Julie Andrews, it is safe to say, is very cool. She told us that the hills were alive in The Sound of Music. James Garner was attracted to her in Victor/Victoria (even when he thought she was a man). More recently, Andrews has held her own next to the Plaza’s favorite resident in Eloise at the Plaza and Eloise at Christmastime. Oh, and she was Mary Poppins (and Millie) before Mary Poppins (and Thoroughly Modern Millie) got all trendy with Broadway show(s).
In between all of her amazing film credits, Julie Andrews wrote a book under her pen name Julie Andrews Edwards in 1974 called The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. I have been meaning to read it for close to a decade, but things always got in the way. After starting the book (again) last month I made a promise that I would finish it this time even if it killed me. Clearly, I lived to tell the tale.
The story starts when Ben, Tom and Lindy Potter are sent to the zoo by their parents. Initially resistant to the idea, the trip proves quite enjoyable. When the children begin to discuss truly unusual animals, a stranger butts in with a straightforward question: “If you’re looking for something really unusual, have you considered a Whangdoodle?”
The Potter children, of course, have not. Tom goes as far as to say that the Whangdoodle could not possible exist. This assertion is thrown into question when a dictionary provides a rather accurate definition of the word. The Potter’s initial interest turns into an alliance with their new friend Professor Savant to try to reach Whangdoodleland and meet the fanciful creature for themselves.
The road to Whangdoodleland is not straightforward. Along the way the children have much to learn, including relearning the very ways in which they look at the world. The journey is filled with wondrous creatures both friendly and dangerous, but the children are now committed to finishing the journey one way or another regardless of the challenges thrown in their path. When the quest reaches its final climax none of the characters’ lives will ever be the same.
I liked this book, but not really as much as I had hoped. As I mentioned it took me a long time to actually start the book and, once it was started, it took a long time for me to finish it. Unfortunately, I think part of that has to do with my coming to this book at the age of 22 when I was unwilling to accept certain aspects of the story. (The feminist in me made it very difficult to appreciate parts of the end of the story.)
At the same time, the book was originally written in 1974. The text is not dated in the usual way, with references to old technology, rather it all feels very different from a 2008 novel. The children befriend a strange man in the zoo. All of the Potters seem younger and more innocent than I would have expected (from children of the same age in the present). I was able to get more into the story once I accepted those things, but it also made me sad because I started to think about what I had lost and, also, what our culture had lost in terms of faith and trust. I wish I had been able to read the book without so many questions and doubts because I do want to see things the way the Potters and Professor Savant do–I’m just not sure that way of thinking is always possible in the twenty-first century.