Michael Caine as Dr. Wilbur Larch  (Wikipedia photo)

Michael Caine as Dr. Wilbur Larch (Wikipedia photo)

CIDAR HOUSE RULES, novel by John Irving.

CIDER HOUSE RULES, novel by John Irving

Many years ago, before my dad’s Alzheimer’s distracted my mom’s writing, and then her own dementia stopped the writing altogether, she had an idea for an adult short story. Prior to that, she’d written children’s stories and poetry.

The idea for the story grew out of an actual event, a hurtful situation caused by a member of the family, and it had nagged at Mom for a long time. She wanted to write it just for herself—to sort it out and get it off her chest, like writers sometimes do—but in case it was ever accidentally found, she wanted to use a fictional location and names for the characters.

Many of the writers in my classes use books of baby names, search telephone books for name ideas, or read headstones at cemeteries.  Another way to study names for characters is read a lot of stories and novels.

Author John Irving’s books contain a variety of fictional characters’ names: Garp, Egg, Owen Meany, Piggy Sneed, etc. One of my favorite Irving novels, CIDER HOUSE RULES, features Dr. Wilbur Larch’s orphanage for children whose mothers did not come to him for abortions, but ended up abandoning their babies after giving birth.

One of the babies who was unsuccessfully adopted several times had been named Homer by Dr. Larch. As an adult, Homer helped choose names for other orphan babies, so the book is full of names. One charming practice at the orphanage is Dr. Larch reading aloud to the orphan boys each night, and closing with this tribute: “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” I suspected Mom would choose one of the female characters’ names for her story, and if her story had included a male, she might also have considered the name Wilbur.

If I had a son, I would not name him Wilbur. But through good writing and story telling, I have appreciation for the name. In E.B. White’s 1952 classic, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, the barn spider’s friend is Wilbur the pig.  Wm. Joyce’s book, A DAY WITH WILBUR ROBINSON, is about a twelve-year-old searching for a pair of false teeth. And then there’s Wilbur Wright, co-inventor and co-pilot of the first successful airplane.

Even though the dementia has erased the story Mom wrote and the search for alternate names, I close this post with a tribute to her: “Good night, you princess of Kansas, you queen of kind living and gentle lessons.”

On my walk near the Garden of the Gods yesterday, I saw children with their pet pig.  His name?  Wilbur.  Their advice:

On my walk near the Garden of the Gods yesterday, I saw children with their pet pig. His name? Wilbur. Their advice: “Don’t get too close. He’s hungry.”


Filed under Books and book titles, Dementia/Alzheimer's, Kansas, lessons for great-grandchildren, making a difference, special quotations, writing, writing exercises

66 responses to “CHOOSING WILBUR

  1. juliabarrett

    But it’s the odd name that sticks with you. I will long recall A Prayer for Owen Meany. And Wilbur.

  2. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a classic, Julia. All the little tidbits introduced throughout the novel are woven together so amazingly in the end. The short-form movie with Ashley Judd was an entertaining made-for-TV movie, but it didn’t come near the novel. CIDER HOUSE RULES was a better adaptation, but still not as good as the book. But you’re right, we do remember the names.

  3. As an excercise in writing, I asked my students to find out from their parents how they chose his or her name and write about it. Some interesting stories came out of that. Included was how they got their nick name, if they had one. Nice to know that kids still name their pigs Wilbur.

    • I’ve done that, too, Lynne, and I remember one young man named Kunta Kintay (sp?) whose parents hadn’t told him his name came from ROOTS. He was amazed. But since my mom needed a name to disguise the real name of the culprit and didn’t want to use the first names or nicknames of friends, we looked at names other authors had chosen.
      I was happy the children’s pig was named Wilbur, and they also knew about Charlotte’s web. The funny thing was that the girl said the new baby princess in London had been named for it! 😉

  4. Molly

    I am so curious to know what the story was Grandma going to write, I want the scoop! I am intrigued enough to read the book now, do you have it? I love the picture of Wilbur!

    I love names…the one we had thought of for Gannon before he was born was Oliver (combination of Molly and Trevor), but as it turned out he much more of a Gannon (the cannon)!

    Great blog, mom, as always!

  5. Oh, I think you do know the situation Grandma wanted to write about, Mookie. Think about it, and see what you come up with. It’s not a story she tried to publish, but just needed to write about. I’ll tell you when we talk tonight.
    I love the name Oliver, but Gannon is definitely Gannon. I’ve never seen a name fit a boy so perfectly. Also, to combine your name and Trevor’s, wouldn’t that be Molivor? Now THAT’s a name. 😉

  6. Names are so important…

    • They really are. When I was growing up, there were very few friends I knew who liked their names…myself included. But as we kind of “grew into them” ~ and even tried our middle names for awhile, our names began to “fit” most of us.

  7. I’d have been fascinated to see he story your Mom had written Marylin. Not really because it was to do with a family hurt but merely because I’d like to see if your Mom would have been as gentle with it as I imagine.I wonder if it would have come out as a learning experience for others?
    I don’t think Molvor or Trelly have quite the ring of Gannon.
    xxx Massive Hugs to you xxx

    • Ah, I hadn’t even thought of “Trelly”! 😉 Now that’s a name.
      I think that I’m the only one she showed the story to, David. It was honest, and even though it was very assertive, for her, she also struggled to give the person the benefit of the doubt.
      It just hasn’t been in my mother’s personality to be aggressive, rude or combative, but in her story she came as close as I’d ever seen her. Then she tore it up, took a deep breath, and said, “I’m glad that’s over.”
      I inherited some qualities from my mom, but in this arena I’m more like my dad, and I wanted to pick up the fight. But it was hers, and I promised not to. I always appreciate your comments and hugs from across the ocean.

  8. The Cider House Rules and Life According to Garp are some or my favorite books. They gave me an introduction to American life. John Irving is such a great author and I have read so many of his books.

    • Those are two of my favorites, too, Gerlinde, but A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY has always been at the very top of my list. Irving is indeed an introduction to American life, in a real, poignant, quirky and off-the-wall kind of way…but always superbly written with shocking moments and laugh-out-loud surprises. 😉
      Combined, that probably is a very real introduction to American life!

  9. The Cider House Rules was my introduction to John Irving. I stumbled across the film so of course I had to read the book. It was mesmerising for me having been one of those unwanted children. I read another of his books, The Hotel New Hampshire but didn’t enjoy it as much. The tower of books here waiting to be read just multiplies worse than a colony of rabbits but perhaps I will try another one of his books…

    • HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE was more funny-shocking and not as good a story for me, too, Lea. CIDER HOUSE RULES really would strike a personal chord with you; I hope it was a good chord. I found the line between performing abortions and caring for orphans was handled with amazing gentleness and practicality. But I applauded Wilbur Larch’s reading to and talking to the orphans, and especially his angry, indignant rescue of little Homer from the wrong adoption family.

      • In a world where so few really care, Dr. Larch cared. Yes, that was a good chord. I would have been in much better hands there. However, I learned many skills (way before school) that proved useful as a therapist and a Child Protection Officer as you may imagine. Thank you Marilyn!

  10. I have seen the animated movie version of Charlotte’s Web several times and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It is so poignant. And Wilbur is such a distinctive name for a pig. It’s perfect for him.
    Is Cider House Rules a very sad movie? I’ve never seen it or read the book but I’ve wanted to.
    A few years ago when I began my blog, I read Anne Lamott’s writing instruction book- Bird by Bird. There’s a chapter in which she says that if you decide to write about crazy people in your life, give them names and make them so far out in character that they won’t be recognized.
    I swear if I ever write a fiction book some day, I will have a few crazy characters and they will have some appropriate names.
    Have a nice weekend Marylin!

    • If you enjoy Irving’s writing, CIDER HOUSE RULES would be worth a read. However, this is one book that has a valid, touching and true-to-intent movie version, so I would recommend you seeing it.
      I used the Irving character names to show my mom that she could give herself permission to name her characters in ways she hadn’t considered, since she was having a hard time writing the story. I love Anne Lamott’s advice and comments. I still laugh when I remember one of her interviews when she said if you looked at her elementary school group picture, you could tell she was the one who would either have a lot of cats or be a serial killer. 😉 A very nice weekend to you, too, Joanne.

  11. I’m curious about your mother’s story, Marylin. I love a good unusual name in a story.

    • She did choose an unusual name (for her), and at least it got her started and gave her a chance to disguise the anger she was trying to get on the page. She let me read it, then she destroyed the story and said she was glad it was over. It was the most significant, longer piece of “therapy” writing I’d ever seen her do, and I guess that was all she needed.
      She was wise in that, I think. I would have gone for blood, I’m afraid. ;(

  12. Claudia

    Oweny Meany is waiting in my closet for a read!
    In reading a legal document of my ancestor’s last week, I came on the name of someone contesting a land sale. It was Rank McCommon and I can’t forget the name! I think he would be a great character and plan to use the name in a story sometime. Have a good weekend ahead!

    • Rank McCommon? Wow. I read of a farmer named Rand McCormick who contested a land deal; do you think this was an attempt to disguise his name? 🙂 Names can be so surprising, can’t they, and even legal documents sometimes get them wrong.
      I think you’ll appreciate A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, Claudia, especially the final chapters that weave all the details into an amazing final fabric.
      I hope your weather is better than ours and you’re having a sunny, good weekend!

  13. Names can either be a chore or a pleasure to come up with in our writing. Guess it depends on our mood that day. 🙂 There are name-generators out there, though I haven’t used one yet. But it’s nice to know they’re there if the need should arrive.

    Saw your comment on another blog, and I thought, “Hmm, I haven’t seen a post from Marylin for a while.” So I clicked over here and saw I no longer follow you. Months ago WordPress unfollowed dozens of blogs for me. I was frazzled trying to recatch them all, and I guess I missed yours. Sorry about that. 😦

    • Welcome back, Carrie, it’s so good to hear from you! 😉
      No, I’ve posted every week for almost three years, but I also went through a brief “burp” when some of my emails informing me of new posts stopped, including yours. I’ll go and click on it to renew.

  14. Choosing names for characters is always a challenge. I named my main character Amanda. My second granddaughter was 12 at the time and I felt the name worked. My first granddaughter has a bit miffed. I must come up with a character names Aleasha at some point. John Irving is a brilliant writer and I love all his books. I do hope someone in your family writes your mom´s story.

    • Darlene, you definitely will have to name a character Aleasha, now that you’ve named one of your characters after her younger sister. They both want to be featured, Darlene!
      These posts about my mother will be the recorded stories of her life, but the story she was writing to and needed a new place and names won’t be published. She let me read it and then she destroyed it, so I guess the therapy was just in the writing.

  15. My first prolonged elementary school crush was on a Wilbur. Gee, thinking about it now brings back some memories I might want to write about. I pursued him in some awkward ways…
    I was so excited when we were chosen for flag duty–raising and lowering the flag, folding it, etc. It gave me a few minutes along with him. We got along well, and I thought he might like me back. But then he had to go and name is iguana after Patricia McMahon, so adorable and sweet in her Brownie uniform. I suffered unrequited love, lol.

    • Well, drat that Patricia in her Brownie uniform, and drat the iguana Wilbur named after her, too! How dare they! 😉
      I think you’re primed to write a great children’s/juvenile story about Wilbur at the flag ceremony and your unrequited love. Jane. Seriously, there are some great magazines, anthologies and contests you could use as your goal, especially if you include the “awkward” ways you pursued Wilbur.
      I hope you at least try it. These sound like priceless memories with humor and a theme readers can relate to!

      • Oh my goodness, I think I would like to do something like that but have not quite reached critical mass….never published a line except in an agency newsletter and on this blog. Not sure how to (yet?) and not sure of myself. But I’m getting there! Thanks for all your kind words. I am trying to point myself towards trying to publish something when I get to where it feels right and I actually look into how/where/what, etc. (Trying to find a balance here between sounding pathetic and like I’m trying to get strokes and being real that I have no experience and little time–and that it is a bit scary to contemplate.) Getting there, getting there….Kind of hoped I’d start with this blog and then collect some of these bits and try to cobble them into something to publish on paper.

      • “Getting there” is a great start, Jane. And your blog is a terrific indication that you’re definitely on the right track. For now, please write out, in detailed journal form, at least 15 min. a day about the Wilbur memories. Do it several days in a row, writing about a memory, a color or feeling or scent or even the weather, etc. This way, at some future time you’ll have this all on paper. bestBestBEST of luck and encouragement to you. Marylin

      • I thought about this all week. I think after my kids visit and when things settle down, I will look into how this works. Thanks for the encouragement!

  16. Diana Stevan

    Very sweet, Marylin. Your mother is such a darling. Like her, I’ve used writing as a way of dealing with family pain. It’s such a source of comfort to spew on the page, in the privacy of one’s own room. And as you say, your mother wanted to write about some family incident, which is what writers do to ease their own burden, but at the same time use a fictitious name to protect those they write about. To find the right name that’s a challenge in itself. 🙂

    • You really “get” what she was doing, Diana. Looking for fictional names was a sidestep to give herself permission to dive in, write the truth and conceal the names. Later after she showed it to me and then tore it all up, glad that it was over and done with, it really was over.

  17. Jim

    Hi, sweetie. There really are connotations associated with certain names, so I agree name choices can be very important. Take our dog Maggie, for example. Her original name was Audrey when Trevor rescued her. Molly said, “Doesn’t fit,” and renamed her “Maggie” before we adopted her. Well, I have noticed something about her name when Maggie and I meet new people on the trail. They are understandably cautious of her at first, but as soon as I say, “That’s Maggie,” people seem to relax and put out their hands to pet her. It seems as soon as hikers hear her name, they automatically think, “Oh, a friendly girl dog.”

    • That, and her adorable smiling face and wagging tail. 😉 Maggie is the perfect name for her. Remember when another suggested name was Bridgette? It was rejected as fast as Audrey. Thanks, sweetie. You’ve made Jim my #1 favorite name.

  18. Your mom’s story has piqued my interest! I wonder what name your mom chose for her character.

    • Actually, Elaine, she tried several. It wasn’t until she let me read the story that I saw her final choice. And then she tore up the story and threw it away, saying she was glad she’d written and and now it was over. So it was her private writing therapy instead of written for others. I was very glad to see that her first attempt at writing an adult short story fulfilled this purpose for her.

  19. Excellent post my friend! You always stimulate my thoughts! I loved Cider House Rules and you have made me think of it in a new light. Please give the Princess of Kansas my best. XO

  20. Okay … I’ll give Cider House Rules and Owen Meany a try, Marylin. I’ve never read John Irving’s work or seen the movies, but on your recommendation, I’ll place his books on my to-read list.

    Your Goodnight tribute for your mother is precious.

    • Thank you, Darla. Of the two Irving books, both are excellent but if you’re only going to have time for one, I’d recommend A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY. The final chapters when all the threads weave together made me think of a Divine Plan.

  21. Names are so important. I think you have to see someone – a baby, an animal or a story character to decide on a suitable name. I had a list of names I liked before our son was born but the minute I saw him, none of these were appropriate. Until I can “see” the character and name him or her when I’m creating a story, then I can’t write convincingly.

    • We are so alike on this, Jenny. I’ve had stories that just dragged along until I put them aside to maybe try again later. And then when I got just the “right” character name, everything changed and I could write again!

  22. I haven’t read The Cider House Rules nor seen the movie. But I do love Charlotte’s Web and Wilbur.
    You make me want to read The Cider House Rules. I read The World According to Garp.

    • L. Marie, if you liked GARP, you will really enjoy CIDER HOUSE RULES. Irving must have had a repeat interest in the importance of nurses and helping others because he develops it in both books. But there’s something richer, fully drawn and very compelling (and realistic and frustrating) in the medical care in CIDER HOUSE RULES.

  23. Oh my goodness, Beware of Hungry Pig! That’s a new one. I am sure your mother would have loved meeting Wilbur the Hungry Pig, and even had something to offer the hungry Wilbur.

    • You’re very right about that, Gallivanta! I thought the same thing when I “met” Wilbur that day and the children warned me he was hungry. I had to smile and wish the clock would turn back to a time before Mom’s dementia, and we’d have snacks with us on our walk…and share them with Wilbur.

  24. You won a book on my blog. Please confirm there. I need your email address as well. 🙂

  25. What a wonderful tribute to your mom, Marylin. She does sound like the princess of Kansas, and the Queen of kind living and gentle lessons. Love the piggy Wilbur too. Hope you didn’t get to close. 🙂

    • As much as I like Charolotte’s Web and cute Wilbur, I also spend time on my uncles’ and aunts’ farms, Tracy. I definitely keep my distance from hungry pigs, even cute ones. 😉

  26. I like how you weave things together with your mother’s thoughts and stories included, Marylin. The last line of your post with princesses in it made me smile!
    Of course, names are part of the fascinating subject of this post. I love strange names and how they got chosen for characters, too. Wilbur wright popped in my head before I saw it written I love “Charlotte’s Web” and also, felt “Cider House Rules” was a very deep and somewhat sad book (and movie). Michael Caine did a nice job. I think Tobey McGuire did, too. I always wondered about HIS name since Tobey seems a little old fashioned. Also, I an on an actors name tangent: Topher Grace is such a unique name, don’t you think, Marylin!

    • I have a good friend who’s family name was Tobias, Robin, which I always loved, so I’m very partial to both Tobey and Topher (and think both of them are excellent actors, too.) Names intrigue me, especially names friends chose for themselves because they really did not like the ones they were given. Names can be a deep part of our identity, I think.

      • There is an older ‘fairy tale’ movie named, “Penelope,” where Christina Ricci has a nose like a ‘pig.’ Which doesn’t mean that the name is a ‘bad’ one but I loved how the story goes, her trying to fit in and find a man, without revealing her nose. If I had written a tale about someone who was different, I may have found a name that was even more unique than Penelope. I am so glad you reminded me of the family name of “Tobias,” which was our labrador retriever mix’s name, when we picked him out of the pound. When we brought him home, my youngest daughter wrote it out as “Toby.” So, now I can remember this but still uncertain why actors choose the names they do. I have not had any friends who chose to use a different name, but my ex-husband was given a ‘family name’ of Harrison for his middle name and he put up a fuss, as a boy, until he got the same middle name as his father and brother, “Byron.” It is so funny, to me, now, to realize Harrison Ford chose his name and it fits him ever so well.
        You are so right, Marylin. Both Topher and Tobey are fine actors, I agree!

      • I remember that, Robin! Penelope–as opposed to Wilbur–is an appropriate name! 😉

  27. Jane Thorne

    This is such a lovely post Marylin and you prompted me to ask my Mum and Dad why they chose my name…bless you for that. Wilbur is the perfect name for a pig…my family is a great one for nicknames, if only some of the ex. boyfriends knew what they were called!! Hugs and much love for you and your loved ones and your lovely Mum. ❤ Xxx

  28. Hugs and much love back to you and yours, Jane. Now, I just have to ask; when you asked your parents why they chose your name, can you share their answer? 😉

  29. ‘…you queen of kind living and gentle lessons…’ Dear Marylin, this is so beautiful. You’ve also given me great ideas when selecting names for stories! So far, I mull over in my head until I fall on the right one, but I will run out soon I just know it! I loved Charlotte’s Web and loved Wilbur 🙂

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