Charlotte’s Web

I believe I was a junior high student when I first read Charlotte’s Web and, though I remembered the basic gist of the story, I couldn’t recall if I liked it or not. When I recently came upon a battered paperback copy of E. B. White’s famous novel I was at first reluctant to reread it, for I knew there were sad parts. But I reminded myself that I’ve survived reading many sad stories, so I decided to see if my grown up self liked the book.

One morning eight-year-old Fern learns that her father, Mr. Arable, planned to kill the runt of a litter of pigs. She pleaded with him to spare the pig’s life, so he agreed to allow her to care for the animal. When Fern’s older brother learns his sister was given a pig he asked if he could have one as well, but his father tells him that only early risers get presents. “Fern was up at daylight, trying to rid the world of injustice. As a result, she now has a pig.”

Fern loved her pig, and named him Wilbur. She’d warm milk for Wilbur, tie on his bib, and hold the bottle for him. When he grew a little older Wilbur would follow Fern all around the farm. But when the pig was five weeks old Mr. Arable said that Wilbur had to be sold, so arrangements were made to sell him to Fern’s Uncle Homer Zuckerman.

Wilbur’s new home was in the lower part of Mr. Zuckerman’s barn, and Fern came almost everyday to visit him. She sat so quietly on an old milking stool next to Wilbur’s pen that the geese and sheep learned to trust her, and in time Fern understood the conversations the animals had with each other. Sometimes Fern told her parents what the animals had to say, and that worried her mother, who informed her that animals could not talk. However her father suggested that their adult ears might not hear what their daughter could hear.

Wilbur enjoyed Fern’s visits, but she wasn’t there during most of the day and he grew lonely. He wanted a friend who could always be nearby.

One day a spider by the name of Charlotte A. Cavatica said she would be his friend, and that made Wilbur happy – until he learned Charlotte trapped, killed and ate flies, which seemed quite blood-thristy to the young pig. But Charlotte explained that while Wilbur had his food brought to him spiders had to work for their food. Plus, if it wasn’t for spiders eatings flies and bugs the insects would multiply and take over the earth. That made sense to Wilbur, and he began to focus on the good qualities of his new friend.

Summer came, and Wilbur was enjoying his life until one of the sheep informed him he was being fattened up to be killed and eaten. Wilbur began to scream and cry, but Charlotte told him that she would not let him be harmed.

One evening Charlotte tore a large section out of the middle of her web and began to weave something new. The next morning, when the farm hand came to feed Wilbur, he saw a message had been woven into the spider web: SOME PIG.

The farm hand rushed off to get Mr. Zuckerman, who drove to his minister’s house to tell him about the miracle on his farm. Even before the minister was able to preach a sermon on the meaning of the miracle folks from all parts of the county were coming to see Wilbur and the remarkable spider web.

Charlotte held meetings with the other barnyard animals (including an unpleasant rat named Templeton) to discuss new messages she could weave, and in time her web proclaimed that Wilbur was TERRIFIC, and then RADIANT.

Mr. Zuckerman decided to take Wilbur to the county fair so that more people could see his wonderful pig, and Wilbur found out he would not be killed. However, Wilbur’s troubles weren’t over, for spiders don’t live as long as pigs who aren’t turned into ham and bacon, and little girls grow up and find new interests.

Would Wilbur be left with no friends to keep him company? And if he does find new friends, could they ever mean as much to him as his beloved Charlotte?

When I first read Charlotte’s Web I may have considered it to be a book about talking farm animals, but now I see it as a story about friendship. Since my first reading of the novel I’ve lost friends through death, and through the gradual realization that we no longer share the same interests. Plus I’ve met up with folks who were as silly or annoying as many of the sheep and geese that shared Wilbur’s barn – folks that meant well and who can be classified as friends. And, alas, I’ve lived or worked around people as self-serving as Templeton the rat, and even they can be of use if you meet their terms.

I enjoyed my time reading about Wilbur and his world, especially since I’ve had the honor of meeting many fine people who share my love of creating stories. I can relate to Wilbur’s bittersweet acceptance that he will never love any of his new friends as much as he loved Charlotte. At the end of the book the reader learns: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” I can attest to the importance of those virtues!

If you would like to read Charlotte’s Web you should be able to find it at a public library, or from many booksellers.

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Bobby In Movieland

Recently I learned of a Jesuit priest named Francis J. Finn who’d written Horatio Alger style adventure books from the 1890s through the 1920s. His most famous stories were novels about Tom Playfair, who attended St. Maure’s School. I wasn’t able to find any of that series, so I’ll be reviewing Fr. Finn’s Bobby In Movieland, published by Benziger Brothers in 1921.

Eight-year-old Bobby Vernon and his widowed mother were making their first visit to California. Bobby and his new friend, Peggy Sansone – they’d met on the Pullman railroad car – wanted to go wading in the ocean by Long Beach, and Mrs. Vernon gave her permission if they promised to return to the railroad station in half-an-hour, for they were traveling to see a relative who might help Mrs. Vernon pay a debt.

Alas, Bobby ventured further out into the water than he should have, and then – double alas – a high “roller” wave rushed over him and pushed him under water and then out to sea. Peggy rushed back to her mother, just as the train was about to leave the station. The girl was too upset to notice the small earthquake tremor that terrified those who were new to the Los Angeles area. The train was moving when Mrs. Vernon learned that her son probably drowned, and the porter told her it would be best to go on to the next station, and see if there was a telegram waiting for her.

Fortunately the book’s hero did not die in the first chapter. A former lifeguard rescued Bobby, then left to get the boy some brandy. (Gasp – and this during Prohibition!) Bobby put on his shoes, and just as memories of his near drowning came back to him he felt the earthquake tremor. Panic stricken, he began running out onto a highway.

Bobby was nearly hit by an auto driven by John Compton, a “promising comedian” recently hired by a moving-picture company to star in silent movies. Compton stopped his auto, and ran back to see if the boy was hurt. He soon learned the boy’s entire history, including Bobby’s mother’s maiden name. In later chapters I learned that Compton had once courted Bobby’s mother, but she had broken up with him because he was a non-believer.

Compton promised to take care of Bobby until he could be reunited with his mother. He promptly sent off a telegram to the train station
the widowed Mrs. Vernon was headed towards but – alas once more – so many frightened visitors rushed to send off wires that the telegraph company was overwhelmed with work, and John Compton’s message didn’t arrive in time to be delivered.

Compton had to return to his studio, and he took Bobby along. The boy followed the rules about staying out of the way of those working on the movie, but he was a born mimic, and amused himself by taking on the movements and facial expressions of the actors. And when the director gave instructions to an uninspired youth on how to act out a scene Bobby followed directions better than the paid actor, and put on an fine show out of camera range.

Soon everyone on the set knew that Bobby was a gifted actor, and he was given a part in the film. Bobby loved working in movies, staying with his “uncle” John Compton, and learning that Peggy Sansone – the girl he’d gone wading with – was an actress at the same studio he worked at.

Bobby was living near a Catholic church and loved to go inside to pray. Compton went in with him, though he didn’t know just what was required within church walls. Bobby gave him little catechism lessons, and soon the temporary uncle became interested in the faith of his young ward.

The boy was almost always cheerful, but when night came he missed his mother. Each evening Compton checked on Bobby after the boy had been sent to bed, saw tears on his face, and knew Bobby had cried himself to sleep.

What had happened to Mrs. Vernon? She got off at her destination, but found no telegram waiting for her. She made inquiries about the relative she’d come to see, and learned the man had recently died in poverty.

The train had left, so she prayed for guidance. Five minutes later a man with two children came up to her, and said his wife would die if he didn’t find a nurse to give her around-the-clock care. Mrs. Vernon declared that she’d attended nursing school, and was hired on the spot to go out to a ranch and care for the gravely ill wife and mother.

Caring for the woman helped Mrs. Vernon forget her own troubles, and she grew to love the family’s two children. But if she’s off living on an isolated ranch, will she learn anything about the wonderful new child movie star? Will the private investigators hired by John Compton be able to find her? And if she is reunited with her son, what will she think of his guardian, who’s now becoming interested in the Catholic church? You know, the man who once courted her, but who’s lack of faith doomed their romance.

I’ll let you know that the novel has a happy ending. Though I wouldn’t rank Fr. Finn as a first class writer, I found the book an enjoyable read. Bobby is a good boy, but he’s not perfect, so doesn’t come off as annoyingly pious. Other likable characters “reform” their mildly naughty habits in ways that come across as plausible.

Catechism lessons are given, but they only take up a couple of sentences at a time. However, the book was written for an audience of Catholic children, and has a religious slant that some may not appreciate.

If you’d like to know more about Bobby, Mrs. Vernon, John Compton, and how silent moving-pictures may have been made in 1921 Bobby In Movieland can be downloaded, free of charge at:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/56319

Little Orphan Mary Alice

Once upon a time portions of a girl’s life was memorialized in a famous poem. Later on –– due to a typesetter’s error – her misspelled name was used as the moniker of two iconic fictional characters.

Mary Alice Smith was born in Union County, Indiana on September 25, 1850. Legend has it that she became an orphan at age twelve, when her father died, but recent research suggests her father either would not or could not care for his daughter. Whether or not she was an orphan, it became necessary for young Mary Alice to find a local family to take her in so she could work to earn her board and keep.

Fortunately she went to stay at the farm of Reuben Riley, where she was treated well. Mary Alice, who was called Allie, was assigned kitchen chores, plus she helped care for the family’s four children. During the evening hours she’d sit by the fireplace and entertain the family with stories about ghosts and goblins. She told moral tales, warning about the bad things that happen to children who don’t obey their parents.

One of the children Allie cared for grew up to be a writer who specialized in dialect poetry, written to mimic the way rural Hoosier (Indiana) residents spoke. In 1885 James Whitcomb Riley published a poem entitled The Elf Child, about an “orphant” girl who came to “wash the cups an’ saucers, an’ brush the crumbs away.” After the supper dishes were done the girl would tell witch-tales and declare that “the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!”

When the poem was to be republished in a book Riley changed the title to Little Orphant Allie, but, though the typesetter had no trouble with Riley’s spelling of “orphant” or “Gobble-uns,” “Allie” was too much for him. He felt the girl’s name was misspelled, so he changed the poem’s title to Little Orphant Annie. The error upset Riley, who demanded a correction in future printings, but he was told the book was selling well, and changing the name of a popular poem would cause confusion, so Riley resigned himself to his heroine having the wrong name.

In about 1915 another Hoosier writer by the name of Johnny Gruelle came upon an old handmade rag doll which became the inspiration for a manufactured toy, plus a series of children’s stories. He needed a name for his doll character, so he picked up a volume of James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry and combined parts of two poem titles, The Raggedy Man and Little Orphant Annie, to create the name of Raggedy Ann.

in 1924 a cartoonist created a comic strip about an orphan girl. That orphan didn’t live with a farm family – she started out in an orphanage, and ended up having adventures in all parts of the world. For some reason the comic strip was titled Little Orphan Annie.

You may wonder what became of the real “orphant Allie” who went to live with the Riley family. in 1868 eighteen-year-old Mary Alice Smith married John Wesley Gray, and spent the next 54 years as a farmer’s wife. She lived in a cabin, and gave birth to four daughters.

For many years she was not aware that her story was told in Riley’s poem. How she found out depends on what story you read. One version has it that Riley’s secretary came to her home and told her. Another story is that Riley came to visit her, and invited her to take part in one of his speaking / poetry-reading tours. And one story has it that, shortly before Riley died in 1916, he placed newspaper ads seeking the whereabouts of the girl who had come to stay with his family. Mrs. March, one of Mary Alice Gray’s daughters, saw one of the ads and wrote to the poet, but due to his poor health Riley was unable to be reunited with Mrs. Gray.

However it was that Mary Alice Gray learned she had been the inspiration for Little Orphant Annie the knowledge pleased her, and she was proud of her connection with the former local boy who became famous. On October 7, 1922 she took part in laying the corner stone of the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

Mrs. Gray outlived three of her daughters, and when her husband died in 1922 she went to stay with her one remaining daughter, Mrs. Marsh. She passed away in her sleep on March 7, 1924, at the age of 73. Newspapers across the country reported that Little Orphant Annie had died. Six months after her death the comic strip Little Orphan Annie began its 86-year run. (The comic was created by Harold Gray, who was not related to Mary Alice Gray.)

If you would like to read the poem about an orphan girl who helps with kitchen chores and tells stories about goblins, you can download it free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45239

(There’s a poem about the poem before you get to Little Orphant Annie.)

The Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, when most people were poor and illiterate, a common form of entertainment was listening to storytellers share tales that had first been told countless generations earlier.

A few centuries ago interest in memorizing long-ago tales began to wane, so scholars decided to write them down before the last of the storytellers died. The most famous compilers of folk tales were the Brothers Grimm, who may not have planned on their story collection being children’s entertainment.

Jacob Grimm (1785 – 1863) and his brother Wilhelm (1786 – 1859) were born in – I hope I’ve got this right – the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, which was within the Kingdom of Germany, which was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. They were the eldest sons of the family’s six children who had not died in infancy.

Their father, Philipp Grimm, worked in the field of law, and the brothers’ early years were spent in a large country home. Education was a high priority, and they were taught by private tutors.

When Philipp Grimm died in 1796 the family had to move to a small house and get by on meager support from the mother’s extended family. A maternal aunt paid for Jacob and Wilhelm to attend the University of Marburg, but little assistance was provided beyond the cost of their tuition.

The young men were ostracized by fellow students due to their low social-status, but that helped them excel in their classes, for there were no outside distractions. They depended on each other for friendship and encouragement, and their close bond would last throughout their lives.

Jacob was the more scholarly and quiet brother, habitually working long hours without a break, and interested in most subjects that came to his attention. Wilhelm was outgoing and, though hard-working, was more easily distracted. He had few interests outside of his chosen fields of study. A childhood illness left him in poor health.

The brothers studied law, but became interested in history and literature. Throughout their adult lives they longed for a unified Germany. After the Holy Roman Empire ended in 1806 Germany consisted of dozens of states, each with a succession of rulers. The Brothers Grimm felt that the German national identity could be found in popular culture. Their interest in collecting and preserving folk tales was connected with their interest in unifying their country.

When Jacob first left school he – as the eldest son – was financially responsible for his impoverished family, so he took whatever work was available. He strove to keep his siblings from going hungry, and paid for his youngest brother to attend art school. Later on both Jacob and Wilhelm worked as librarians for many years. The pay was modest, but allowed them time to conduct their research.

Their first collection of folk tales was published in 1812. It’s not known who chose the dubious title of Children’s and Household Tales. The book drew criticism, for many families bought it to read to their children, though much of the content was not suitable for young ones.

For example, in the original version of Rapunzel the witch discovered the imprisoned damsel was being visited by a prince when Rapunzel’s expanding waistline showed that she was with child. One tale was about family members killing each other. There was no hero, and no happy ending.

The collection would go through seven editions, and with each one the stories were rewritten to make them more child-friendly. Some stories were eliminated. In those that remained babies weren’t born until nine months after the wedding, and evil mothers became evil step-mothers. The level of violence didn’t decrease, but painful deaths were usually reserved as punishment for the villains.

In 1825 40-year-old Wilhelm married Henriette Dorothea Wild, who had supplied the brothers with some of their folk tales. Jacob continued to live with Wilhelm and his family, which included three children who survived infancy.

The brothers wrote numerous books. Jacob did much of the work on the two-volume German Legends, which were based on stories of actual people and events. He also published 8th and 9th century German poems and songs, and translated folk tales from several European countries. (He could read about a dozen languages.)

Wilhelm took over most of the work on what would come to be known as Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and he edited such stories as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White into the written form that has come down to us through many generations.

The books provided academic recognition, but little extra income. For the most part they supported themselves and Wilhelm’s family on their salaries.

In about 1830 the brothers obtained employment at the University of Gottingen – Wilhelm as a professor, and Jacob as professor and head librarian. However, they lost their posts in 1837 after refusing to sign an oath of allegiance to King Ernest Augustus I, who was the ruler of the German state of Hanover.

During the time they were without employment the brothers moved to the German state of Hesse and began to work on what they hoped would be their masterpiece – a multi-volume German dictionary.

In 1840 the brothers obtained teaching posts at the University of Berlin, plus the Academy of Sciences offered them research stipends. With two steady sources of income Jacob and Wilhelm were able to live in middle-class comfort as they taught classes and published scholarly works. Wilhelm continued to rewrite Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The final revised edition was published in 1857.

After Wilhelm died in 1859, at the age of 73, Jacob became reclusive, spending his days working on his German dictionary. The elder brother died in 1863, at the age of 78, soon after writing the definition of the word “fruit.” Generations of scholars would continue to work on what would become a 32-volume dictionary, completed in 1960.

Since Grimms’ Fairy Tales did not become a best seller until after the brothers’ deaths it is unlikely that Jacob and Wilhelm imagined their project to preserve German culture would have such a lasting impact on the world. A billion copies of their rewritten traditional tales have been published in over 50 languages.

Stories that had been in danger of dying with the last oral storyteller have gone on to live happily ever after.

Gene Stratton-Porter a/k/a the Bird Lady

In past decades I would occasionally read the name Gene Stratton-Porter, and got the impression she’d written the type of old-fashioned novels that had gone out of style. When I decided to research her life I was surprised to learn she had plenty of “new-fashioned” ideas.

Geneva Grace Stratton was born August 17, 1863 on a farm in Indiana. She was the youngest of twelve children. As a child she developed an interest in nature, especially observing birds in their natural habitats.

When she was twelve years old her family moved to Wabash, Indiana, and when her mother died a few months later Geneva began boarding with various relatives until her marriage.

In 1885 Geneva became engaged to Charles Porter, who was thirteen years her elder. During their courtship she decided to shortened her first name, and when she married in 1886 she chose to keep her family name, so she became Gene Stratton-Porter. In 1887 she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Jeannette.

Charles Porter became a wealthy businessman, owning numerous farms, businesses and oil wells. He was often away on business trips, and Gene decided she wanted more out of life than to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. Plus, she wanted to earn her own income.

She loved exploring Limberlost Swamp, with its abundance of rare plants that provided both food and shelter for birds and moths. From 1888 to 1910 the 13,000 acre swamp was drained for use as farmland, and Gene began photographing the shrinking wetlands. She was especially interested in obtaining photos of birds, and would sometimes remain motionless for hours until she saw the perfect image to capture on film. She spent so much time in her photographic pursuits that she became known as the Bird Lady.

Gene began selling her photos to newspapers and magazines, and then began writing articles to go with the photos. She was able to earn money while educating the public on the importance of preserving wildlife habitats.

In time she began writing novels about people with an interest in nature, and when her fictional characters saw a moth, or a wildflower, or a bird of prey protecting its nest, she gave a full-blown naturalist’s description of what was seen. Modern readers might find Gene Stratton-Porter’s novels rather slow going, with frequent “nature talk” sections, but in the early 1900s her twelve novels sold by the millions.

Her most famous novels were set in the Limberlost Swamp. Freckles (1904) tells of a plucky orphan who’d had his right hand cut off soon after his birth. He finds work guarding two-thousand acres of leased timberland because the boss couldn’t provide a good answer to his question of: “But why wouldn’t that be the finest job in the world for me?”

A Girl of the Limberlost
(1909) tells of Elnora Comstock, who collects and sells rare moths to pay for her high school education. Her life was summed up in the first chapter: “Behind her lay the land on which she had been born to drudgery and a mother who made no pretense of loving her; before her lay the city through whose schools she hoped to find means of escape and the way to reach the things for which she cared.”

Both of the novels had a minor character called the Bird Lady, who was a wealthy nature photographer. Gee, Bird Lady was the nickname given to the wealthy nature photographer author …

Gene Stratton-Porter also published eight nature books which weren’t bestsellers, but earned her a reputation as a first-class naturalist. She became active in several conservation groups and fought to save wetlands, and protect animals in danger of becoming extinct.

By the late 1910s she had become so famous that uninvited fans would come to her Indiana home, which was called Cabin at Wildflower Woods. Some people would trespass onto her land. In 1919 Stratton-Porter moved to southern California – at least in part to regain some privacy. In 1920 her daughter and two grandchildren also moved to California. Mr. Porter remained in Indiana.

Movie producers began making films based on Stratton-Porter’s novels, but the author was unhappy that they strayed so far from her original story. In 1924 she became the first woman to create her own studio and production company. Unfortunately, Gene Stratton-Porter Productions made only two movies during her lifetime.

On December 6, 1924, at the age of 61, she was killed in an automobile accident, and buried at Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery. In 1999 her grandsons made arrangements to move the remains of their grandmother and mother for reburial on the grounds of the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site, near Rome City, Indiana. (Her husband, Charles Porter, who died in 1929, has always been buried in his hometown of Decatur, Indiana.)

Two of her Indiana homes are now open as house museums. The Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site contains her Cabin at Wildflower Woods, as well as about 150 acres of the former Limberlost Swamp, purchased by the state in several parcels. Much of the land is being restored to wetlands and prairie as a nature preserve. Perhaps Gene Stratton-Porter’s greatest legacy is that many people now share her belief that protecting nature’s flora and fauna has both environmental and economic benefits for the world at large.

If you’d like to read the Gene Stratton-Porter novels which have the Bird Lady as a character you can download (at no charge)
Freckles at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/111
and A Girl of the Limberlost at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/125

How Rudolph Came To Be

If you only know Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from the 1964 television special you don’t know what’s in the original children’s book. I’ll tell you the gist of that story, but not until you learn how the book came into being.

During the 1930s Montgomery Ward & Company was one of the country’s leading store chains, but what with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl many families had limited money to spend. To encourage Christmas shopping Wards gave away coloring books to those who came to their stores. In early 1939 the company decided to save money by creating and printing a small children’s book as their next Christmas promotional gift, and they asked 34-year-old Robert L. May to write an animal story in verse.

May was a copywriter who spent most of his workdays writing descriptions of products for Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogs, but he also wrote amusing rhymes that he shared with coworkers. He was a gentle man who liked helping others and, though his wife was dying of cancer, he agreed to write a Christmas story.

As a child May had been taunted for being a shy weakling, so he wanted to write about an outcast animal who triumphed in the end. He decided on a young reindeer who was teased and excluded from games because he had a big glowing red nose. He wrote and rewrote verses, which he read to his four-year-old daughter to see if she liked them.

It was slow going, because May had catalog deadlines to meet. When his wife died he was told the company could find someone else to write their giveaway book, but May said he wanted his book printed.

Summer came and he continued to work on his story about a lonely reindeer ridiculed because of his red nose. Rudolph tried to be a good reindeer, and always obeyed his parents, so he hoped Santa would bring him presents for Christmas. (Yes, Santa brings presents to all good animal children who happen to live in people-style houses, and sleep in people-style beds.)

Alas, it was such a foggy Christmas Eve that Santa had trouble guiding his sleigh, and he feared he wouldn’t finish his gift-giving rounds before morning. Then he stopped at a house and discovered a sleeping reindeer with a glowing nose. If he woke up that youngster and asked nicely, would the reindeer be willing to lead his sleigh through the fog? Spoiler alert – Rudolph helped out Santa.

May finished his story, showed it to his supervisors – and they rejected it. Drunkards were depicted as having big red noses, and Montgomery Ward did not want a book about a red-nosed reindeer. But May had worked through heartache to write his tale, and he believed children would like it. He had an artist make some drawings of a lovable young reindeer with a shiny red nose, and convinced those in charge to allow the book to be printed.

During the 1939 Christmas shopping season Montgomery Ward gave away more than two million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and nary a person associated that red nose with hard drinking. No books were distributed during World War II, but by 1946 six million copies had been given away, and Rudolph was becoming an important part of the American Christmas celebration.

May began receiving offers for licensing rights on his creation, but his story belonged to Montgomery Ward & Company, for it had been written as part of his work duties. May needed extra money, for he had remarried, his family was growing, but he faced a lifetime of making payments on his deceased wife’s medical bills. He asked for all rights to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and they were given to him.

I’ve read two versions on why May received the right to make money from his Rudolph character. One is that he was a good and loyal employer, and his supervisors wanted to help him out. The other is that company officials felt that after six million copies of a dinky little book had been given away there wasn’t much chance of anyone making a profit on the story. I prefer the first version.

May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song about Rudolph. It was recorded by Gene Autry, who sold two million copies in 1949. Commercial publishers reprinted the book, Christmas ornaments and toys were manufactured and, starting in the 1960s, Rudolph became a holiday television superstar.

Medical debts were paid off, and May saved enough money to send his children to college. In 1951 he quit his job and spent seven years managing his Rudolph franchise, then he returned to working at Montgomery Ward until his retirement in 1971. When he died in 1976 his family inherited all rights to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is still reaping profits.

Now you know the story behind the story of a young reindeer who overcame hardships – both his own and his creator’s – and won not only Santa’s praise, but the admiration of generations of children.

The Man Without a Country

The Man Without a Country was first published in the December 1863 issue of The Atlantic magazine. Edward Everett Hale wrote the story as if it were the recollections of a naval officer, and many thought they were reading the history of a real person.

The tale begins in 1863, when the storyteller / narrator was “waiting for a Lake-Superior steamer which did not choose to come, and I was devouring, to the very stubble, all the current literature I could get hold of, even down to the deaths and marriages in the Herald.” He read Philip Nolan’s death notice, and felt there could be no harm in telling his story.

Nolan had been a young officer in the Western division of the U.S. Army, at a time when the country had only 17 states – all in the Eastern portion of the continent. In about 1805 Nolan met, and began to hero-worship, Aaron Burr. In 1807 Burr, along with several army officers, were charged with treason. Nolan was brought to trial, and when the judge asked if he had anything to say in his defense he cried out that he wished he might never hear of the United States again.

He was given a life sentence as a prisoner aboard a series of naval ships, never to have shore leave at a U.S. port. All of his books and newspapers would be censored, with anything about the United States clipped out, and all sailors were forbidden to speak of home when Nolan was near. In all other ways he was to be treated with the respect granted to one who held his former military rank. He was always given a stateroom, and he wore an army dress uniform, but with plain buttons, since military buttons had a U.S. insignia on them.

Before the storytelling-officer met Nolan he’d heard of him from others. An officer named Phillips told of Nolan’s first voyage. Phillips had borrowed several newly published books from an English officer, and one day Nolan joined a group of men sitting on deck reading Walter Scott’s poetry. No one had ever read The Lay of the Last Minstrel, so it was thought there would be no harm in having Nolan read it aloud to them. All went well until he came to the lines:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

He read a few more lines, then swung the book into the sea, rushed to his stateroom, and no one saw him again for two months. (Poor Phillips “had to make up some beggarly story to the English surgeon why I did not return his Walter Scott to him.”)

Since Nolan could not be told anything regarding the United States he didn’t know about the War of 1812 until an English ship fired upon the ship he was on. When the officer of a gun crew was killed, and many of the crew injured, Nolan took control, instructing and encouraging the remaining crew, who were able to load and fire twice as fast as any other gun on the ship.

After that sea battle the captain was the first of many to write to the Secretary of War asking that Philip Nolan be pardoned. However, everyone in the government either insisted the Man Without a Country didn’t exist, or else they wanted to pretend he didn’t.

The storyteller was on his first voyage as a midshipman when he met Nolan. It was soon after the Slave-Trade treaty, and some chose to ignore the new prohibition on importing new slaves from Africa. They came upon a schooner with slaves on board, and the officer who took charge of the schooner asked for someone who could interpret Portuguese, for none of the Africans spoke English, but a couple had worked for people from Portugal. Nolan said he knew the language, and he, the captain and the storyteller boarded the slave vessel.

When Nolan told the Africans they were free there were shouts of delight, but when he interpreted the captain’s plan to take them to Cape Palmas the men expressed despair. Readers learn: “The drops stood on poor Nolan’s white forehead, as he hushed the men down, and said, – “He says, ‘Not Palmas.’ He says, ‘Take us home…’ ” for the captured men would have no way of traveling across the continent of Africa to return to their own families.

The captain agreed to return the men to their homes, and when Nolan was in the boat that would return him to the ship he told the storyteller to never do anything that would permanently bar him from his family, home, and country.

After that the two men became friends. Nolan would stay awake to walk the deck with his friend when the storyteller had night watch, and Nolan lent him books and helped him with his studies. Readers are told “later in life, when I thought I had some influence in Washington, I moved heaven and earth to have him discharged. But it was like getting a ghost out of prison…”

For nearly six decades Philip Nolan lived as a repentant exile at sea, then the storyteller came upon his death notice in the newspaper. Later on he received a long letter from a fellow naval officer named Danforth, who had sat by Nolan’s bedside as the man was dying. As the officer was leaving the room to allow Nolan to rest he was told “Look in my Bible, Danforth when I am gone.”

Inside of the man’s Bible was a slip of paper. Nolan wanted to be buried at sea, but asked that a stone be set up at one of the places where he’d served while in the army. The stone was to read:

“In Memory of
PHILIP NOLAN.
Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.
He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.”

Now that you know the gist of the plot, plus the ending, you may think you don’t need to read Edward Everett Hale’s short story. Mark Twain once stated that “a classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” and I’ve trudged my way through several so-called classics that no one in his or her right mind would want to read. But if you love a good story, and don’t hate history, I recommend you read this classic.

It was written during the Civil War as a patriotic tale, but it is much more than that. I consider it to be a story of friendship and honor. Philip Nolan is convicted of a crime, receives a harsh punishment, accepts his sentence without complaint, and attempts to never be a burden to those with the awkward obligation of being his “jailers.” While reading the story I grew to care for Philip Nolan and those who befriended him, and a reread didn’t lessen the story’s impact.

If you’d like to read The Man Without a Country go to:
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1863/12/the-man-without-a-country/308751/

Edward Stratemeyer and His Syndicate

When Edward Stratemeyer was a boy he wanted to make his living writing stories for children, and that’s just what he did. He not only became one of the world’s most prolific writers, but he changed the landscape of the publishing world.

Stratemeyer, born in New Jersey in 1862, grew up reading “rags to riches” novels by Horatio Alger. He began writing his own stories, and even self-published his work using a small printing press he set up in the basement of his father’s tobacco shop. Stratemeyer’s father didn’t approve of his literary ambitions so Edward also worked for his father, but wrote whenever he wasn’t waiting on customers.

In 1888, when he was 26, he sold his first story for $75, which at the time was more than an average month’s wage. In 1893 he went to work for Street & Smith, a publisher of magazines and cheap novels. A few years later he was asked to finish a novel Horatio Alger was too ill to complete. Stratemeyer would write several novels published under Horatio Alger’s name.

He was both a writer and a businessman. Most novelists wrote in longhand until at least the early 1900s, but in 1891 Stratemeyer taught himself to use a typewriter. And he came up with new publishing ideas.

During the 1890s major book publishers printed illustrated hardback novels that sold for $1.25, a price too steep for most families to purchase except as Christmas presents. Low-end publishers, such as Street & Smith, printed paperbacks known as dime or pulp novels, which used cheap wood-pulp paper that yellowed and became brittle with age. There were also mid-priced hardback books, but they were closer in quality to pulp novels than to the offerings of major publishers.

Edward Stratemeyer wanted to create a line of 50 cent hardback novels that rivaled the appearance of $1.25 books. His plan was to create numerous children’s book series that were affordable enough for families to buy volumes throughout the year. Plus, the books’ attractive appearance would make them popular gift choices. Profits would be made from a high volume of sales.

Two publishing firms, including Grosset & Dunlap, agreed to print the numerous book series he created, and he began pounding out novels. Bound to Win, Working Upwards, Minute Boys, and Dave Porter were some of the series that were written entirely by Stratemeyer – either under his own name or under pseudonyms.

But he kept thinking up new book series. Books that would appeal to beginner readers, books about an inventor, and about young folks that rode around in motor cars, and about adolescent girls who did more than attend school and help with household chores. Too many books for even a fast typer to write all on his own. And so the Stratemeyer Syndicate came into being.

Edward Stratemeyer would create a new series, name the characters, then assign them vague physical descriptions and a fictional hometown in an unnamed state. He came up with an author’s pseudonym, decided on the length of the books, and typed out a five to six page synopsis of each adventure. Writers were hired to produce publishable manuscripts for a set fee, and each signed a contract agreeing not to reveal that he or she wrote for the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

In a 1976 American Heritage article Arthur Prager proposed this scenario: “Imagine a starving ex-police reporter, suffering from the grandfather of all hangovers, staggering to his typewriter to begin an episode of Honey Bunch, Her First Day of School.” I can only hope that nothing that incongruous took place, but not all of the Syndicate writers were fans of the series they worked on. For some their sole reason for taking on assignments was to pay bills.

Stratemeyer read over each submitted manuscript, made minor edits on acceptable ones, and sent some back for partial rewrites. Writers whose first attempts didn’t come close to Stratemeyer’s standards were unlikely to be assigned another novel to complete.

Decades after his death stories were told about Edward Stratemeyer being a cruel taskmaster who paid miniscule wages. Since I never worked for the Syndicate I’m no expert on him as an employer, but it is known that many writers created dozens of manuscripts for Stratemeyer, so working conditions must not have been too dire.

His writers didn’t sit around pondering the exact phrase to describe a particular scene, they produced an acceptable novel in about four weeks, and in the early 1900s a payment of $75 would have been a good wage for a month of work. In later decades the price to write a Stratemeyer Syndicate manuscript was always based on the assumption that the work wouldn’t take up much of the writer’s time.

From the 1890s up to his death in 1930 Edward Stratemeyer created over 60 children’s book series. Some of his most popular were Rover Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Motor Boys, Tom Swift, Ruth Fielding, Honey Bunch, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. Two of the last series he created achieved the Grand Slam in popularity – Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

In his early series some plots centered around actual events – such as World War I – that established the stories as taking place in a specific time period, and with each book the characters grew older until they “aged out” of their role as a hero or heroine of children’s books.

In later series the characters lived in what I’ll call a Book Series Time Bubble, where current events were never mentioned and characters had decades of adventures without growing a day older. That way individual titles could stay in print long enough for a second generation of readers to buy the book and imagine that the plot was unfolding in the present time period.

After Edward Stratemeyer’s death his two daughters took over the Syndicate. Daughter Edna oversaw business matters until she married, but Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was in charge of her father’s legacy for 52 years – from 1930 until her death in 1982.

During the 1930s the financial depression cut into book sales just as other publishing companies started printing competing book series about young people solving mysteries. Many of the older Stratemeyer series went out of print, and fees to writers were reduced.

During daughter Harriet’s management of the Syndicate a few new series were introduced, and three of them had more than 30 titles published. Dana Girls began in 1934, and during the 1950s Happy Hollisters and Tom Swift, Jr. became popular.

In the 1950s three of the Syndicate’s perennial favorites – Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew – received rewrite makeovers. The books were shortened, and outdated belongings and attitudes were changed. Plus the character of Nancy Drew aged from 16 to 18 to make her independent lifestyle more plausible.

For many years Grosset & Dunlap had published all of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books, but in 1979 Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had a falling out with them. The publisher had insisted on the earlier rewrites, and their ideas on how the Syndicate should be run often differed from Harriet’s vision. She switched publishers and began working with Simon & Schuster. But Grosset & Dunlap sued over “breach of contract, copyright infringement, and unfair competition.”

The Stratemeyer Syndicate’s secretive world of author pseudonyms and ghost writers was dragged into court over who really owned what. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had been claiming she’d written all Nancy Drew books, but hired writers testified under oath, and brought documents proving Harriet’s claims were false.

When the dust settled the court decided that Grosset & Dunlap had the right to continue publishing all books in print up through 1979, but they could not update them, or publish any new books using characters created by the Syndicate. And a different publisher would be free to bring out new book titles.

When Harriet Stratemeyer Adams died in 1982 her heirs sold the Syndicate to Simon & Schuster, who began publishing new versions of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew adventures. In one of the series-within-a-series Joe and Frank Hardy worked for a government agency and carried guns. In The Nancy Drew Files romance was added to the plots, and the series Nancy Drew on Campus had the heroine attending college.

Grosset & Dunlap continued to publish pre-1980 books, and many consider these to be the only “real” Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. The company has been purchased by Penguin Random House, and Penguin Books still publish a selection of the older volumes in both print and audio versions. (They are also keeping a few of the Bobbsey Twins books in print.)

The Stratemeyer Syndicate, with dozens of book series, is no more, and the never-ending new versions of the last of Edward Stratemeyer’s creations may seem far removed from what he had envisioned. But Mr. Stratemeyer had come up with the idea of publishing attractive low-cost books that would appeal to young people – and he wanted to make money. Books featuring makeovers of Frank Hardy, Joe Hardy, and Nancy Drew continue to entertain and earn profits, and I suspect that would meet with Edward Stratemeyer’s approval.

That Little Girl of Miss Eliza’s

Thirty-year-old spinster Eliza Wells lived in a farming community that produced the area’s “best of crop of stones and stumps.” She was no farmer, for she owned just a couple acres of land, and spent much of her time tending to her flower gardens. Eliza was financially “well fixed” for she had family money great enough to provide her with fifteen dollars of interest each month.

Every three months Eliza hitched her usually-plodding horse, Old Prince, to her carriage and drove to the Bend to get her interest money and do some shopping. She would wear a black silk dress, for when you were as old as thirty it wasn’t considered proper to go out in public wearing attractive colors.

One day during a trip to town Eliza saw a woman and a small child resting by the side of the road and she offered to give them a ride. The woman barely spoke English, but she and the little girl got into Eliza’s carriage just as a train whistle frightened Old Prince and sent him racing down the road. One of the reins broke, the carriage overturned, Eliza was injured, and the woman was killed.

News of the accident traveled fast, and the closest newspaper sent an incompetent reporter to get a scoop for the next day’s paper. No one knew anything about the deceased woman, so the reporter took a guess on her ethnic origin. And since he forgot to find out the sex of the child he made another guess, and wrote about a German woman killed in an accident, and her young son being cared for by strangers.

His account was “so far removed from the truth, that people hundreds of miles away read in eager hope, only to lay the paper aside, disappointed that this was not she for whom they were searching.”

Eliza paid the woman’s burial expenses and declared she’d care for the little girl until her family can be found. It didn’t take long before she hoped no one came for the girl she called Beth.

Young Beth liked pretty things, and thought Eliza’s black silk dress was ugly, so Eliza began wearing nothing but inexpensive print dresses, which were more becoming. Beth insisted upon bedtime stories, and Eliza took to making up her own to tell. The stories pleased both Beth and Eliza, who delighted in learning she could be creative.

When Beth grew older Eliza refused to send her to the crowded local one-room school. She taught her at home for a few years, and then scrimped on her own needs to pay tuition to send Beth to a better school a few miles away.

The school had literary groups, and the students put on programs, which were sometimes attended by rich folks who stayed at a nearby resort hotel. One of the attendees was a beautiful wealthy lady who often appeared to be sad, as if she had once suffered a great loss. The beautiful lady took a special interest in Beth, who had a striking family resemblance ….

I don’t recall what book I was looking for when I went to Project Gutenberg, came upon the title That Little Girl of Miss Eliza’s and decided it sounded old fashioned enough to be of interest. I’d never heard of author Jean E. Baird, and could find no information on her other than that she lived from 1872 to 1918, and had at least thirteen novels published.

The novel is not great literature, but it kept my interest. Ms. Baird created colorful characters, and many of Eliza Wells’ neighbors had their lack of ambition pointed out in humorous ways. The lady who stayed to “help out” while Eliza was recovering from the carriage accident went about picking up bits of lint, or straightening a misplaced book, without doing any useful work. She was said to be “getting barrels of credit for a tin cup of effort.”

Alas, parts of the book defied logic. Eliza Wells owned two acres of land – much of it “wasted” on flower gardens – and yet she raised all her own vegetables, and had chickens and a milk cow. I’ve never been the owner of a cow, but I’m guessing one requires either lots of purchased grain and hay, or more pasture land than Miss Wells could provide.

And then there’s that charming tramp who spends a winter in a nearby abandoned house. He’s well educated, has plenty of money to pay Eliza for milk and vegetables, but when he lends books and magazine articles written by a famous world traveler who happens to have the same name as the mysterious tramp intelligent Eliza can only deduct that the shared name is a strange coincidence.

Despite its faults I like That Little Girl of Miss Eliza’s, even with a spelled-out moral tacked onto the end: “So wonderful good came from suffering, because those who suffered were strong, and fulfilled their duty nobly.”
There are plenty of likable characters that kept me wondering what would happen next. And there’s a satisfying happy ending.

If you’d like to read about Eliza, Beth, a mysterious tramp, and lots of other colorful characters the novel can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35822/35822-h/35822-h.html

The Little Lame Prince and His Traveling Cloak

At the beginning of the story the reader is told how beautiful and healthy the newborn prince of Nomansland was, but having read the title I knew trouble was on the way, and within a few pages disaster struck. On the day of Prince Dolor’s christening the nurse in charge of carrying the baby to and from the chapel held the child in one arm while using her other one to arrange her gown’s long train, and she accidently dropped the prince at the foot of the marble staircase. The prince didn’t make much of a fuss, so those nearby thought little of the accident until the appearance of an old woman dressed all in gray.

The mysterious lady in gray told the nurse to take care and not drop the baby again, and then she stated she was the prince’s godmother, ready to help him whenever he wants her.

Alas, the prince’s spine and legs had been injured and he could never walk, though he learned to get around by crawling and swinging himself about with his arms. He was a sweet-natured child and always seemed happy.

The queen died the day of the ill-fated christening, and the king died a few years later, leaving his son as king, though the deceased king’s brother ruled as Prince Regent. Few bothered calling the crippled boy by his title of king, so he was still commonly referred to as a prince.

Soon after becoming the country’s ruler the Prince Regent informed his country that the young king was ill and needed to be taken to the Beautiful Mountains for his health. Then the citizens of Nomansland were told the king had died during his journey, but that was not the truth.

On the other side of the Beautiful Mountains was a barren tract of land where no one lived. And in the middle of that land was the type of building occasionally found in fairy tales – a tower one hundred feet tall, with no doors or windows except at the very top. Eighty feet up in the air were a parlor, a kitchen, and two bedrooms, all furnished to make a comfortable home.

To this tower a deaf-mute man brought Prince Dolor and his new nurse. The nurse was a criminal condemned to death who had had her sentence changed to living in the tower as long as the prince lived. If the boy died she would die as well.

Hanging from the tower parapet was a huge chain that reached halfway to the ground. The deaf-mute had a type of folding ladder that he attached to the chain, and was able to bring up the woman and child to the home they were to share for the rest of their lives. Then he took the ladder away with him, returning once a month with provisions for the pair.

As years went by the prince was taught to read, and all he knew about the world came from books The nurse addressed him as Prince Dolor, but he didn’t know just what a prince was, and the nurse was forbidden to tell him about the country he was to have ruled.

The prince saw no one except the nurse and the silent man who came once a month. That is until the day when he became melancholy from reading of the world he could never see. When he wished for someone who would care about him his godmother appeared, and said she hadn’t been able to come until he asked for something.

His godmother gave him the gift of a traveling cloak, which appeared to be just a shabby piece of cloth that shrunk into a tiny bundle when not in use. He was taught to spread it out and see it turn into a sturdy flying vessel, then say magic words, open the skylight window and fly to where he wanted to go.

At first he delighted to ride on his traveling cloak and see the wonders of nature, but one day he saw a shepherd boy running about the fields with his dog, and the little lame prince understood for the first time that he could never be like other boys. If he lived out in the world he would see boys walking and running, and that would distress him.

Prince Dolor returned to the tower and put away his cloak, which turned into a tiny bundle. He decided to go back to only knowing the world through books. But boys in books grew into men, and princes became kings, and adults had work to do.

One day he asked his nurse if he would ever be a king. The nurse had been warned on pain of death to never tell Prince Dolor about himself, and even though there was no one around for miles she was frightened. But she took the boy’s school slate and wrote out a few sentences telling the story of how he became an exiled king.

Now Dolor had something new to think about. He got out his neglected traveling cloak, said the magic words, opened the skylight, and asked to be taken to the things that he needed to see, and not what he wanted to see.

He flew above Nomansland and witnessed anger and violence, for his uncle had not been a wise and just ruler. Then he returned to the tower and found that his nurse was gone. And then – well at the end of the story Nomansland obtains a good and noble king.

The Little Lame Prince and His Traveling Cloak was written in 1875 by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, a/k/a Miss Mulock, a prolific British writer of poems, stories, and books. It was written in what I will call the “writer as wise companion” style, for at times the author pauses in telling the story to make comments to her readers. Chapter five begins with:

“If any reader, big or little, should wonder whether there is a meaning in this story, deeper than that of an ordinary fairy tale, I will own that there is. But I have hidden it so carefully that the smaller people, and many larger folk, will never find it out …..”

I prefer to have writers tell the story and let readers be the ones to decide if they can take away lessons on the importance of bravery or perseverance or being nice to a grumpy nurse sentenced to life in a tower with a little lame prince.

Though this is not a perfect book I enjoyed it. Prince Dolor is a likable character and that’s a high priority for me. I have no interest in reading about cads becoming successful cads. The prince-who’s-really-a-king has a godmother with wonderful powers, but she isn’t able to perform physical healings. In the end he is able to move about on crutches (and via a traveling cloak when no one’s watching) so he focuses on his abilities, and not on the limitations caused by his lifeless legs.

I don’t know if that is the deeper meaning Miss Mulock hid within her story, but that’s my takeaway lesson.

If you would like to read this short novel it can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/45975/45975-h/45975-h.htm