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.

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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

Sara Crewe

Frances Hodgson Burnett believed in recycling. In 1887 her story, Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s, began to be serialized in St. Nicholas Magazine, and it was later published as a novella. In 1902 she expanded the story, added new characters and subplots, and turned it into a successful play called A Little Un-fairy Princess. Then in 1905 Mrs. Burnett reworked her play into a novel entitled A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Being Told for the First Time. I won’t try to count up the number of movies that have been based on the novel, which is better known by the shortened name of A Little Princess.

I first read Sara Crewe as a child, and later rediscovered it in one of my St. Nicholas anthologies. A few years ago I read A Little Princess but, since I loved the original shorter version, I thought the new characters and scenes just cluttered up the story. This post will be about the novella.

The story’s heroine, Sara Crewe, had been born in India, and her mother died when she was a baby. When Sara was eight years old her papa realized the hot climate was making her delicate, so he brought her to England, left her at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary For Young Ladies, and then he returned to India.

For three years Sara was a show pupil, with dresses made from silk and velvet, and Miss Minchin treated her as a favorite student. But then word came that all of Captain Crewe’s money had been lost when a friend had made poor investments, and soon after that Sara’s papa died of jungle fever.

This was bad news for Miss Minchin, who not only lost the money Captain Crewe was paying her, but was stuck with a poor orphan. Young grieving Sara was informed she would be put to work, and in a few years she would begin teaching French to the younger students.

Sara was moved out of her pretty bedroom and up to an unheated attic room filled with cast-off furniture. And she became the household drudge – ordered out on errands in all types of weather, fed on scraps of leftover food, and sent into the deserted schoolroom at night to learn her lessons without being taught.

She had a vivid imagination and loved to pretend. When Miss Minchin insulted her Sara would pretend she was a princess in rags, and she’d stand with a proud bearing, imagining she had more power than the stupid person before her.

When she was out running errands Sara would pass houses and imagine what the neighbors were like. There was the Maiden Lady, the Large Family (so named because there were so many children), but most interesting of all was the Indian Gentleman, who was said to have lived in India, was rich, but in poor health. The Indian Gentleman had an native servant Sara named the Lascar.

She remembered a little Hindustani, and once when the Lascar was standing by his master’s carriage she spoke to him in his native language, which delighted the servant. After that Sara spoke to the Lascar whenever he was outside, and he “greeted her with salaams of the most profound description.”

When Sara was cold and hungry she would “suppose” there was a fire in her rusty attic fireplace grate, a table filled with good hot food, and warm blankets on her bed. Sometimes she supposed so much that she seemed to get confused about what was real and what was supposing.

Once Sara was sent out on a miserable rainy day. Her ragged, outgrown clothes were soaked, and she’d gone without dinner, so she was supposing she would be passing a baker’s shop, find a sixpence coin, and go inside and buy six hot buns. She then looked down at the pavement, saw a four-penny piece, and looked up to see she really was right in front of a baker’s shop.

Just as Sara was about to go inside she saw a dirty urchin dressed in rags, with bare muddy feet, and when Sara asked her when she’d last eaten the girl couldn’t remember how many days ago it had been. Since Sara was so used to supposing she wondered what a princess would do if she came upon a starving beggar.

She stepped into the shop and the friendly baker-lady took pity on poor draggled Sara and gave her six hot buns, even though she only had money to buy four. Then she went outside and gave five of her hot buns to the starving girl, keeping only one to eat herself.

Sara returned to Miss Minchin’s where she was scolded for taking so long to complete her errands. It was past meal time, and she was given only stale bread and water. She trudged up three flights of stairs with her meager food, knowing she was too tired to pretend anything pleasant.

She opened her attic room door and thought she’d lost her senses. There was a glowing fire in the grate, a kettle of boiling water on the hod, a table filled with covered dishes, new blankets on the bed, and a warm robe to wear. For a moment Sara was afraid to move, in case this new type of supposing would disappear. Then she realized the fire, the food, and the warm robe were real, and she had the most wonderful evening.

After that she found warm food and pretty treasures in her room each evening. But how could that be, when she was a poor orphan, with no one to care about her?

I love the story of Sara Crewe, which takes up less than thirty pages in my St. Nicholas anthology, and can be easily read in one evening. If you’d like to read the adventures of imaginative Sara, the neighbors, the beggar girl, and the baker, you can download the novella free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/137

The Little Corporal

To the best of my knowledge The Little Corporal was the only children’s magazine founded as a result of the U. S. Army being unprepared to care for wounded soldiers.

When the Civil War began in 1861 the Army Medical Department had only 30 surgeons (plus assistant surgeons), no Ambulance Corps, and they were assigning nursing tasks to sick and wounded soldiers.

Civilian-run Sanitary Commissions were started to help alleviate the military medical crisis, and those commissions relied on private donations.

In 1865, a month after the war had ended, a Chicago printer named Alfred L. Sewell decided to raise money for convalescing soldiers by organizing children as the Army of the American Eagle. He had the youths sell pictures of Old Abe, the bald eagle mascot of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. A child who sold one picture gained the rank of corporal, and higher sales meant a higher rank.

After his “army” raised $16,000 Sewell felt the children should have their own publication, with the motto of: Fighting Against Wrong, and for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Sewell wrote in the magazine’s first issue: ” ‘Oh that I had some medium through which I might talk to my gallant children’s army.’ Then the good thought spoke to me…, and said, ‘Here is the ‘Little Corporal,’ send him as your aid-de-camp. Tell him what to say and let him take besides a bundle of good things to refresh and amuse your little soldiers by the way.’ ”

Readers were known as soldiers, and when their subscription expired they were asked to reenlist for another campaign. The magazine cover always had a picture of a boy wearing an army uniform, and fictional Private Queer was in charge of the puzzle pages.

In the magazine’s early years there were articles with a connection to the Civil War – stories of Old Abe, the eagle mascot, and of the other famous Abe, President Lincoln. But most of the content appears to have consisted of instructive prose.

I’ve never read an entire issue of The Little Corporal, just a few articles posted online, such as How To Go To School (“He must go clean and neat …”) and What Does Johnny Read? (“It is a direful day for you if you have neglected to direct and cultivate his taste until he has come to be a mere devourer of the stories of wild, improbable adventures and exciting fiction, which is poured out like a flood for the destruction of our boys…”)

The magazine doesn’t strike me as being an entertaining read, and some of the articles appear to have been aimed at parents, but during the late 1860s the periodical had a circulation of 89,000 copies, and was one of the country’s leading children’s magazines.

In 1869 The Little Corporal bought out The Little Pilgrim, a magazine that had been published in Philadelphia since 1853. The editor had this to say about the merger: “The Little Pilgrim has enlisted in The Little Corporal’s army, and becomes an Aid. Private Queer resigns the position he has so honorably filled, and in the July number The Little Pilgrim will take his place and therefore bear the knapsack.” For the next couple of years the puzzle page (formerly credited to Private Queer) was named The Little Pilgrim’s Knapsack.

In 1871 the Chicago Fire destroyed Alfred L. Sewell’s publishing business, and after that Sewell gave his magazine to the editor, Emily Huntington Miller. She downplayed the military angle, and printed more family-life stories. Subscription numbers dwindled, and in 1875 The Little Corporal went the way of many other children’s periodicals of the time period – it merged with St. Nicholas Magazine. Here are the editor’s final words to her readers:

“After ten years of faithful service, the ‘Corporal’ has been put upon the retired list. We have had a long, brave march together, and it is hard parting company. You will miss your leader, and we shall miss the words of courage and devotion that came from the gallant army, East and West, North and South. But remember, you are none of you mustered out of service. Your new leader, St. Nicholas, enrolls his soldiers by the same pledge under which you first enrolled – ‘For the Good, the True, and the Beautiful’ – and the ‘Corporal’ feels safe and satisfied in leaving you to his guidance.”

I don’t plan on seeking out back issues of The Little Corporal but I’m glad that evidence of its existence is available. I hope readers of 150 years ago looked forward to monthly “visits” from the Little Corporal, Private Queer, and his later sidekick the Little Pilgrim. Getting reading material send to you through the mail must have been an important event in the 1860s and 70s, and I commend Alfred L. Sewell for creating the Army of the American Eagle and its very own publication.

Heidi

I’ve watched at least two Heidi movies so wasn’t sure if the novel would hold my interest since I already knew what was going to happen. The good news it that the book was an enjoyable read, and I didn’t always know what would come next, for the movie versions don’t tell the entire story.

In 1881 Swiss author Johanna Spyri’s most famous story was published in the German language as two novels. Later translated versions combined the two parts into one book.

The reader first meets Heidi when she is five years old, and being taken up a Swiss mountain by her Aunt Dete. Both of Heidi’s parents had died when she was a baby, and she’d been raised by her maternal grandmother and aunt. After the recent death of the grandmother Dete had been offered a job as a servant in Frankfurt, Germany. Dete was not one to let other people’s wants or needs stand in her way, so she was taking Heidi to live with the child’s gruff and reclusive paternal grandfather.

At first the grandfather, known locally as Alm-Uncle, wasn’t pleased with the sudden need to be responsible for his granddaughter, but he was impressed by Heidi’s curiosity and eagerness to learn about all that was new to her. By the end of the first day he had accepted his new charge, and took pains to assure the girl’s comfort and safety.

Heidi was delighted with her new life. Her grandmother had been nearly deaf and always chilled, so the child had been obliged to stay inside next to the heating stove, though she’d longed to be out of doors. The sights and sounds of nature filled the child with unimagined joy, and the author is able to convey Heidi’s wonder at the beauty around her.

Each day Grandfather’s two goats were put in charge of Peter, who took all of the local goats to graze. Heidi was sent out to help Peter, and the two children became friends, though I suspect that was because they were the only two young people living on the mountain.

Peter lived with his widowed mother and blind grandmother in a rundown cottage. He had no interest in trying to repair his home and, though sent to the village school each winter, he’d decided early on he was incapable of learning, and put no effort into proving himself wrong. Sigh Peter the goatherd turns out to be a dud of a best friend.

Fortunately Heidi became a true friend to all she met on her beautiful Swiss mountain. She visits Peter’s grandmother, and volunteers her grandfather to perform needed house repairs. Gruff Alm-Uncle had no interest in being neighborly, but he dutifully repaired Peter’s home, though he refused to go inside and accept thanks. (Readers are told gossip about the grandfather’s distain for most people, but his past remains a mystery.)

For three years Heidi loves her life with her grandfather, his goats, and mountain home. For a time the only trouble is that Alm-Uncle refuses to send her to school, which concerns the village officials.

The real trouble begins when Aunt Dete makes another appearance. Through her job in Frankfort she learns of a wealthy businessman named Herr Sesemann who was in search of a companion for his crippled and motherless daughter. An older and refined city girl was wanted but, as I stated earlier, Dete is not interested in what is best for others if she gets an idea in her head.

She tells Alm-Uncle she wants to take Heidi away, and if he goes to court over the matter his past misdeeds would be brought to light. The grandfather storms out of his house in a rage.

At first Heidi refuses to go with Dete, but her aunt gives the impression that Frankfurt is just a short distance away, and that Heidi can come home if she decides she doesn’t want to stay with the wealthy family. The eight-year-old child leaves her home, not knowing she is going to a large city in a foreign country.

Since Herr Sesemann was away on business Dete presents Heidi to the housekeeper, Fraulein Rottenmeier, who apparently thought her mission in life was to be rude to everyone who wasn’t her employer. The housekeeper takes an immediate dislike to Heidi, especially after Dete basically abandons the child to the care of hostile strangers.

Though Clara Sesemann is pleased with Heidi as her new companion, she is the only one happy about the new arrangement. Heidi feels like a prisoner in Frankfurt, and longs for a glimpse of grass or trees amongst houses surrounded by stone streets. She can’t go home, and must obey endless rules that make no sense to her.

Fraulein Rottenmeier is constantly shocked by Heidi’s outrageous behavior (horrors – she talks to a servant as if he were a friend) and sets out to bend the miserably unhappy girl to her will.

It takes Herr Sesemann being summoned home with tales of his house being haunted by a ghost, plus a consultation with the family doctor, for wiser heads to decide Heidi can’t survive in the city, and must be returned to her beloved Swiss mountain.

Her joyous homecoming is the end of the first part of the story, but there are more adventures in store for Heidi.

Back in Frankfurt two people are suffering. Clara’s health declines rapidly, and the family doctor experiences a tragedy that he seems unable to overcome. In both cases a visit with Heidi, plus good mountain air, may be the only way to bring about a cure.

Even after those good people are on the road to recovery there is the pesky problem of Heidi’s grandfather, Alm-Uncle, saying it is too dangerous for Heidi to travel up and down the mountain in order to attend school during the winter months.

One solution would be for Heidi and her grandfather to live in the village during the winter, but Alm-Uncle hates to be around people, and the villagers have no warm-and-fuzzy feelings towards Alm-Uncle…

Heidi is a book that kept me up way too late, for I wanted to read just one more chapter. There were a couple places where I found the story a bit too talky, but most of the time I enjoyed my visit with spunky Heidi.

If you’d like to read this novel it can be downloaded free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1448/pg1448.html

 

Poor and Proud — An Oliver Optic Story

More than a decade before Horatio Alger’s first rags-to-riches book was published America’s youth were reading Oliver Optic’s novels about plucky youngsters who overcome adversity through hard work, perseverance, and some coincidental encounters with wealthy adults.

Most of Mr. Optic’s books were geared towards boys, but on occasion a girl was the heroic main character. One such book was: Poor and Proud or The Fortunes of Katy Redburn – A Story For Young Folks.

But before I tell about Katy, let me introduce you to Oliver Optic. His real name was William Taylor Adams, a Massachusetts man who lived from 1822 to 1897. He taught school for about 20 years, helped run a hotel for a time, and was a state representative for a year. No matter what other occupations Adams worked at he found time to write.

During a 45 year writing career William Taylor Adams a/k/a Oliver Optic wrote more than 125 novels and about 1,000 short stories. From 1867 to 1875 he edited and provided most of the contents for Oliver Optic’s Magazine, a weekly periodical. He produced millions of words by dipping a pen into ink and writing everything out in longhand.

Oliver Optic stories were written quickly and lacked polished prose, but Poor and Proud, first published in 1858, kept my interest, though at times it was a bit too heavy on the melodrama.

The story begins with eleven-year-old Katy Redburn asking her friend Tommy Howard for one of the fish he’d just caught, for her widowed mother was too sick to work, and they had no food or money.

Alas, when Katy got home the cruel rent-collector, Dr. Flynch, was there stating that Katy and her mother would be evicted the next day if the rent was not paid in full.

After Dr. Flynch leaves the house Mrs. Redburn tells some family history. She had been born in England, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, but had been shunned by her family after marrying a man her father disapproved of. She and her husband immigrated to America, but Mr. Redburn became a common sot.

Yep, that’s the word Oliver Optic used. Katy’s father took to drinking liquor, became a sot, and died. Before her illness Mrs. Redburn had supported herself and her daughter by sewing, which had been hard for her since she’d grown up living in luxury and ease. Readers are told she would have had an easier time accepting her monetary woes if she’d been raised in a hovel.

The next day, after a convoluted failed attempt to pawn the family’s one remaining valuable (Mr. Redburn’s silver watch) Katy went to see Mrs. Gordon, their wealthy landlady, and asked for more time to pay the rent because her mother was bedridden. Mrs. Gordon wrote out a receipt for a month’s rent, and her daughter gave Katy a dollar, but Katy said she would only take the money as a loan.

Katy decided to use the dollar to start a business making and selling molasses candy, but Mrs. Redburn pitched about half-a-dozen fits over the idea. She thought borrowing money was the same thing as begging, and she was sure her daughter would somehow be corrupted by selling candy out on the street.

After reminding her mother of what their minister had to say about false pride Katy was given permission to try her candy business experiment. After a rough first hour of selling Katy became a success story. Within a few weeks she was earning a good middle-class income.

She paid back the Gordons and was able to buy some luxuries for her mother, who slowly regained her health. Eleven-year-old Katy became an employer, and hired other girls to sell candy.

But then the troubles began, and Katy and her mother were in dire straits once more. Fortunately, whenever a young person worked hard and persevered in the face of adversity along came a set of improbable – but not entirely impossible – coincidences that saved the day.

Poor and Proud is not great literature, but as I read it I wanted to know what happened next. Plus it caused me to ponder the challenges of the time period. This book was published before the U.S. Civil War, when girls and women had limited rights and opportunities, though many worked to support their families.

If you’d like to read Poor and Proud it can be downloaded free of charge at:

www.gutenberg.org/files/484/484-h/484-h.htm

Dandelion Cottage

After obtaining Carroll Watson Rankin’s 1904 novel I planned on being sensible by enjoying a couple of chapters a day, but ended up staying up way too late reading the book in one fell swoop.

Dandelion Cottage is directly behind the big stone church. For years it was the minister’s home, and the church had always made sure they chose a clergyman with a small family – until they forgot to ask Dr. Tucker about his children and he arrived with a wife, one daughter and seven sons.

The church wardens had to rush around and build a big new rectory for the Tucker family, but no effort was put into renting out Dandelion Cottage, which was good news for potential renters. The former ministers had complained about the need to use umbrellas inside on rainy days, and the kitchen pantry was so small that ministers’ wives had been in the habit of storing potatoes in the bedroom closet.

Twelve-year-old Bettie Tucker was the only girl in the minister’s family of eight children, but she became friends with three neighbor girls. Jeanie Mapes was a fourteen-year-old gentle peacemaker. Marjory Vale was thirteen and “less sedate than she appeared.” Eleven-year-old Mabel Bennet was “large for her age and young for her years,” and tended to be a pessimist. Despite their differences the girls enjoyed each others’ company, and all suffered from the same problem – they needed a place of their own to play in.

Bettie’s house was teaming with boys who borrowed her toys for rough games, and the families of Jean, Mabel and Marjory all had times when they wished their girls didn’t make so much noise.

The girls were peeking into Dandelion Cottage’s windows when Mr. Black, the senior church warden, happened by and asked what they were doing. The friends said they wanted a playhouse and asked what it would cost to rent the cottage for the summer. Since town-folk had been complaining about the tall crop of dandelions surrounding the cottage Mr. Black said if the girls dug out every dandelion and briar by the end of the week their work would pay for a summer’s worth of rent.

The girls hesitated for a moment over the daunting task before them, then agreed to the bargain. Bettie, Jean and Marjory used imagination in an attempt to turn the job into an adventure, and gloomy Mabel declared she was just pulling weeds, but all worked hard and earned the use of the cottage.

After receiving the building’s key and evicting numerous spiders and mice the girls scrubbed rooms and Bettie’s oldest brothers flattened out tin cans to replace missing roof shingles. Then the girls began furnishing their new home with castoffs. Soon the rooms were filled with such treasures as “tickless clocks,” a “talkless telephone,” and furniture that might collapse if caution was forgotten.

I found most of the chapters “comfortable” reading. At first there were no major adventures or troubles to face, but I was entertained by Bettie and her friends as they cleaned and decorated, watched over the youngest of the Tucker boys, and resolved minor squabbles that occasionally arose.

One bit of mystery was introduced early on. Mr. Black – one of the wealthiest men in the town – stopped by to check on the new church-property tenants and the girls promised to invite him to a dinner party after they practiced cooking in their kitchen.

One of the poorest people in town was their widowed neighbor Mrs. Crane, and the girls wanted to repay her kindness by having a dinner party for her as well. When the girls’ families learned of the two people in need of invitations they became most supportive of the plan, and declared that Mr. Black and Mrs. Crane should be invited to the same dinner – but it was important to keep both invitees unaware that the other guest would be present.

Hmm, why did all of the grownups think it so important for Mr. Black and Mrs. Crane to have dinner together?

As summer progressed the girls took in a temporary boarder, which brought on new adventures. After the girls had the rent money to buy food for the long-planned dinner party it had to be delayed because Mr. Black went out West for several weeks.

While he was gone one of their neighbors moved out of town and the girls became interested in who might rent Grandma Pike’s house. None of them imagined there could be such a thing as a bad neighbor, but they learned the hard way that it was possible.

The Milligan family moved in next door, and the girls soon discovered they were not good neighbors. Laura Milligan was about the same age as the friends, and she invited herself to be part of the playhouse family – usually bringing along her squalling baby brother and bad tempered dog.

Laura insisted on choosing group activities that only interested her. She gossiped, mocked others and – worst of all – stole the girls’ belongings. When the stealing was discovered the girls picked up the baby and plopped him on the porch, then ordered Laura to leave and never return.

Alas, Laura was not one to depart graciously. She told her parents the girls hurt the baby by throwing him outside, and that they behaved cruelly towards her. With each new day Laura added to the lists of injustices supposedly done by the girls.

Mrs. Miligan went to see one of the church wardens and demanded that the girls be removed from Dandelion Cottage. And since her daughter had said how attractive the cottage was inside, and since their current house had such high rent, she had her heart set on moving into the cottage.

She spoke with the junior church warden, Mr. Downing, who hadn’t approved of turning the cottage over to a group of girls, when he thought it could be earning rent money for the church. He didn’t agree with many of Mr. Black’s decisions, and with the senior warden out of state for several weeks he considered it a good opportunity to make better decisions.

After calling upon the girls he noted how attractive Dandelion Cottage was (without investigating the building’s need for structural repairs) and, being prejudiced by Mrs. Milligan’s exaggerated stories, he judged a small cookstove mishap as proof of the girls’ careless and dangerous behavior.

Not only did the girls receive a written eviction notice, but they learned their beloved Dandelion Cottage was to be rented out to the dreadful Milligan family.

I won’t spoil the novel’s ending by telling what happened next, but I’ll let you know that all works out well in the closing chapters. And you get to find out why the girls’ families were so interested in Mr. Black and Mrs. Crane having dinner together. 

I don’t consider Dandelion Cottage to be a great literary masterpiece, but I enjoyed the characters (well, except for those disagreeable Milligans…) and the story kept me entertained up to and including the happy ending.

If you’d like to learn more about life at Dandelion Cottage the book can be downloaded free of charge at:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37871/37871-h/37871-h.htm

Parson Weens and a George Washington Legend

February 22nd is George Washington’s birthday, so this month I’ll discuss a portion of a biography written earlier than most of the books I comment on.

It’s not likely you’ve read Parson Weems’ best selling book The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen, but if your ideas about our first president’s childhood includes a story about a hatchet and a cherry tree then you know something about Weems’ Washington biography.

First let me tell you about the author. Mason Locke Weems was born in the colony of Maryland in 1759, studied theology in London, England, and in 1784 was ordained by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He returned to Maryland but had a difficult time earning a living as a minister, so in the 1790s he began writing religious tracts with the byline of Parson Weems. He also traveled throughout much of the brand-new United States with a mobile bookstore called The Flying Library.

Printed advertisements would announce the coming of The Flying Library, and at stops in some towns Weems gave a speech on the importance of education. He seemed to have a flair for knowing what might increase book sales.

When George Washington died in 1799 Weems decided a biography of our first president would become a popular book. In 1800 he published the first 80 page edition of his The Life of George Washington. Several expanded editions followed.

Parson Weems claims that he learned about Washington’s life by interviewing unnamed friends and family members, including an “excellent lady” who called Washington a cousin.

Some have claimed Weems invented stories for the purpose of telling parables that taught moral lessons, and that his most famous invention was the “I cannot tell a lie” cherry tree story that first appeared in his 1806 fifth edition.

Later retellings of the story state that young Washington cut down his father’s cherry tree, but Parson Weems has him “barking” the tree, cutting into the bark sufficiently to cause the tree’s eventual death.

Weems made it clear that George Washington’s father Augustine had a great distain for boys who told lies. Here’s what he has Augustine saying to his young son:

“Oh George! My son! Rather than see you come to this issue (telling lies), dear as you are to my heart, yet gladly would I assist to nail you up in your little coffin, and follow you to your grave. Hard, indeed, would it be to me to give up my son whose little feet are always so ready to run about with me, and whose fondly looking eyes and sweet prattle make so large a part of my happiness: but still I would give him up rather than see him a common liar.”

Wow, now there’s a father you don’t want to lie to! Augustine went on to tell the six-year-old lad:

“George, you know I have always told you, and now tell you again, that, whenever by accident you do anything wrong, which must often be the case, as you are but a poor little boy yet, without experience or knowledge, never tell a falsehood to conceal it, but come bravely up, my son, like a little man, and tell me of it, and instead of beating you, George, I will but the more honour and love you for it, my dear.”

Soon after that discourse George was given his very own hatchet. Now I know that back in the 1700s children were expected to take on household chores at an early age, but giving a six-year-old boy something with a handle and a really sharp edge seems like a bad idea. Fortunately George did no damage to any of his own limbs, but limited his cutting to the limbs and bark of trees. The story continues:

“One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry tree, which he barked so terribly that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the way, was a great favorite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? This was a tough question, and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself; and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, ‘I can’t tell a lie; I did cut it with my hatchet.’ – Run to my arms you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms, glad am I, George, that you ever killed my tree, for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”

Weem’s cherry tree story was retold by others, and ended up in a volume of the McGuffey’s Readers, the school books that taught generations of students to appreciate great literature. For close to a century most people thought the story was a flowery retelling of an actual event, but since the 1890s scholars have stated Parson Weems told a fib with his story about not lying.

At times Weems was guilty of stretching the truth to the breaking point, such as the title page of his Washington biography stating he was a former Rector of Mount Vernon Parish, when in fact he had served as a minister at another nearby church.

However, both an earthenware mug and a printed cloth depicting the cherry tree story have been discovered, and the objects were verified as being slightly older than the first edition of Parson Weems’ Washington biography. (In my humble opinion the story was an odd choice to depict on souvenirs made during our first president’s administration, but someone must have thought it was a good idea.)

So if the story of the unfortunate cherry tree is indeed a falsehood it is one that was told before Parson Weems wrote it down.

No doubt the story of young George Washington chopping into his father’s favorite cherry tree will continue to be told. It teaches a valuable lesson on having the courage to tell the truth after you’ve made a mistake. And it is a reminder for parents to use a little common sense when choosing presents for six-year-old children.

Wee Willie Winkie

A 1937 Shirley Temple movie proclaimed itself to be Rudyard Kipling’s Wee Willie Winkie, but there is little of Kipling’s story in the Hollywood version.

In the movie a widowed mother and her young daughter, Priscilla Williams, go to live with the girl’s paternal grandfather, a colonel in command of a British regiment in India. The dour grandfather seemed only interested in his regiment so his granddaughter, nicknamed Winkie, obtained a uniform with a kilt, and tried to act like a soldier.

Winkie attempted to halt a war by visiting the rebel headquarters and asking the leader to stop fighting the British soldiers. That was not a wise plan. Fortunately, all worked out well in the end, and family members discovered how much they really cared for each other.

In the original Kipling story Percival William Williams, a/k/a Wee Willie Winkie, was the son of the colonel, who had put his offspring under Military Discipline. “When he was good for a week, he drew good-conduct pay; and when he was bad, he was deprived of his good-conduct stripe. Generally he was bad, for India offers many chances of going wrong to little six-year-olds.”

Winkie took a liking to Lieutenant Brandis, and he dubbed the young officer Coppy because of his hair color.

Coppy was a wonderful man. Once he let Winkie wear his sword, he promised to give the boy a puppy, and allowed Winkie to watch him shave. Coppy could do no wrong – until Winkie went out riding and saw his friend in the “unmanly weakness” of kissing a ” big girl” – the grown daughter of Major Allardyce.

When something bothered Winkie he usually asked his father’s advice, but this time he decided to go to Coppy and ask whether it was proper to kiss big girls. Coppy explained that Miss Allardyce would soon become “Mrs. Coppy,” but Coppy would be in big trouble if anyone found out about their engagement within the next thirty days. (It was never explained why the engagement would become acceptable after a month had passed.)

Winkie promised to keep his friend’s marriage engagement a secret, and the boy took a greater interest in Miss Allardyce as he attempted to figure out why Coppy thought her to be so important.

A few weeks later Winkie built a campfire and sparks from his fire set a week’s supply of hay ablaze. As punishment the colonel took away Winkie’s good-conduct metal and sentenced him to two day’s confinement to barracks – Winkie was not permitted to go beyond the house and verandah.

Early the next morning Winkie climbed onto the roof of the house (which was permissible) and saw Miss Allardyce riding by. He asked where she was going, and she replied that she was going across the river.

Winkie had been told how dangerous it was to go near the river that separated India from the Afghan border, for across the water were hills where Bad Men lived. Not even brave Coppy went near the river, and Winkie was sure the Bad Men were Goblins, just like the ones in a story that had been read to him.

The big girl that meant so much to Coppy had to be stopped from going where the Goblins lived, but Winkie was under house arrest. Breaking his arrest was an unthinkable crime, but his father had taught him that men must always protect women.

Never before in his six years had Winkie faced such a crisis, and he made the agonizing decision to incur his father’s wrath by breaking his house arrest. Winkie raced to the stables, had a native servant saddle his pony, and he set off after Miss Allardyce – who was rebelling from Coppy’s too-hastily-assumed authority in ordering her not to go near the river.

Before Winkie could catch up with her Miss Allardyce had reached the riverbank and was thrown from her horse after the animal stumbled. Miss Allardyce twisted her ankle and was unable to stand. When the boy reached her side she told him he must go back to the military station for help, but Bad Men were coming out from their hiding places, and the colonel’s son had to stay and protect the future Mrs. Coppy.

I won’t reveal how the story ends, except to say that Winkie regains his good-conduct status.

Rudyard Kipling had been born in Bombay, India in 1865, and lived there until he was five, when he and his three-year-old sister were sent to England to be educated. For six years Kipling boarded with a couple who treated him cruelly, and then he attended a school founded to prepare boys for the British Army, though he would never serve in the military.

Just shy of his seventeenth birthday Kipling returned to India and began a six year period of working at several British Indian newspapers. Years later Kipling wrote that when he returned to Bombay “…my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.”

During much of his lifetime Kipling was one of the most popular English-language writers, and he published poetry, short stories and novels for both children and adults based on his Indian experiences. In recent years his writing has fallen from favor, for it is thought to reflect the Victorian British belief in the white man’s superiority to native people.

Let’s see, Rudyard Kipling (who’d been named after a lake) was born a British subject of Queen Victoria, so in my humble opinion it is foolish for modern-day grownups to be offended that his stories reflect Victorian-era viewpoints.

Many of his Indian stories tell of harsh realities, and reading some of them once is more than enough times for me. But then there is Wee Willie Winkie, which I consider a delightful comedy adventure. It takes up nine pages of my Dover Thrift Edition of Kipling stories, so it can be enjoyed when you can’t afford an entire evening of reading.

The Gutenberg Project has Kipling’s Indian Tales, which includes Wee Willie Winkie. It can be downloaded free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8649