- The Melted Refrigerator: Comedy and Combat in the Life of a Woman by Francelia Butler
From over forty more or less completed versions of Francelia Butler’s autobiography, Norman Stevens and Jessica Fontaine have edited the version presented in The Melted Refrigerator. The subtitle pretty much sets out the kinds of things Francelia remembers: amusing anecdotes such as the one cited in the book’s title and accounts of her struggles with various male authority figures. That Francelia attempted to write her autobiography after publishing a fictional account of her early life in The Lucky Piece indicates that she felt her life was worthy of public celebration, and that her experiences could interest both people she knew and people she did not know. And she was right. This book offers a portrait of a feisty, ambitious, intelligent, and activist woman who lived through interesting times. She is forthright in recounting stories in which she proves strong and successful and stories in which she suffers possible indignity. In other words, she appears to be honest in the telling of her story. She also has a capacious memory.
I knew Francelia Butler, but not well. Just as I began my time as a teacher of children’s literature at a Canadian university, Francelia was creating the first academic journal in that subject; not long after, she was helping to organize the Children’s Literature Association whose Quarterly you are now reading. We have accounts of this time in The Melted Refrigerator, but they come late in the book. A good two thirds of the book recount Francelia’s early days, her time in Washington, DC, working as a publicity director for the Raleigh Hotel, her life in Paris before the Second World War, her marriage, her educational struggles, her study of the history of cancer, life in Tennessee, and her search for romance. She movingly narrates her husband’s struggle with cancer, a struggle he lost too early in life. Her narrative contains self-effacing moments such as the time she observed her matron-of-honor stand in for her at her own wedding, or the time she hosted a tea for the Daughters of the American Revolution and was embarrassed by a racetrack jockey who interrupted proceedings to ask if Francelia was coming to the track with him, and to dub the other ladies as “old bags.” On another occasion her skirt fell off while she was at a dinner party with P. L. Travers. She enjoys recounting these humorous anecdotes as much as she enjoys mentioning the famous people she knew: Bess Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eric Severeid, Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Sendak, Margaret Hamilton, James Marshall, and many others who have faded from the popular memory.
For those of us in children’s literature studies, the last third of this book offers a brief history of the struggle to have the study of children’s books accepted as a serious discipline in the academy. Francelia was undoubtedly a pioneer, not because she was the first person to teach a successful course in children’s literature at a university, but because of her creation of the journal Children’s Literature: The Great Excluded, her role in helping to establish the Children’s Literature Association with its annual conference, and holding “the first two Institutes of Children’s Literature sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities” (174). What will resonate with current scholars is the diminishing of children’s literature studies by those in [End Page 481] traditional areas of research, and the association of such studies with female faculty. Much has changed since Francelia initiated scholarly treatment of children’s books in the early 1970s, but much has remained the same. Francelia’s work continues, and we owe her a debt we can repay simply by continuing to profess the importance of children and their literature.
As an extension of her work in children’s literature, Francelia began to organize Peace Games, first in her classes and...