Book Review: Mary Poppins

Poppinsby Brad Nelson   6/5/14
I don’t know if anyone can figure out P.L. Travers. Certainly the movie, Saving Mr. Banks, perhaps gives you a glimpse. But I think I’ve finally figured out Mary Poppins. She’s not a nanny, she’s a witch (and perhaps a good one).

Having recently watched (and reviewed) Saving Mr. Banks, and re-watched the Disney film of Mary Poppins, it seemed fitting to complete the trifecta and read the first book in the series.

There were no major surprises between the book and the movie in terms of character and content other than that very little of the first book makes an appearance and that there is very little of Bert (played by Dick Van Dyke in the movie). He appears in one early chapter and then that’s just about all you read of him.

This is not a deep book. There is barely a thread of a story there. This is not a piece of children’s fiction that adults will necessarily automatically be attuned to such as with some of the Harry Potter series or the Narnia series. Both of these series of books had fairly well-developed plots and characters and were therefore beyond the “Dick and Jane” level, if you will.

Mary Poppins is much more reminiscent of Lewis Carroll where you are given a steady diet of non-sequitur and are expected to enjoy it, even marvel at it. With Carroll, I could rarely read him, let alone admire his crazy style. But with Travers there is some kind of perhaps unintentional method to the madness that does work, particularly for children.

And, as the story goes, it was Walt Disney’s children’s love of this book that drove him to make it into a movie. I can see why children would have an affinity for Mary Poppins. Although it can’t be read for any kind of deep meaning or rich narrative, it is like a carnival funhouse or house-of-mirrors. Each chapter is a wild distortion and somewhat bizarre adventure, and told more or less from the perspective of a child.

But there is no overall book, per se. Each chapter is essentially its own self-contained story. The only thing holding this together is the fact that at the start Mary Poppins magically appears and at the end she magically disappears again, bookending it all. In between you have twelve distinct chapters, each telling another marvel, and one having very little to do with the other. The only commonality being the uncommon.

And why do I refer to Mary Poppins as a witch? Well, I don’t know what other kind of creature to call her. She can talk to animals. She has special powers. She rides a broom (well, at least an umbrella). And there appears to be a quite dark side to her: She is extremely vain (she can barely walk past a mirror or window without admiring her reflection) and regularly lies and messes with the minds of the children (Michael and Jane Banks). She will take these children on bizarre adventures into the Travers equivalent of Never Never Land and then deny to the children that any such thing ever took place.

There’s a subtle dark humor in this method. And it seems clear that Poppins is loved by one and all (and known by just about every creature in the world…she may be quite old….some of her friends claim to have been there at the day of creation). And this stand-offish, stern, but functionally kind character is not a stone’s throw away from the portrayal of Julie Andrews in the movie (minus the singing, of course).

Obviously her character does not put people off but instead evokes a kind of mad charm of its own, not unlike Gene Wilder as the somewhat sadistic (but incorruptibly benevolent) Willy Wonka in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Perhaps Poppins’ odd behavior gives her an air of mystery, even evoking an affection that a truly overt and unambiguous plain-vanilla benevolent character would not. Mary Poppins, at least for me, lies somewhere between Willy Wonka and Snape of the Harry Potter books.

There is very little in this first book about either Mr. or Mrs. Banks, and certainly none of the story of Mr. Banks and his employment at the bank which is central to the movie (and is the story — the only story — that holds the movie together, such as it does). The book is twelve independent chapters. The first three chapters (East Wind, The Day Out, and Laughing Gas) track very well with the content of the opening parts of the movie. But after that, only one of the remaining nine chapters are referenced in the movie.

“East Wind” is a nice chapter that sets up the book and describes the coming of Poppins. “The Day Out” is the basis for the rather long musical sequence in the movie (the one that includes them riding the carousel horses) and, as in the movie, this is where you meet Bert. “Laughing Gas” is the chapter dealing with Uncle Albert (Mr. Wigg), the man whose laughing causes him to rise to the ceiling. This is a particularly bland chapter if you contrast it with the truly splendid treatment given in the movie that has ten times the humor and energy. Often books are better than the movie. But in this case (with this chapter), it is not.

Chapter 4 is “Miss Lark’s Andrew” which is the rather humorous and well-written chapter about Mrs. Lark’s over-pampered little dog who is embarrassed by all this pampering and just wants to be a normal dog.

Chapter 5 is “The Dancing Cow” and seems as if it was ripped out of the pages of Mother Goose. For a child, this bit of bizarreness involving animals is probably amusing. But there’s not much in this chapter for adults unless a cow jumping over a moon in order to remove a shooting star that is stuck onto its horn is considered riveting fiction.

Chapter 6 is “Bad Tuesday,” the chapter that Travers later rewrote due to political correctness. (You can read about the changes here.) Again, this chapter might be appealing to children simply because Michael “gets up on the wrong side of the bed.” He acts badly all day for no reason. There’s not much sense to this but children might indeed giggle over his naughtiness. But otherwise, like “The Dancing Cow” chapter, it’s paper thin in regards to content.

Chapter 7 is “The Bird Woman” and you do find a bit of this taken into the movie. It’s one of the better chapters.

Chapter 8 is “Mrs Corry” who is the maker of a type of magical gingerbread. This chapter is about Mary Poppins taking the children to market with her. Perhaps in this chapter you get a glimpse into the stereotypical (and mostly bland) Poppins personality. You may also begin to wonder why she is so universally well liked by other characters in these stories (and by the people who read these stories). This is another chapter that seems to have been written under the influence of psychedelics. There’s not a lot of sense to it, and its charm (such as it has) is mostly from the entirely fanciful elements.

Chapter 9 is “John and Barbara’s Story” and one of the three or four chapters in this book that I would call a fine creative effort. You see the world through the two eyes of the Banks infants (who otherwise spend their time in most of these stories being passively wheeled around in a carriage). The premise is that when we are very young (before we reach the age of one), we are sort of “in tune” with the world. We can understand what the birds are saying. We can understand the language of the wind. It’s, of course, quite fanciful but it is an imaginative piece of writing.

Chapter 10 is “Full Moon” and is typical of Travers trying too hard to live off of the non-sequitur. There is a full moon and it is Mary Poppins’ birthday. So what does one do? Well, of course, one goes to the zoo where the animals will hold a special ceremony for Poppins — while engaging in their regular nightly bizarreness wherein during the night the humans are behind the bars and the animals play the part of the spectators, even feeding the humans. Again, this might be frightfully funny and interesting to a five-year-old but is not in the realm of the type of interesting and rich stories written by C.S. Lewis, for instance.

Chapter 11 is “Christmas Shopping” wherein Poppins takes the children Christmas shopping. And there is some charming fun here because the children buy presents for the other family members that are things that they mostly want for themselves. And they expect that the recipients of these gifts won’t mind sharing them with the giver. That’s probably truly getting into the mind of a child and is quite funny. This is a nice, harmless chapter with a lot of subtle charm.

All good things must come to an end. Chapter 12 is “West Wind.” The wind changes direction and Mary Poppins rather abruptly leaves. This is a somewhat nice domestic scene in the Banks household. But if you expect to get much more into the mind of Mary Poppins, you’ll be disappointed. Travers seems content to maintain her (at least in this first book) as an enigma. And very often this attempt to leave things as an enigma seems a substitute for the proper articulation of character and story. But given the success of these stories, there are many people who certainly enjoy them as-is, as did I. But whether I enjoyed this enough to delved into the next book remains in question.

Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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5 Responses to Book Review: Mary Poppins

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    As I mentioned in the review of Saving Mr. Banks, I saw the movie Mary Poppins when I was a child (and enjoyed it), but have never read any of Travers’s books — unlike several friends. When we were discussing them (probably last year, after the movie came out), there was even discussion of a later book, in which Mary Poppins chose a different way to leave when she considered it appropriate. I will add that Elizabeth considers them a series of short stories; I suppose it would depend on whether or not they were originally intended to be marketed separately. (This can go in reverse; H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen was written as a novel after John W. Campbell rejected a story using the same plot in a different series and suggested putting it in his Paratime series. But it appeared in Analog as a series of stories.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      In terms of trying to be a completist, I would recommend first reading the book, “The Wizard of Oz,” rather than “Mary Poppins.” Frankly, there is very little “ooh and ahh” appeal regarding measuring the similarities and differences between the Poppins book and movie.

      But I did find it interesting in regards to the L. Frank Baum book and the Technicolor movie. And the book itself was a splendid read. The Poppins book is somewhat on the threshold of recommending it, although I do with some reservations. I think you first really do have to love reading children’s books as an adult.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I know we had The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when I was a child, but I don’t recall that much about it (this was over half a century ago, before seeing the movie many times). We also had The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as I realized over 20 years later when I saw the animated movie and then read the book, and recognized one scene (when the author lists the various creatures supporting the White Witch and includes orkneys among them) that had stayed in my memory.

        Of course, I do recall that Baum had the good witches (North and South) and wicked ones (East and West). I consider Nancy Pelosi the Wicked Witch of the West and Sarah Palin the Good Witch of the North but don’t have any current candidates for the other positions, Hillary Clinton being the Fire Witch from “The Court of the Crimson King”. I suppose Obama would make a good Wizard of Oz — a giant blowhard with no real talent — except the wizard at least mean well in his way.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          LOL. Good placement of Pelosi and Palin.

          One thing I glean from “Mary Poppins” is how wonderful a sense of magic is. And that really is the thing that carries this book. We humans have a strong affinity for ideas, characters, and stories that break the bounds of our worldly limitations. And as long as we’re not supposing that these stories (such as the Progressive/Marxist story) is real, or can be made real, it is not only a harmless diversion but perhaps a healthy one at that.

          And this can be a sore spot from some ultra-religious people. I had a debate, that kind of went sour, on Facebook a couple years ago. One good gentleman there thought I was more than a bit daft for thinking that “Harry Potter” was not endorsing witchcraft and instead was good, clean fun. Whatever I believe about the Ultimates of this world and reality, I would hope my mind would not be so captured by fear-of-thought so as to wring the fun and creativity out of things.

          And that is not at all an apology for some of the truly atrocious stuff going on out there. There is a lot of supposedly “good, harmless fun” that people are laughing at in the style of laughter one has while walking past a graveyard. One suspects many people are engaging in things that on some level they know they should not. It reminds me of the time that Charlton Heston stood up at a shareholders meeting for Time-Warner (or whomever) and read aloud some of the horrible rap lyrics of one of their artists. He broke the bubble of convenient denial.

          There’s something to be said for sounding the alarm about evil influences. But like anything, reasonableness must act as a guide. And as caustic a woman as P.L. Travers may have been, she did have a sense for the magical and adventurous. In our minds we may find the satisfaction of perfection, utopia, or just fun and magical adventures. But trying for these same goals in real life generally proves to be a tougher challenge, and one that often leads to disaster.

          Here’s to reading a good, imaginative book.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Off and on I’ve read about 5 chapters into the second Mary Poppins book. If you want to read Mary Poppins for yourself or to your children, stick to the first book. The second book offers very little new. It’s rather dull, repeating the same exact schtick over and over again from the first book (which wasn’t all that original to begin with).

    It seems rather silly of P.L. Travers to obsess over what Disney would do to the book. They enlivened these books far past anything infused in them by Travers. The Poppins character is about as one-dimensional as you can get. She has one or two schticks, and that’s about it. She’s stern, but not in response to misbehavior. She’s just constantly cold and distant for no particular reason at all.

    Her other bit (which gets tiring unless perhaps you are a four-year-old) is to take the children on strange adventures and then immediately deny that this ever happened.

    If not for Disney, it’s hard to imagine the Poppins books being remembered at all.

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