Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Life in the Time of Corona: A Bargain for Frances, and Mary Raymond too


My friend Mary is experiencing some challenges working from home:

“I am ok! Working from home should be nice, but I feel weirdly like I never stop working and yet don’t get anything done. I don’t know how it’s possible, but it’s like Coronavirus mania has broken my brain. I keep worrying about what I’ve forgotten. Also I live in a construction zone, and sometimes the noise is tiring. I never thought about it until I stopped leaving my house.”

I’m having trouble with focus too! True confession: I haven’t opened one book in the Time of Corona. I’ve got plenty eyeballing me, along with the closets I haven’t cleaned looking at me balefully. “We aren’t meant to live this way, but here we are,” Mary says.

Today, Mary thinks about the classic A Bargain for Frances – and about a big choice she made right before the virus upended our lives.

From Mary:

It turns out Frances is a badger. I learned this when I consulted Wikipedia after rereading Russell Hoban’s children’s book, A Bargain for Frances.

I first read the Frances books as a child and don’t remember wondering if she was a badger, a hedgehog, or a skunk at that time. I only recently felt the need to figure out what, exactly, Frances was, when I checked this childhood favorite out of the library.  

According to Wikipedia, Frances is a badger.

I reread the Frances book because I recently bought a new home. More specifically, a home with a dining room.  

I have never had a dining room.  

I figured I would just use it as a home gym, but my real estate agents said, “Oh, no, Mary. It’s so beautiful. You have to use it as a dining room. Even if you never invite anyone over for dinner.” 

 It’s uncanny, really, how well these women came to know me as they helped me sell one home and buy another. Have I mentioned how good I am at social distancing? 

At first I left the dining room empty. More specifically, empty except for Mavis’s scratching post. 

 It took me a long time to feel comfortable moving in the first place. I was comfortable in my small home. Comfortable in my small life. My friend Betsy asked me a few years ago if I ever thought about moving. I told her that I had considered it and that I was planning to do it when I was in my fifties. Curiosity sparked, Betsy wanted to know: What else are you waiting until your fifties to do?!?

Um, everything? The truth is that I often live as though disaster is just around the corner. My house was small because my life was small. I’m not saying I predicted the coronavirus. I’m just saying my metaphorical face mask has always been snugly pulled behind my ears.

Somehow I managed to muster up my courage, sell my home, and buy a new one. Soon I had a big empty dining room, and I was thinking of decorating it. Face mask or no, I barely recognized myself. Wouldn’t it be more on brand for me to slow walk this thing and just leave the dining room empty for another year?

Or seven?  

Betsy didn’t think so. Betsy suggested that Ballard Designs has lots of wonderful dining room choices. Betsy doesn’t live a small life. Betsy is, at best, an enabler, and, at worst, a paver of the road to hell with good intentions.  

Which brings me back to Frances. A Bargain for Frances is a tale of toxic friendship between two young badgers who enjoy play dates, tea parties, and Machiavelli-style psychological warfare. Frances wants a blue china tea set, and she described it with such rapturous delight that my kindergarten self really wanted one of those tea sets, too. Her frenemy Thelma tries to convince her to give up on her dream and be satisfied with a cheaper red plastic version instead. Thelma, we soon learn, is awash in ulterior motives. The mean girl hijinks escalate until only Frances’s baby sister Gloria speaks with a voice of reason. Maybe they are honey badgers? 

I don’t know. Wikipedia was unclear on this point.

I figured it would be OK to check out the Ballard Designs website. I didn’t have to order anything. I could just get a sense of what I might buy when I finally furnished the dining room in the early 2030s. Or so.

As it turns out Ballard Designs has such an enticing array of upholstery selections that it helps to develop a color theme to narrow down your choices. Maybe it always helps to have a theme?  

I don’t know. Up until a few weeks ago the only theme I had was mid-century Cat Lady, hold the gluten.

I had a hard time deciding on my theme until I remembered how much I loved Frances and her blue tea set. This helped me choose Charlotte Blue fabric for my metaphorical chairs.  

I bet you can guess what happened next.

The chairs don’t look exactly like Frances’s tea set. Maybe they are just Frances Tea Set-Adjacent. In either case, as of a few weeks ago, I took off my metaphorical face mask long enough to outfit my dining room.  

And then the whole world fell apart.

This is the part where I should tie all these disparate themes together – Badgers, Dining Rooms, Tea Sets, Coronavirus, Apocalypse, What Color Is Your Metaphorical Face Mask. But it seems a little early for that. It seems like we’re going to live in this period of uncertainty for a while. I think we’ll see some creativity, ingenuity, and some of the best of humanity as we continue this fight. I suspect the numbers we all follow will climb higher than any of us can bear. We have prayed for Jennifer in the last few weeks while her daughter and husband were sick. We worry this is not enough. How could it ever be enough? But God hears our prayers and meets us in the frailty we are only just starting to recognize. 

And somehow this is enough.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen. – The Book of Common Prayer



  1. I can’t believe all the places my mind has gone with Mary’s ideas. It sounded so simple, but it’s very complex.

  2. Wonderful column, Mary!
    A fine reminder of the Frances books, which provide somewhat sly and revealing perspectives: both parents and kids count them as favorites. And the quote from BCP illumines and comforts, in both daytime and deep darkness. Thank you!

  3. What vivid memories we have of that book! And I love the dining room chairs. Thank you, Mimi

  4. Jennifer, thank you for sharing the story of your husband’s and daughter’s illness. It helped me help my son, who is alone in his house in Maryland fighting what is surely COVID-19. On a hard day early this week, because of you, I was able to tell him “A blogger friend said the tide will turn on day 10. Hang in there, you can make it.” He did, and it did. I am deeply grateful.

  5. Thank you, Deb for your information about your son. Our son is alone in his apartment in Virginia. He isn’t sick but is having a difficult time with isolation. We have set up Google Hangout group so we can visit. Need gmail to be able to use it. Hope your son is much better now.

    • I am learning new things every day. I have never heard of Google Hangout. But it sounds like a GREAT idea especially in these circumstances!! It’s very hard for young people especially to be alone I think. xoxo

    • Thanks Jennifer and Millie for your responses. Turns out he’s in an up and down stage, felt good one day, not so much the next. But yes, knowing people we love are alone is hard. Phone calls, google hangouts, texts and prayers—that’s all we can do.

  6. That was beautiful. The days of security when we read Frances are gone indeed, but we are learning to put our security in our immovable God these days.

  7. Great article! I love the book A Bargain For Frances so much!!! If I had a nickel for every time I read it I could fund a cure for COVID-19. . Thanks for the happy memories ❤️

  8. Talk about creativity and ingenuity—that’s you, my friend! Love the Frances series, and I love your beautiful blue china chairs! You made a great bargain. xo

  9. I loved this even though I somehow missed these books growing up. I so get you on how satisfying inertia can feel. Been thinking about renovating my bathroom for about 21 years now.

  10. Mary Louise, when all this is over, Brigette and I are going to show up on your doorstep with a casserole and we will break in that lovely dining room. No, you will not have a choice…prepare yourself! stay well, and keep writing…

    • If Brigette, Josephine, and Louise have a dinner party I feel like the casserole needs to be French.

      May this all be over soon!

  11. This one got Lost in the shuffle the other day. Thank you Mary and Jennifer. i am counting on being invited to that table one night when this is all over. We will have you here too. It looks like a fine addition and so important for right now. You have inspired me to have dinner in the dining room tonight! Xoxo

    • What a good idea, L… maybe I will serve dinner in the dining room tonight as well! And I look forward to seeing you both around a dinner table before too long. Xoxo

      • Lawrence, the price of admission to our (at this point) metaphorical dining room dinner celebration is sharing your middle name. Extra points if it is vaguely French-sounding. 🙂

        It makes me happy and gives me comfort that we are making plans for After. I look forward to this wonderful dinner party. Mavis might even join us.

  12. Just catching up and absolutely LOVE this post…XO!

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