who had a problem. His company made what these days would be called motor homes or vans. They had a new model adapted for winter conditions with skies on front, half-track treads in back, and a heated living compartment above. He’d been hoping to sell it to the Arctic Expedition, but their sudden departure had prevented this, and now he was trying to find another buyer.
As they talked Miss Pickerell found out the living compartment in the snow mobile was large enough that her cow would be able to stay comfortably in it all through the winter. Miss Pickerell could even drive it south in the snow if she wanted her cow to get someplace warmer. Naturally she bought it immediately.
There was the problem of delivery, but that was easily solved. Although the bush pilot Miss Pickerell had met earlier had not been able to get his plane ready to go in time, it was fully operational now. So the snowmobile salesman proposed hiring him to drop the van into Miss Pickerell’s pasture from his cargo plane via parachute platform as a surprise for her cow, with Miss Pickerell and himself nearby. She could introduce the cow to the snowmobile, and he – who as an engineer knew all about the vehicle – could instruct Miss Pickerell in its features, including how to drive it and the use such amenities as the Ham radio in the living section.
It might have been an extremely contrived sequence of events, but it got all the pieces in place for the next step. News broke that the Arctic Expedition plane had crashed in the far north and the group was lost somewhere amidst the cold and snow. n short order Miss Pickerell, the bush pilot, and the saleman / engineer were on board the cargo plane in which the snow mobile was packed, heading north as part of the search and rescue effort.
The idea was that if the Expedition was trapped in a place planes couldn’t land, the van could be dropped and provide them with a means of transport to safety. But then, bad weather forced Miss Pickerell’s plane down in the Arctic, too; and it became a matter of them having to save themselves, as well…
Although the plots in the MacGregor books tended to be as light and brittle as spun sugar, she used the most up to date facts and information available in telling her stories. These days some of her science may seem quaint. But even now children reading MPGttA learn about Ham radio, bush pilots, weather forecasting, glaciers, arctic conditions, and several other subjects, as well as find out that you didn’t have to be strong, young, OR male to be a hero. A valuable message in 1954. Or even today.
Ellen MacGregor died after completing just four Miss Pickerell books: MP goes to Mars, MP and the Geiger Counter, MP Goes Underseas, and MP Goes to the Arctic. The popularity of the series was so great, however, her publishers sought someone to write new novels based on MacGregor’s notes and outlines. In 1964 they found Dora Pantell, and Miss Pickerell rose again.
Although with some changes. Pantell’s Miss Pickerell, while much the same in physical respects, had a different tone and outlook. MacGregor had written about the wonders of science; Pantell warned about the dangers of over-reliance on technology. MacGregor’s Miss Pickerell simply was extremely sensible and reasonable; in Pantell’s books, it was as if she were the only real adult around, everyone else except children and a few selected people tended to be somewhat ridiculous. Scientific accuracy was MacGregor’s watchword; with Pantell, such was not the case.
These differences are obvious in the Pantell book Miss Pickerell and the Weather Satellite. Which like MPGttA, starts one day with Miss Pickerell being concerned about the weather. Although this time, much more short term. The weather report, based on readings from an ultra sophisticated Weather Satellite orbiting the Earth, says clear and sunny; but Miss Pickerell can see massive storm clouds coming towards Square Toe City.
Then the rain hits in a heavy and prolonged downpour. Miss Pickerell sees to her cow and her visiting nieces and nephews – in that order – then sets off to the city weather station to find out what is going on.
Only to find at the weather station that because the Weather Satellite says it should be sunny and clear, people insist that THAT is what is important, and the Biblical deluge taking place outside means nothing. Also, that communication with the Space Station in charge of the care and maintenance of the Satellite is on the fritz. But the Satellite has the most modern technology so obviously it CAN NOT be wrong.
Unable to make any progress against such denial of reality and with the rain coming down in ever increasing amounts, Miss Pickerell follows a fearful suspicion and hurries to the city flood control dam; only to discover the same attitude there. The Satellite says it is not raining, so the rising waters behind the dam surely can’t be significant.
Worse, even though Miss Pickerell’s arguments shake the confidence of the man in charge, it appears the flood gate controls are keyed to the Satellite; and unless IT says too much rain is falling, it’s not possible to open the gates and let the water out… even if that means the dam will be overwhelmed and burst, flooding the town.
The Governor of the state, aware something is going badly wrong, arrives at this point and he and Miss Pickerell rush off to a nearby spaceport to get on spacesuits and aboard a space shuttle that’s about to blast off: The destination being the Space Station. They hope to sort out what is going on.
Once there, however, they run into much the same attitude, with the scientist in charge of the Station and Satellite insisting nothing can POSSIBLY be wrong, that the problems contacting the Square Toe City weather station are surely only temporary and technical, and that the Satellite is functioning perfectly. He even lets Miss Pickerell and the Governor look through a telescope in his office at the Satellite, which is coincidentally whizzing by the Station – in the orbit it apparently shares with it – so they can see it looks fine.
To Miss Pickerell, however, the Satellite looks extremely dusty; although the scientist pooh-poohs her observation. So when he and the Governor go to another room Miss Pickerell, still in her spacesuit, picks up a walkie talkie and a spray can of cleanser, pulls out her handkerchief, and steps outside of the scientist’s office, apparently right into space. No mention is made of an airlock, anyway.
Outside, she then grabs the kind of maneuvering jet used by spacewalking astronauts back in the 1960’s and zooms over to the Satellite – which conveniently is not following a high speed orbit – and gives it a good cleaning. Despite the orders and pleas of the scientist to return to the station immediately: Which she can hear perfectly over the walkie talkie in the vacuum of space.
Once the satellite is cleaned she attempts to return to the Station, but the maneuvering jet runs out of propulsion material before she quite reaches it. So at the instruction of the scientist she uses the spray can as an alternative jet to travel the last few feet, and makes it back aboard safely.
As noted, scientific accuracy was NOT Pantell’s strong suit.
Miss Pickerell’s efforts, however, restore the Satellite to full functioning. The revised data shows that Square Toe City IS being inundated and the dam’s flood gates are opened just in time.
Miss Pickerell and the Governor make it back to Earth safely to find one of Miss Pickerell’s nephews with an interest in astronomy had figured out that a powerful laser at the Square Toe City observatory had accidentally been left on and pointing up and was jamming communications between the Station and the city weather station. Things end with all’s well, and everyone having learned that it was very unwise to insist technology can NEVER be wrong. Just as Miss Pickerell had been saying.
Dora Pantell wrote 13 Miss Pickerell books over the course of 21 years, from 1965 to 1986. Her attitudes and outlook apparently didn’t change much; hopefully for the children who read those books growing up, her grasp of science improved. Both of these books were interesting and amusing and nostalgic; but I believe I prefer MacGregor’s stories more.
Link to Wikipedia’s article on Ellen MacGregor and the Miss Pickerell series.