First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – Paul Zindel’s A Begonia for Miss Applebaum.

A Begonia for Miss Applebaum – Introduction to Item 41

I was an advanced reader from an early age, which meant I got to read the 12+ books at the library when I was nine – I got special permission from my teacher and the library staff ( I know – I sound like a clever clogs!) I took full advantage of that, and read as much as I possibly could. In that, I’m very like my mum, who was also an avid reader as a child. She introduced me to Paul Zindel, although to date this is still the only book by him I’ve read.

My mum came across his first book while she was while she was a pupil herself, and the later ones while she was a school librarian. We found A Begonia for Miss Applebaum in a sale of books pulled from the shelves of Newcastle City Library. According to the note in the front, this was 1995, when I was 12, so she did warn me it was a fairly harrowing tale. It’s worth reading, though.

The Plot of A Begonia for Miss Applebaum

Henry and Zelda arrive for a new school year to find that their favourite teacher, Miss Applebaum, has unexpectedly retired. Having worked as lab assistants for her the previous year and grown fond of her, they decide to visit her at her home near Central Park, taking a begonia with them as a gift.

Miss Applebaum is delighted to see them, but it’s clear she’s not well – she’s wearing a dressing gown and wheezing, and when a doctor arrives to administer a hypodermic, Henry and Zelda realise that there’s something seriously amiss.

Miss Applebaum has terminal cancer and only a few months to live. Despite this, she’s determined to enjoy her life, Close-up of pink begonia flowersand decides to continue teaching the teenagers, both by letting them carry out chemistry experiments in her living room and showing them the wonders of the Metropolitan Museum.

But she also helps them to learn valuable lessons about life and death, about appreciating the little things in the world around them and the importance of being kind to others. Miss Applebaum buys food to give out to the homeless people in Central Park, and she encourages Zelda and Henry to help her with that.

However, she’s running out of time, and despite being admitted to a specialist oncology unit at a top New York hospital, Miss Applebaum can’t be cured. Zindel is unflinching in his descriptions of her final days, and how much all three of the main characters struggle at the unavoidable end. It’s tough going rereading it as an adult, but the messages of hope shine through.

Central Park

Central Park is a character in its own right in the book, with each section having a different theme and appeal for Miss Applebaum. I’ve yet to visit New York, but a walk through the park is at the top of my list for when I finally get there.

Inspired by the urban parks of Paris and London, a group of the great and good of New York City decided they should have their own. There was considerable debate, and after three years of discussion, it was decided to purchase 700 acres in the centre of Manhattan. The first park of its kind in America, Central Park is between the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. Today it’s the fifth largest park in New York City, and attracts 38 million visitors every year, who come to explore its 843 acres.

A wide path, with trees on either side, and a wooden bench. Central Park, New York

Pic © Bruce Emmerling via Pixabay

While choosing the place to build the park was easy, it wasn’t good news for everyone. The Central Park website explains that the land ‘between Fifth and Eighth avenues and 59th and 106th streets (was) undesirable for private development’ due to the rocky and swampy land.

However, this space was home to around 1,600 people, who were settled in shanties around the area. These were the poorest of society, including German gardeners and Irish pig farmers. More significantly, Seneca Village, an African-American settlement, was located at Eighth Avenue and 82nd Street. The close community had established a school and three churches, and it was a real blow for them to be moved out of their homes.

The Central Park Commission was set up in 1857, four years after approval for the development was granted. As well as taking responsibility for the Park, the Commission also managed the development of uptown Manhattan. In 1870, a new city charter was introduced, which have control of the park back to local rather than state government, and from then on the mayor appointed Park commissioners.

A competition was launched to find someone to design and construct the park, which was won by architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux and architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The first part of the park opened in late 1858, and was finally completed in 1876 after the purchase of additional land.

The park has lots of space for sporting activities, but also has a lake, a reservoir and a nature sanctuary. Visitors can ride the carousel (as Henry, Zelda and Miss Applebaum do), skate on the Wollman Rink or visit the animals at the Zoo. The Delacorte Theater performs Shakespeare in the summer, too.

In the book, the trio visit some of the statues in Central Park. There are approximately 30 dotted around the park,

A statue of the characters from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Central Park

Pic © Momo via Pixabay

with one of the most popular being the Alice in Wonderland sculpture, erected in 1959. Philanthropist George Delacorte commissioned José de Creeft to create something that children could scramble all over.

The eponymous heroine, modelled on the sculptor’s daughter, perches on a giant mushroom and is surrounded by the White Rabbit, the Dormouse, Cheshire Cat, Dinah the cat and the Mad Hatter, modelled on Delacorte. If you look closely, you may spot the hapless Bill the Lizard, too.

Van der Graaff Generator

At one point in the book, Henry enthusiastically describes being allowed to use the Van der Graaf generator on Zelda, causing her lovely long hair to stand on end. Anyone who’s ever tried one in a science class or in a museum knows how strange it feels and how hilarious it looks to everyone else.

Surprisingly, the machine isn’t even 100 years old yet – it was invented in 1929 by an American physicist, called (unsurprisingly) Robert J. Van de Graaf. It was designed as a particle accelerator for physics research, and it’s comedy value in generating static electricity was a side effect.

A van de Graaff generatorThe generator operates with a rubber belt which moves to create an electrical charge which is carried through the insulated rod to the metal dome on the top. When the proton-heavy, positively-charged human hands touch the negatively-charged, electron-heavy dome, the chemical bond known as adhesion takes place.

Over time the generator was developed to be much bigger, and even tandem domes were created. The original version of the electrostatic generator was the Kelvin water dropper, invented by Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) in 1867. This involved adding drops of water into a bucket to increase the polarity charge of the water within.

The Metropolitan Museum

A particularly poignant scene takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Met, as it’s often known. Miss Applebaum shows Henry and Zelda her favourite exhibits, but they are too anxious to concentrate, because they’ve decided they need to talk to her about her health.

The third most visited museum in the world, the Met is also the biggest in the United States, attracting almost 7 million visitors per year. It has 17 departments with over 2 million permanent collection works. As well as the main part at Fifth Avenue, there is a smaller collection from medieval Europe at Fort Tryon Park, and the recently-opened modern art building on Madison Avenue.

Founded in 1870 to bring education and art to America, the Met was opened in 1872. As well as Miss Applebaum’s

The Met Museum, New York, seen at night

Pic © PredragKezic via Pixabay

favourite Egyptian collection, it has displays on costumes, weapons, musical instruments and paintings from all over the world.

As with Central Park, the Met’s founders were inspired by Paris, and lawyer John Jay led the project from 1866. He managed to involve many of the same kinds of people to support and fund the cause, and an earlier incarnation of the museum opened in 1870. The original building was also designed by Calvert Vaux with the help of Jacob Wrey Mould.



Central Park: History
Central Park: Alice in Wonderland
How Stuff Works: VdG Generator
The Met: The Met