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How does being a lavishly spoiled child impact one’s ability to function as an adult? It’s an always-timely topic that Pollyanna author Eleanor H. Porter explores with insight and wit in the charming novel The Road to Understanding. As a boy, Burke Denby was showered with toys and sweets, and as a young man, his hedonistic mindset is impacting his ability to choose a suitable mate. Fans of early-twentieth-century domestic dramas will love this engaging read.
If Burke Denby had not been given all the frosted cakes and toy shotguns he wanted at the age of ten, it might not have been so difficult to convince him at the age of twenty that he did not want to marry Helen Barnet.
Mabel, the beautiful and adored wife of John Denby, had died when Burke was four years old; and since that time, life, for Burke, had been victory unseasoned with defeat. A succession of “anything-for-peace” rulers of the nursery, and a father who could not bring himself to be the cause of the slightest shadow on the face of one who was the breathing image of his lost wife, had all contributed to these victories.
Nor had even school-days brought the usual wholesome discipline and democratic leveling; for a pocketful of money and a naturally generous disposition made a combination not to be lightly overlooked by boys and girls ever alert for “fun”; and an influential father and the scarcity of desirable positions made another combination not to be lightly overlooked by impecunious teachers anxious to hold their “jobs.” It was easy to ignore minor faults, especially as the lad had really a brilliant mind, and (when not crossed) a most amiable disposition.
Between the boy and his father all during the years of childhood and youth, the relationship was very beautiful–so beautiful that the entire town saw it and expressed its approval: in public by nods and admiring adjectives; in private by frequent admonitions to wayward sons and thoughtless fathers to follow the pattern so gloriously set for them.
Of all this John Denby saw nothing; nor would he have given it a thought if he had seen it. John Denby gave little thought to anything, after his wife died, except to business and his boy, Burke. Business, under his skillful management and carefully selected assistants, soon almost ran itself. There was left then only the boy, Burke.
From the first they were comrades, even when comradeship meant the poring over a Mother Goose story-book, or mastering the intricacies of a game of tiddledywinks. Later, together, they explored the world of music, literature, science, and art, spending the long summer playtimes, still together, traveling in both well-known and little-known lands.
Toward everything fine and beautiful and luxurious the boy turned as a flower turns toward the light, which pleased the man greatly. And as the boy had but to express a wish to have it instantly find an echo in his father’s heart, it is not strange, perhaps, that John Denby did not realize that, notwithstanding all his “training,” self-control and self-sacrifice were unknown words to his son.
One word always, however, was held before the boy from the very first–mother; yet it was not as a word, either, but as a living presence. Always he was taught that she was with them, a bright, beauteous, gracious being, loving, tender, perfect. Whatever they saw was seen through her eyes. Whatever they did was done as with her. Stories of her beauty, charm, and goodness filled many an hour of intimate talk. She was the one flawless woman born into the world–so said Burke’s father to his son.
Burke was nearly twenty-one, and half through college, when he saw Helen Barnet. She was sitting in the big west window in the library, with the afternoon sun turning her wonderful hair to gold. In her arms she held a sleeping two-year-old boy. With the marvelous light on her face, and the crimson velvet draperies behind her, she looked not unlike a pictured Madonna. It was not, indeed, until a very lifelike red swept to the roots of the girl’s hair that the young man, staring at her from the doorway, realized that she was not, in truth, a masterpiece on an old-time wall, but a very much alive, very much embarrassed young woman in his father’s library.
With a blush that rivaled hers, and an incoherent apology, he backed hastily from the room. He went then in search of his father. He had returned from college an hour before to find his father’s youngest sister, Eunice, and her family, guests in the house. But this stranger–this bewilderingly beautiful girl–
In the upper hall he came face to face with his father.
“Dad, who in Heaven’s name is she?” he demanded without preamble.
“That exquisitely beautiful girl in the library. Who is she?”
“In the library? Girl? Nonsense! You’re dreaming, Burke. There’s no one here but your aunt.”
“But I just came from there. I saw her. She held a child in her arms.”
“Ho!” John Denby gave a gesture as if tossing a trivial something aside. “You’re dreaming again, Burke. The nursemaid, probably. Your aunt brought one with her. But, see here, son. I was looking for you. Come into my room. I wanted to know–” And he plunged into a subject far removed from nursemaids and their charges.