This book is not planning related, but it’s an interesting read for anyone interested in race and ethnicity in American society!  Which, of course, all planners should be!

I was watching a DVD of old episodes of “You Bet Your Life,” the game show hosted by Groucho Marx in the 1950s.  The show featured a series of couples, usually a man and a woman, usually not related in any way and chosen by the audience, sometimes two men or two women.  The couple is given trivia questions in a category of their choosing, worth more according to difficulty (between $10 and 100); answering incorrectly costs half.  In later seasons, the couples also compete to answer a final question, whoever has won the most in their first round.  There was a bonus word, held by a duck on a string hidden from the players, that is “a common word you hear around the house” or similar (things like door, chair, head, etc.)  If a player happened to say the word they would get $100 to split.

In the episodes I’ve seen, there are many really interesting people – all living in southern California at the time.  Librarian, fruit vendor, wrestler, mayor of one of the suburbs (I forget which), military people, a forewoman for a manufacturing plant, etc.  Groucho does his usual mix of sarcasm and sketchy old-man flirting with the women when interviewing the players.  And of course the whole thing is (aggressively) sponsored by DeSoto, I think a branch of Chrysler at the time, with flanking ads and brand-name-dropping throughout the show.  (Here’s an example from 1955 and another from 1957).

One of the player-couples, Carl and Helen Doss, are a minister and wife from southern California.  Groucho talks to them a while about his church, but when he asks about the children, it comes out that they have 12 children – and all of different races:  Japanese, Blackfoot tribe, Indian, etc.  They explain that they can’t have children of their own, and when going through the process of adoption they found that mixed-race children were “classified unadoptable.”  When asked if race is an issue in their family, Helen tells a story that “the two oldest boys always play Cowboy and Indian, but the blond, blue-eyed boy always plays Indian, and the boy from India plays cowboy.”  She also refers to a book she’s written, The Family Nobody Wanted, published by Little Brown in 1954 (which means the episode must be from just after that, possibly early 1955).

Given the unusual nature of their family for the time period (and really, 12 kids is a lot no matter who the kids are!) I decided to track down the book via the library, apparently reprinted by the Northeastern University Press in 2001.  It arrived this week by BorrowDirect!  I’ve only gotten through the introduction to the new edition, but it hints at the (former) popularity of this book.  For many years it was available through Scholastic-style book catalogs for children, and though hard to find cheaply on Amazon (in 1999 at least) the readers’ reviews were pretty uniformly positive about how sweet and interesting a story it is.  The editor’s analysis focuses more on the issues of adoption than the ethnic composition of the family, noting that the narrative challenges the still-dominant narrative that only a biologically-related child is a “full” child of a parent.  Doss writes of her family that they were meant to be this way and that they were fully hers and her husband’s, despite not being born to her, which the editor notes is not unique to the Doss family but certainly not the assume behind those who shy away from the option of adoption.  As she was a minister’s wife, it should also be interesting to see what Christian elements influence the narrative, beyond the usual tropes of past decades’ language.

I’ll be starting the book itself soon, but even before I get into it, I wanted to share this interesting little find.  In light of the recently published 2010 Census data, which has found that “minority” populations are growing in the U.S. and that there has been a significant increase in multi-racial children, taking a look at the country 60 years ago should be thought-provoking.

Helen Doss, The Family Nobody Wanted.  Mary Battenfeld, ed.  (Boston:  Northeastern University Press, 2001 [1954].

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