How a 93-year-old Navy veteran in North Idaho saw his mother's forgotten children's book finally published

click to enlarge How a 93-year-old Navy veteran in North Idaho saw his mother's forgotten children's book finally published
Peggy and Peter go on many magical journeys in Mister Deedle's Tree House.

It wasn't until her two children had grown up that Margaret Morrison Roeth found enough spare time to craft the kind of beautifully illustrated tale that once would have fully captured Charles and Helen Betsy's young imaginations.

Taking her paintbrush and pen to paper in 1948, the lifelong artist spun up endearingly quaint stories and illustrations for her original children's book, Mister Deedle's Tree House. The 50-page tome's central characters, Peter and Peggy, and their imaginative playtime escapades were inspired by Charles and Helen Betsy's own youth in 1930s Southern California.

Morrison Roeth never got to see her book reach readers' hands, however, as it was rejected multiple times for publication when she pitched it in the early 1950s. Her beautifully hand-drawn illustrations — full-page scenes in an opaque watercolor palette of tomato red, orange, peach, black and shades of gray, plus scroll-like designs to frame and accent each page — were tucked away and largely forgotten for the next 75 years.

Until recently.

Thanks to a serendipitous encounter and the commitment of her now 93-year-old son, Charles "Chuck" Roeth, to see his mother's work shared, Mister Deedle's Tree House has finally made its debut. In May, a small Texas-based publisher released a softcover edition of the book, which is available to order online and through local independent bookstores like Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, the Well-Read Moose in Coeur d'Alene, and others.

Roeth, a busy high school senior at the time his mother created the book, was initially introduced to the project more than a decade ago when his older sister, who went by Betsy, entrusted the original drawings and manuscript into his care.

"My mother finished the book in about 1948 and that was my last year in high school, and I didn't really pay any attention my senior year to what my mother was doing — I was busy doing other things," Roeth recalls. "The whole thing just passed me by."

After graduation, Roeth served in the Navy during the Korean War. After completing his service and attending the University of California to study mechanical engineering, he eventually landed in North Idaho working in the timber milling industry.

"My sister was an artist herself, and had the work that had been done just in a great big folder," he continues. "And at one point she said, 'Why don't you take this and see if you can do something with it.' So I did."

At some point before giving her brother the project, Betsy and her daughter, Tirza Kaplan (to whom Margaret dedicated the book), started matching the original typewritten manuscript with each corresponding scene.

As Roeth and other family members continued efforts after Betsy's death in 2013 to finally publish Mister Deedle's Tree House in Margaret's memory, they encountered many challenges.

"It was a fits-and-starts type of thing, and that went on for quite a while," Roeth says. "Finally we were getting it along fairly well, but there is a lot to put into publishing a book in order to be done right."

click to enlarge How a 93-year-old Navy veteran in North Idaho saw his mother's forgotten children's book finally published
Chey Scott photo
Charles Roeth with the children's book his mother created in 1948.

Their biggest hurdle was the same as Margaret's: finding a publisher. Another was figuring out how best to convert her lushly detailed illustrations from large, square sheets of paper to a digital format.

Progress picked up suddenly when, over a year ago, Roeth's wife, Jan, happened to meet Carrie Pierce, co-director of Morgan Pierce Media & Publishing, the publisher that finally welcomed Mister Deedle's Tree House into its catalog.

"It was a women's group gathering, and for some reason I moved over and sat down and met Carrie," Jan says. "I don't even exactly remember how the book came up, but I thought to myself later, 'Maybe there would be a way that Carrie could come over sometime and just give us a few little hints here and there.' And when she came over to start a few months ago, all of a sudden the book started to flourish."

Pierce was stunned by what the family showed her.

"I couldn't believe what I was looking at," she says of Margaret's artwork. "There's so much heart in them, and the stories are so precious. It's like a little time capsule to a kinder, gentler time, I think."

She took the Roeth family on as clients, and fast-tracked Mister Deedle's Tree House to publication in about three months, less than half the time the process would usually take.

"Margaret tried to get this book published in 1950, and it has been languishing since then. They had waited so long," Pierce says. "After seeing the book that day, I called my business partner and I said, 'You just won't believe it — this incredible legacy of love.' And so we talked about it and realized that we needed to really hurry and push this through."

Mister Deedle's Tree House is a fantastical series of adventures told across five chapters, beginning with Peter and Peggy's introduction to the titular Mister Deedle, a distinguished but easily disgruntled gentleman who they imagine lives inside the trunk of a pine tree near their house.

Pretending they've been shrunk down to a miniature size, the children enter Mister Deedle's magical world, where they soar through the air on the backs of red-breasted robins and friendly monarch butterflies until their mother calls them inside for dinner.

In one chapter, the children visit the kindly Aunt Kate's home high up in the Andes Mountains and help save Honorio the llama. In another, their mother's two porcelain Chinese figurines on the mantel come to life and take Peter and Peggy on a quick trip around the world to see a traditional Chinese festival, complete with a lion dance. Finally, the children decorate their beautiful Christmas tree, making sure each special ornament is placed just right before inviting all of their imaginary friends to come enjoy it and receive a gift.

Margaret Morrison Roeth's two-dimensional artwork in Mister Deedle is simple, yet driven by emotion and filled with movement, with an overt sense of nostalgia evocative of the era when it was created. Her use of limited color and the sharply inked outlines in each whimsical scene feel reminiscent of both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements of the early 20th century.

Both a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and the California School of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley, Margaret won various awards for her work and, according to her family, continued to practice art throughout her life.

"Oh, she'd be very happy," her son says today about the book being finally completed. "I'm very happy." 

Woman, Artist, Catalyst: Art from the Permanent Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through March 9
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Chey Scott

Chey Scott is the Inlander's Editor, and has been on staff since 2012. Her past roles at the paper include arts and culture editor, food editor and listings editor. She also currently serves as editor of the Inlander's yearly, glossy magazine, the Annual Manual. Chey (pronounced "Shay") is a lifelong resident...