Eric Knight’s “Lassie Come Home”

BLOG #45, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #24
ERIC KNIGHT’S LASSIE COME HOME
November 6, 2013

After the two-month marathon September Book of the Month, Victor Hugo’s monumental Les Miserables, I decided I ought to throw in a real change of pace.  As I searched for a book generations of young people (as well as adults of all ages) have loved, I chanced to look at the most beloved shelf of books in my entire library: the books I cherished most during my growing-up years.  Front and center was Lassie Come Home.  Memories flooded in on me as I retrieved it, looked at my teen-age writing inside the cover, and remembered the impact of that first reading.  My missionary parents [in Latin America] had given me a great gift: the gift of living with my maternal grandparents, Herbert and Josephine Leininger in their large rambling home in then almost perpetually foggy Arcata in California’s redwood country.  I got to live there for my entire eighth-grade year.

Given that I was named after their only son (of seven children), who drowned in a swimming accident when he was only ten, they – especially Grandpa, who declared, when the body of his only son was brought into their house, “The light of my life has gone out!” – I was given a double dose of grandparenting love that year.  And almost every week, I’d be taken to a local book store with enough money to buy another book just for me.  One of those books was Eric Knight’s timeless dog classic.  I could not put it down, reading on to its conclusion sometime in the middle of the night.

But now, I wondered, after over half a century, would the book still have the same power it did back then?  Not to worry: it was near midnight before I reached that last page.

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THE BOOK, THE MOVIES, THE SEVERAL TV SERIES

I would guess that even though millions have read the book, many times that number will have seen the Lassie movies and been addicted to one of the longest-running series in television history.

First of all, the author was himself a larger-than-life-figure: Eric Oswald Mowbray Knight (1897 – 1943) was born in Menston in Yorkshire [James Herriot country], England.  His parents were both Quakers.  His father, a rich diamond merchant was killed in the South African Boer War when Eric was only two.  His mother then moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work as a governess of the Russian imperial family.  She later settled in America.

Knight had a varied career, including service in the Canadian Army during World War I, and along the way studied art, became a newspaper writer, and later on, a Hollywood screenwriter.  His first novel, Song on Your Bugles (1936) depicted the working class of Northern England.  His This Above All is considered to be one of the most significant novels of World War II.

But it was his 1940 novel, Lassie Come Home, that catapulted him into worldwide iconic fame.  Knight and his second wife, Jere, raised collies on their farm in Pleasant Valley, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from 1939 to 1943.  Though Knight then lived in America, the setting for the novel was back in the Yorkshire of his childhood, hence the Yorkshire dialect in the book.  Knight met an untimely death in a plane crash in Dutch Guiana (Suriname) in 1943 –he was only 46.

The MGM movie, Lassie Come Home (1943), was directed by Fred M. Wilcox and produced by Samuel Marx.  It had a powerful cast: Roddy McDowell, Elizabeth Taylor, Donald Crisp, Elsa Lancaster, May Whitty, and Edmund Gwenn.  Pal starred as Lassie.

Half a century later, in 1994, Daniel Petrie and Lorne Michaels directed and produced Broadway Paramount’s Lassie.  Unlike the earlier film, this one is set in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in a modern setting.  Actors included Thomas Guiry, Helen Slater, Jon Tenney, Brittany Boyd, Frederic Forrest, and Richard Farnsworth.

In television, CBS’s Lassie ran an astounding 21 years; the main series from 1954 to 1974.  During those years, its stars included Tommy Rettig, Jan Clayton, George Cleveland, Donald Keeler, Paul Maxey, Jon Provost, Arthur Space, Cloris Leachman, Jon Shepodd, George Chandler, June Lockhart, Hugh Reilly, Todd Ferrell, Andy Clyde, Robert Bray, Jed Allen, Jack De Mave, Ron Hayes, Skip Burton, Joshua Albee, Larry Wilcox, Larry Pennel, Pamelyn Ferdin, and Sherry Blucher.  The real heroes, of course, were the collies that starred as Lassie.  By the time the series reached its final conclusion, the dog had edged out almost all humans.  The setting was in America rather than England, and the immortalized epic thousand-mile journey of Lassie in the book, Lassie Come Home, was not depicted at all.Scan_Pic0061Scan_Pic0062

There was a later TV series, The New Lassie (1989 – 1991) that was memorable though low budget, starring Will Nipper, Christopher Stone, Dee Wallace Stone, Wendy Cox, and Jon Provost.

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Though the book has appeared in a number of editions, it was originally published by the John C. Winston Company.  Grosset and Dunlap thereafter took it into the mass market.  Whatever you do, make sure the book you purchase is unabridged.  The original runs 248 pages.  The Grosset & Dunlap runs 186 pages, with smaller print.  Avoid at all costs the many popular abridged versions.

Will be most interested in your reactions.