The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

October is the month when many people enjoy spooky stories, so I decided to write about one of Washington Irving’s famous tales, first published in 1820.

Near Tarry Town is quiet Sleepy Hollow, filled with “local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions.” Dominant amongst the spirits the locals talk about is the figure of a headless man on horseback. He is said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier who’s head was carried away by a cannon ball during the revolutionary war, and he now rides near the church yard, in search of what he lost.

A new schoolmaster came to Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod Crane was a tall, lanky man, who dressed in baggy, fluttering clothes. He had “hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves,” and “his whole frame loosely hung together.” Ichabod earned extra shillings as the singing master, attempting to teach people psalmody – how to sing psalms in church.

Ichabod often visited the homes of students who had either pretty sisters, or mothers who were good cooks. The schoolmaster was popular with the womenfolk, for he was a man of learning. He was often invited to sit by the fireside and listen to tales of ghosts and goblins. Ichabod owned a copy of Cotton Mather’s History of New England Witchcraft, and he would share his thoughts on the subject of witches.

He was a believer in ghosts and witches – especially when he had to walk home in the dark. After a night of ghost stories every sound and shadow meant danger to the gangling, timid man.

One of Ichabod Crane’s singing students was Katrina Van Tassal, the pretty daughter of a prosperous farmer. The schoolmaster was smitten by Katrina, and he longed to have a share of her father’s money.

Katrina had another suitor by the name of Abraham Van Brunt, who was often called Brom Bones. Brom was a big, strong handsome man who was used to besting his rivals through fighting. But Ichabod didn’t fight, and no man could use his fists on such a weakling and keep the respect of his neighbors, so Brom took to playing pranks on the schoolmaster. One evening Brom and a few friends broke into the schoolhouse and turned all of the furnishings upside down. When Ichabod saw the mess he thought it had been the work of witches.

Ichabod was invited to a merrymaking at the Van Tassal home, and he spent extra time brushing his only suit, and peering at himself in a piece of a broken looking glass. To impress the Van Tassals he borrowed a horse from the farmer he was boarding with. The animal he’d been lent was a “broken-down plough horse, that had outlived almost everything but his viciousness.”

Upon arriving at the festivities Ichabod found plenty of good food, and he was able to dance with pretty Katrina. He then joined a group that was telling ghost stories. Brom Bones stated that he had once had a horse race with the headless horseman, and he would have won, but when they got to the church bridge the headless man vanished in a flash of fire.

It was late when Ichabod left the merrymaking, and he didn’t like being out after dark. Who – or what – was that strange figure he thought he saw coming towards him? Could his over-active imagination be getting the best of him, or could a rival be playing a prank? If it was something more sinister, would it vanish in a flash of fire once he got to the church bridge? Would a vicious broken-down horse be a reliable steed for the frightened, superstitious schoolmaster?

My copy of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is 49 pages long, so it didn’t take much more than an hour to read. While Ichabod Crane doesn’t meet my hero standards I felt sympathy for the poor, foolish man, and wished him well – though it didn’t break my heart when he failed to marry a wealthy farmer’s daughter.

While Hollywood has upped the scary-level on modern versions of Sleepy Hollow and Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving’s original story is a slightly-spooky tale about superstitions and legends, with a dose of humor added for good measure. If you’d like to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow you can download it free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41

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Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks With a Circus

Young Toby Tyler longed to see the circus, but Uncle Daniel had only given him a penny for spending money. He bought six peanuts from the man who owned the circus food booth, and readily answered the questions proprietor Job Lord asked him.

He said Uncle Daniel wasn’t his real uncle, he was a deacon, and rapped him on the head with a hymnbook when Toby fell asleep during church service. Toby didn’t know who his real parents were, he lived with Uncle Daniel, who was always complaining that the boy didn’t do enough work to pay for all the food he ate.

Mr. Lord told about an ungrateful boy who’d been hired to help run the outside food booth, as well as sell food within the big tent. That boy got to see the circus shows every day, plus he earned a dollar a week, in addition to his room and board, but the boy up and left because he thought he’d been asked to do too much work.

Toby was indignant over any boy not realizing there could be nothing better than traveling with a circus, and he was delighted when Mr. Lord offered him a job. Uncle Daniel didn’t even seem to like him, so the church deacon should be glad to be rid of Toby Tyler.

Job Lord warned Toby not let anyone know he had a job, but to go home as usual for supper, and then sneak away that evening, when the circus would be leaving for the next town.

At suppertime Toby began to think Uncle Daniel might not be quite as stern and mean as he’d always thought him to be, and he was tempted to not run off with the circus. But he’d given his word to Mr. Lord, and it would be dishonest for a boy to say he was going to do something, and then change his mind. Despite having given his word, Toby would have stayed if Uncle Daniel had spoken just a couple of kind words to him.

That evening, when Toby returned to the circus grounds, he regretted saying he’d take the job. As he wandered around he came to the monkey cage, and noticed the oldest primate gazing at him so sadly that Toby was sure he knew the boy was going through hard times. He began telling the monkey his troubles, and received a look of sympathy. Something about the monkey’s appearance reminded him of a neighbor, so he began calling his new friend Mr. Stubbs.

Toby was assigned to ride with Old Ben, who drove the wagon that carried the monkey cage, and during the bumpy ride Ben provided the boy with an old horse blanket, and Toby fell asleep on the top of the wagon.

The next day Toby discovered why Mr. Lord’s last boy had run off from his circus job. Job Lord whipped Toby for making mistakes, or if he thought the boy was about to do something wrong. Before and after circus shows Toby worked outside at the food stand, and during shows he had to walk amongst the audience selling peanuts or watered-down lemonade. And woe to Toby if he didn’t make enough sales.

The boy was so miserable selling refreshments that some customers handed him extra money when they made a purchase, and a few people slipped him coins without buying anything. Before the end of the first week Toby began plotting an escape. He would save his money until he had enough to return to his hometown, then he’d beg Uncle Daniel to take him in once more. But what if Uncle Daniel wouldn’t let him come back home?

Toby had little free time, but a couple times a day he’d spend a few minutes by the monkey cage, telling his troubles to Mr. Stubbs. Old Ben had the idea that monkeys didn’t like people, and couldn’t understand anything they were told, but Toby just had to believe Mr. Stubbs cared for him.

One night, as Toby was sleeping on top of the monkey wagon as the circus traveled to the next town, there was such a crash and a jolt that he was tossed down to the ground. One of the wagon’s axles had broken, and the wagon tipped to one side, so that the monkey cage slid out, and the door flew open.

Most of the monkeys scurried away to hide in the nearby woods, but Mr. Stubbs rushed over to Toby and crouched down by the boy. Toby was able to sit up and tell his friend he wasn’t hurt, so the aged monkey ran after his younger companions.

Circus workers crowded around the broken wagon – some were assigned to make repairs, and others were sent out to round up the escaped monkeys. Toby went into the woods and found Mr. Stubbs screaming at the other monkeys, perhaps scolding them for running away. To Toby’s astonishment the monkeys were soon grouped together, holding paws. Mr. Stubbs reached out a paw to Toby, and the boy lead the chain of paw-holding monkeys back to the wagon.

The circus owner was shouting orders when everyone turned to gape at Toby and his returning companions. The boy was called a hero, and the owner declared he’d earned a reward. Toby asked if he could have Mr. Stubbs, and the owner gave the oldest monkey to Toby. Now the boy could take his friend home with him when they were able to escape.

From then on Toby would take Mr. Stubbs out of the cage each night, and the two would sleep together. On Sundays – the circus workers’ day off – Toby found a wooded area so Mr. Stubbs could climb and play. The boy had made a cloth bag to hold all of the coins he was saving, and one Sunday Mr. Stubbs pulled that bag out of Toby’s pocket and seemed fascinated by it. Toby went to great pains to explain how important that money was, and he was sure his friend understand.

But one night Toby awoke atop the wagon and knew something was wrong. Mr. Stubbs had stolen the money bag and was tossing each coin to the ground, one by one. Oh how Toby scolded, and asked how the monkey could have thrown away their means of escape.

Old Ben said that just proved monkeys couldn’t be trusted, and didn’t really become friends with anybody. The wagon driver had spent his life working for circuses, and told Toby it wasn’t all that bad of a life, but if the boy really wanted to leave there was nothing he could do except start again to save up money. But each day took Toby farther from home, if indeed he still had a home he could return to.

I won’t tell the ending, but will remind you that the novel’s subtitle is Ten Weeks With a Circus, so that means Toby doesn’t have to spend a lifetime as a circus boy, though – spoiler alert – he’ll experience sorrow before his adventure ends.

Toby Tyler was first serialized in Harper’s Young People in 1877, and came out as a book in 1881. The novel remained popular for several generations, and a 1960 Walt Disney movie was based on the story.

I found it an interesting look into the circus world of the late 1800s. Toby becomes friends with the Living Skeleton and the Fat Lady, who’s real names were Samuel and Lily Treat. The kind and loving couple were never referred to in a derogatory way. They and the other unusual-looking people who spent time being on exhibit considered themselves to be respectable workers, and Toby always used his best manners when in their company.

The story is considered to be the first of the “bad boy” novels, but readers soon learn that there is nothing really bad about Toby. He has adventures and learns that there’s no place as important as home. If you’d like to read Toby Tyler it is available free of charge through the Gutenberg Project:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7478

The Coming of the Fairies

This month’s book was not meant to be read by children, but it was written by a man with a child-like belief in the Cottingley Fairies. Arthur Conan Doyle was a well-eductated man (he had been a medical doctor) and is best known for writing Sherlock Holmes stories, which were often about unraveling mysteries involving people who were trying to trick others. But from what I read in this book, Doyle didn’t always require solid proof for what he wanted to accept as truth.

First I’ll give the background on what inspired this non-fiction book. In 1917 two cousins, nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright, were both living in the English village of Cottingley. The girls would play together in Elsie’s backyard, which had a beck (stream) and a wooded area. They told their parents they saw fairies, and Else talked her father into lending her his camera to photograph their small companions. When her father developed the film negative there was young Frances surrounded by dancing fairies. A little later Elsie once again gained use of the camera, and this time the photo showed Elsie coaxing a gnome to come closer to her.

Elsie’s father thought the girls were pulling a harmless prank, but her mother had an interest in the Theosophical Society, which believed in the existence of fairies. Her mother showed the photos to a group of learned gentlemen from the Society, and most claimed them to be authentic fairy photos. Copies were sent to other believers, including Arthur Conan Doyle, who asked a friend to investigate the matter, since Doyle would be out of the country for a time.

The girls were interviewed in 1920, and though they were at first reluctant to discuss their fairy encounters, after a bit of coaxing they told some interesting stories. They were given their own cameras and told to try and take more fairy photographs. They were able to provide three more. Once Doyle returned to England he wrote a couple of articles for The Strand magazine, plus wrote a short book entitled The Coming of the Fairies.

The book explains that several photography experts verified the photo negatives had not been tampered with, but the experts refused to say whether actual fairies were photographed. That showed Conan Doyle how narrow-minded people were. Just because some photographers were able to produce trick photos, experts refused to believe it possible for two innocent children, with little camera knowledge, to take real photos of fairies.

Some who studied the photos commented on how the fairies and gnome appeared to be flat, as if they were just pictures, and they didn’t cast the same type of shadows as the objects around them. Doyle patiently explained away those sceptical comments. Fairies don’t have human bodies, they are members of the spirit world, and only children and a few sensitive adults are able to see them. Why would anyone expect photos of fairies to look like photos of humans?

Doyle went on to quote letters from sane, respectable adults who’d been emboldened to write about their encounters with fairies. Then he summarized hundreds of years of stories about sightings of various types of spirit creatures.

He also gave the conclusions of a spirit expert on the types of occupations the different species of fairies worked at. Most are gardeners, and tend the plants and flowers found in the wild. (Did you think those plants just grew on their own?)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1922 book received mixed reactions. Believers believed, but sceptics weren’t convinced that the photographs taken by the girls proved the existence of spirit beings living amongst humans.

As for cousins Elsie and Frances, they spent their adult lives trying not to get into conversations about fairies. Finally, in 1983, they admitted that they had faked the photos. Elsie had copied pictures from a children’s book, added wings, and held the cut-out images up with hat pins. After the photos had been taken they tossed the pictures into the beck to destroy the evidence. The cousins said the photos were meant to be a joke, but when experts showed up to interview them they were afraid to admit that a prank had fooled educated adults.

So that clears up the mystery of the photos – except for their fifth image. This one is a bit fuzzy, but shows what appears to be a large cocoon, with a fairy beside it. Conan Doyle and others described this as showing the fairy taking a magnetic bath. Elder cousin Elsie claims that one was also faked, but Frances insisted it was real. They had been told to take fairy photos, Elsie had no cutout pictures prepared, so they went out to the backyard, Frances saw the fairy bathing amongst the tall grasses, and took the photo.

Which either proves that you really can take photos of fairies – or else Frances enjoyed telling tall tales about short spirit creatures.

`I don’t recommend anyone reading The Coming of the Fairies, for there are dull “explaining” sections, but you may want to look at the book online in order to see the Cottingley Fairy photos, which I’m unable to attach to this blog.

If you’d like to see Arthur Conan Doyle’s book it can be obtained free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/47506

Sugar Creek Gang

During the 1920s, when Paul Hutchens, “the happy friend of Young America” was a newly ordained Baptist minister, he traveled across the country preaching revival services. But after being diagnosed with tuberculosis he needed a less strenuous occupation, so he took up writing. His first Sugar Creek Gang novel was published in 1939, and the thirty-sixth one came out in 1972.

I decided to sample one of his Christian children’s novels and discovered The Sugar Creek Gang Goes North ended with a cliff-hanger. It took four books to finish the gang’s North Woods adventure, and since each volume is only about 90 pages long I was of the opinion that Young America’s happy friend could have done a bit of editing, and written fewer-but-longer novels. But though Hutchens’ books aren’t perfect I found them to be entertaining.

The stories are narrated by Bill Collins, a red-headed farm boy who is best friends with a group of neighbor boys – several with nicknames. Poetry makes up poems and wants to be a detective, Circus is a tree-climbing acrobat, and Dragonfly is a bugged-eyed boy who’s allergic to just about everything. Other members are Big Jim (the official gang leader), and Little Jim (no relation to the leader). There is also Little Tom Till, a newly converted Christian who has a fierce drunken infidel daddy, as well as a juvenile delinquent older brother. Readers of Sugar Creek Gang books learn how dreadful it is to use bad language and drink liquor – and how upsetting it is when nice little boys have infidel fathers and mean brothers.

The books have about a short story’s worth of plot, but share lots of tid-bits of information, such as how a heated stone placed inside of a metal bucket makes a good tent heater, and how a criminal who gets his automobile stuck in sand can make a getaway by letting air out of his tires, which makes the tires wider, thus giving them better traction. (That apparently worked in 1947, but perhaps not with modern tires.)

When Bill was solving a mystery he was usually in a hurry, and would be running zippety-zip-zip dash, or lickety-sizzle. He’d get nearly to the end of his tale and state “I’ve got to step on the gas with this story,” finish up one part of the plot line, and say he’ll tell more of the story in his next book. Only three of the four books that tell the full adventure were available to me, so I need to just skim over one section.

In The Sugar Creek Gang Goes North Bill and his friends are invited to spend a couple weeks of school vacation visiting a gentleman with the nickname of Santa, who’d hosted the boys during the previous summer. Before leaving home Bill hears a radio story about a little girl who’d been kidnapped.

On the first night of the visit Bill and Poetry are sent out for firewood stacked near Santa’s boathouse and hear what sounds like a little girl crying . They conclude the sound is a loon, and its only after the two boys are zipped into their sleeping bags that they decide they should have looked inside of the building. They sneak out with their flashlights, discover the boathouse door is open, and set off on the trail of the kidnappers.

The boys find a “tangled-up-golden-haired little pretty-faced girl” tied and gagged, and Bill rushes off to the fire warden’s house and tells him to call the police. (Throughout the adventure they have to keep rushing to the fire warden’s house, since he’s the only local person with a telephone.) The kidnapped girl is rescued, the police rush to the scene, but the villains escape.

Alas, Adventures In An Indian Cemetery isn’t available though Project Gutenberg, but in that volume the gang captured the kidnappers, but the ransom money was not recovered.

In The Sugar Creek Gang Digs For Treasure the boys wonder if there are additional kidnappers still at large. A thousand dollars is offered for the recovery of the ransom money, and Bill wishes he could earn that reward.

One day Bill, Poetry, Circus, Dragonfly and Little Jim go back to the spot where the kidnapped girl was found, and Poetry finds an envelope that hadn’t been there when the police searched for clues. The envelope contained what seemed to be a blank sheet of paper, but later on a treasure map appeared on it. Some sneaky person had used invisible ink.

The boys set off on a trail marked with broken twigs and found a remote cabin that first appeared to have been long abandoned, but they found evidence someone had stayed there recently. Had it been the kidnappers’ hideout?

John Till, the mean liquor-drinking father of Little Tom Till, almost caught the boys sneaking around. They managed to escape undetected, and came upon an old icehouse where they found a portion of the missing ransom money. As they start to gather up the money along came John Till, so the boys rushed off zippety-zip-zip dash, or perhaps lickety-sizzle, I forget which.

So ends the third book, with a reminder to get the next volume in order to find out what happens about five minutes later.

In North Woods Manhunt readers get a recap about the final events of the last book, and then Circus rushed back to the icehouse, where he shut and bared the door. The bad man was captured!

Now the Sugar Creek Gang needed to rush back to the campsite, and then have someone rush to the fire warden’s house to call the police. But along with all those fun and exciting tasks, someone needed to tell Little Tom Till that his father was probably part of the kidnapping gang.

When Tom was told about his father’s whereabouts he said he had to get to him before the police did, for he’d gotten a letter from his mother and needed to give it to his daddy. Off they went so that Little Tom could talk to his father.

When they arrived back at the icehouse the door was wide open, and the prisoner had escaped. Were there two bad men still at large?

Tom showed Bill the letter from his mother. She’d written that his father had left with the money she’d been saving to pay on the bank loan, and the bank just sent a notice that the money had to be paid immediately. She thought Mr. Till might be fishing in the North Woods, and if Tom should happen to see his daddy please let him know about the need for money. Mrs. Till also wrote that with her and Tom and the minister praying for John Till everything will work out in the end.

Since Little Tom Till was a newly-converted Christian he couldn’t help but think things might not work out well, and his father might end up in prison for a long time. The Sugar Creek Gang did what the could to help out – they prayed for John Till, and tried to find the fugitive before the police did.

I don’t want to tell exactly how the adventure ends, but will mention that someone can be a bad-tempered drunken infidel without being nasty enough to consort with kidnappers. I’ll also remind you that – hint, hint – a large reward had been offered for finding the ransom money.

I found the Sugar Creek Gang books to be entertaining, and while they were preachy and non-politically-correct at times, I found that added a written-70-years-ago flavor to the narrative. (Although, since I’ve never read any 21st-centry evangelical Christian children’s novels, I can’t be sure how the same themes are currently being addressed.)

If you’d like to read The Sugar Creek Gang Goes North, The Sugar Creek Gang Digs For Treasure, and North Woods Manhunt here’s a link to the six Paul Hutchens novels available free of charge through the Gutenberg Project:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search/?query=Paul+Hutchens+

Harry Walton’s Adventures

This month I’m writing about two of Horatio Alger’s novels: Bound to Rise (1873), and Risen From the Ranks (1874). Both tell us about Harry Walton, the oldest son of a farmer struggling to support his family on ten acres of poor land. Bound to Rise begins when the family cow dies, and the father makes an unfortunate deal with his wealthiest neighbor, Squire Green. He purchases a $40 cow on credit, and if he can’t pay the entire amount – plus interest – in six months, the squire will not only take back the cow, but charge a ten dollar penalty.

Though fourteen-year-old Harry often misses school due to farm work he knows the importance of a good education. His teacher promised to award a book to the best student, and after the final examinations Harry is given a book on the life of Benjamin Franklin. He begins reading, and learns that Franklin had been a poor boy, but “through industry, frugality, perseverance, and a fixed determination to rise in life, he became a distinguished man in the end”.

Harry is determined to earn the money to pay for the new cow, and gains permission to leave home and seek his fortune. Though he would have preferred to take after Benjamin Franklin and work in a print shop, he was hired by a shoemaker, who trains him to peg shoes. (I’m guessing that means he attached soles to the shoes by means of pounding in pegs.)

He earned three dollars and week, plus his room and board, and made good progress on saving up for the cow payment, even after splurging on a few weeks of evening classes, in order to improve his education.

But, alas, one day he lost his wallet, and a cad by the name of Luke Harrison found it, and used part of the money to pay what he owed to a tailor. Fortunately Harry had already told the tailor about his loss, and how he had spilled some ink on one of the bills. When Luke brought in his payment the inky bill was amongst the money. Luke returned part of what Harry had lost, then he quit his job and skipped town.

Harry was sure he could still save up the needed cow payment, but then there was a glut on the shoe market, which meant no further work for a month or more. The next day Harry saw handbills advertising a show by Professor Henderson, the celebrated magician. Despite his economic woes Harry decided to pay 25 cents to see the entertainment and, boy, was that a good decision.

The professor’s assistant had left, and one glance at Harry Walton showed he was honest, so he was hired for five dollars a week, plus traveling expenses. Duties included selling tickets and setting up the equipment needed for the show. At one of the towns they stopped at Harry was asked to go to a newspaper / print shop and order a new supply of handbills. He entered the office of the Centreville Gazette, told the editor about his interest in Benjamin Franklin, and was offered a job as a printer’s apprentice starting in April, which was when the professor ended his touring for the year. Harry readily accepted.

Professor Henderson took sick and told Harry to travel to the next town to cancel his upcoming show. Harry did as he was told, but it was dark when he was returning, and he got lost. A man offered to show him the way, but instead led him down a side road, and robbed him. The thief also took Harry’s coat, and left his raggedy one as a replacement.

If you have to be robbed, make sure it’s by a stupid thief. The old coat had a wallet in the pocket which contained more than what had been stolen from Harry. The youth was able to get back home right before Squire Green came by to collect what was owed him. The cow was paid for, Harry gave his mother money to spend on his siblings and herself, and he informed his family that he planned to follow the example of his hero, Benjamin Franklin, and go to work in a print shop. And so ends Bound to Rise.

At the beginning of Risen From the Ranks Professor Henderson asks now-sixteen-year-old Harry Walton to reconsider resigning from his magician’s assistant career. (I have no idea how Harry aged two years during the six-month cow payment time span.) But the young man is determined to learn the printing trade, and had agreed to work the first month just for his room and board, and then earn two dollars a week plus room and board during the following six months.

When Harry arrived at the Centreville Gazette the editor, Mr. Anderson, provides him with a bedroom at his house. Though the room was small, and up in the attic, it was “scrupulously clean,” and you can’t get better than that.

Harry liked his new employer, plus the eldest journeyman printer, Mr. Ferguson, but didn’t like the younger journeyman, John Clapp. That sallow young man not only smoked, but he spent his evenings hanging out in a barroom with his friend, Luke Harrison – the cad who’d refused to return all of the money when he found Harry’s wallet. Those two were the book’s main bad examples and – spoiler alert – when they teamed up with a con-man who ended up conning them no one shed any tears over their misfortune.

Harry met a student by the name of Oscar Vincent, who attended the local Prescott Academy. Oscar offered to teach French to Harry, plus loan him books to read, so our hero was able to further his education. Getting an education even if a young person needs to work is the main “moral of the story” in these books.

Soon Harry had an established routine of working in the newspaper print shop by day, and then spending his nights either studying in his room, or visiting with Oscar. On occasion his coworker, Mr. Ferguson, invited him to have supper with his family. Mr. Ferguson believed in saving money, though he did subscribe to a weekly literary newspaper so that his family could have quality reading material. He offered to lend Harry some of the back issues.

Harry was so inspired by the paper that he began writing essays and sending them the editor, and after a few rejections his essay on Ambition was published under the pen name of Franklin, in honor of that famous printer he admired. Over time Harry had other small pieces published, and some were reprinted in other papers, including the Centreville Gazette.

Mr. Ferguson’s ambition was to save up enough money to purchase a small-town newspaper and become both a printer and publisher. Harry began to dream of someday becoming a newspaper editor, though he knew it would be many years before he could obtain that lofty goal. Normally it would take at least a decade to become an editor, but fortunately for Harry Walton, he was the hero of a Horatio Alger novel.

After Harry had worked in the print shop for three years, and had reached the age of nineteen, Mr. Anderson became ill and was invited to go out of state and visit his brother. Arrangements were made for Harry and Mr. Ferguson to temporarily run the Centreville Gazette on their own, for John Clapp had left without notice to pursue a get-rich-quick scheme.

Harry took on the duties of editor, and though this was in addition to his work as a printer, he put in long hours improving the quality of the newspaper’s content, and there was an increase in the number of subscribers.

Mr. Anderson received an offer to become a partner in a printing business near his brother’s home, and he planned to accept the offer if he could find someone to purchase his newspaper for two thousand dollars cash. (Alas, he couldn’t wait around to accept payments.)

The asking price was a great bargain, and Harry and Mr. Ferguson wanted to become partners in the deal, but their combined savings was not enough, and every local person who might loan them money had just invested their excess funds in other ventures.

Were the two friends doomed to turn down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? If only a traveling magician would stop by, hoping that his former assistant would give him some free publicity in the newspaper he worked at. Professor Henderson made a good income, and might be willing to help out …

The two novels about young Harry Walton were an entertaining read, and while many of the events were unlikely to have happened in the real world, nothing was completely impossible.

Plus, it was a fascinating reminder that running a weekly rural newspaper had once been a profitable endeavor. It’s hard to believe it these days, but for most of our country’s history reading was the major way that people learned about what was happening in the world.

Bound to Rise
can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5977

Risen From the Ranks can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/12741

Edgar Rice Burroughs Finds His Way

Many authors made childhood decisions to become writers. That wasn’t the case with Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was born in Chicago on September 1, 1875. For nearly two decades he worked at numerous occupations and found no success until trying his luck at writing stories.

In 1895 he graduated from the Michigan Military Academy (which he referred to as “a polite reform school”) and then failed the entrance exam to West Point. Undaunted, he enlisted as a private in the U. S. Cavalry and was sent to Fort Grant in Arizona Territory. He summarized his military career by saying “I chased a good many Apaches, but fortunately for me, I never caught up with any of them.”

After two years he was discharged from the Army, either because he was diagnosed with a heart problem, or because he asked his father – a Civil War veteran who’d become a major – to use his connections to get him out of the service.

He went from job to job, even after marrying his childhood sweetheart in 1900. In 1903 he went out to Idaho where two of his brothers were cattle ranchers and partners in a mining company. He was put in charge of managing a new gold mine, but the venture was not profitable. Burroughs got a job with a railroad, but soon quit. He worked as a shopkeeper, then tried to start of couple of businesses, but each one failed.

He became a wholesaler for pencil sharpeners, and hired salesmen to go out and try to sell them. The salesmen did much more trying then selling.

When Burroughs was 35 years old he had two children, with a third one on the way, and had to pawn his watch and his wife’s jewelry to buy food. At this, the lowest point in his life, he had an opportunity to read some pulp magazines – cheap periodicals, printed on wood pulp paper. It was then that he made one of his greatest decisions. After some thought he concluded: “…if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines … I could write stories just as rotten.”

He came up with a novel-length story that he sent to Frank Munsey, who published pulp magazines. Munsey paid $400 for Under the Moons of Mars and serialized it in several 1912 issues of The All-Story. The Burroughs family could afford to buy groceries!

Burroughs started work on a novel about a young man raised by great apes after the death of his titled English parents – who’d been marooned on a remote portion of the African coast following a ship’s mutiny. Frank Munsey paid $700 for Tarzan of the Apes, and it became the most popular serial ever published in The All-Story. Burroughs started sending the manuscript to book publishers, but it was rejected by the country’s top publishers until finally being accepted by Chicago publisher A. C. McClurg and Company. It became one of the best selling novels of 1914.

Though Edgar Rice Burroughs had done almost no research on Africa, and some of his plot twists defied logic, he had a knack for writing adventure stories, and his work was not “rot”. He wrote about things that interested him, and was fortunate in sharing the same interests as a great many people.

After putting his family through years of poverty Burroughs wanted to wring every last bit of success out of his jungle hero so he wrote a sequel to his Tarzan novel. And then another, and another. In all he wrote about two dozen Tarzan novels, and all sold well. He also wrote other books, and his novels about life on Mars were popular – but not Tarzan popular.

The first few Tarzan books told about the main character’s courtship and marriage to Jane, and their son Jack. But then the family stopped being mentioned, and Tarzan became a man who never aged. Burroughs had written that Tarzan was born back in the 1880s, but stories written in the 1930s and 40s had the man raised by apes encountering motor vehicles and other equipment that was modern when the books were written, even though the hero continued to be portrayed as a young man.

In 1919 Burroughs moved his family to California and bought 550 acres near Los Angeles. He named his property Tarzana Ranch. Soon after, people began moving into suburbs surrounding the writer’s family home, and Edgar Rice Burroughs began selling off land for building lots. In 1930 a new post office was established, and a name was needed for the community. It became Tarzana, a city that now has a population of about 35,000.

The first of several dozen Tarzan movies produced during Burroughs’ lifetime was released in 1918. In 1923 the writer set up a company entitled Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. The company still exists, and keeps track of licensing rights to everything that Burroughs wrote that is still protected under copyright laws, and has not fallen into public domain. The writer trademarked the names of the major characters from his Tarzan and science fiction novels, and so no new story, movie, or any other product can use the name of Tarzan without the permission of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.

In 1927 a community in Texas became populous enough to require a post office. Area residents submitted names for the new post office address, and the name chosen was Tarzan. That must have met the approval of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. (About 80 people currently live in Tarzan, Texas.)

During the 1930s Burroughs hired people to produce a daily Tarzan comic strip, plus a Tarzan radio show. Experts advised him that too many Tarzan ventures would cause people to grow tired of the character, but that never happened. The comic strip was syndicated to over 250 newspapers around the world, and the radio show went through three different versions from 1932 through 1936.

Burroughs was 66 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he became one of the oldest war correspondents to travel to battle areas during World War II. After the war he continued to work on writing projects until dying of a heart attack on March 19, 1950, at the age of 74. He is buried in Tarzana, California.

Throughout his lifetime Burroughs appeared to be dismissive of his literary talents, claiming he never learned any of the proper rules of writing, but that may have just been a persona he presented to the world. He often remarked that he enjoyed writing, and I believe he was proud of having found his proper way in the world, after early decades of false starts.

Nowadays Tarzan books are no longer widely read, which is a shame, for I enjoyed reading several of the adventure stories when I was growing up. If you’d like to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original version of his famous character many of the Tarzan novels can be downloaded, free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/search/?query=tarzan

Kim

Kim’s skin was tanned as dark as a native’s and while he was fluent in speaking several Indian languages, his English was imperfect. But Kim was white – a Sahib (European). His mother had been a nursemaid in a Colonel’s family, and his father had been Kimball O’Hara, a colour-sergeant in an Irish regiment before leaving the military to take a low-ranking job with the Indian railway.

Kim’s mother died of cholera, and his father took to drinking and using opium, and “died as poor whites die in India.” Before Kimball O’Hara, Sr. died he told his son he was leaving him a legacy of three pieces of paper that had great magic. His father had died when Kim was quite young, and the half-caste woman who cared for the boy didn’t understand English well, so the boy was told that once the legacy became known the Colonel and 900 devils – who worshipped the Red Bull in a green field – would come and tend to him.

India’s people had many religions, with many gods, and so Kim accepted that a Red Bull would be an important part of his future. The three “magic” papers were sewn into a leather amulet-case that the boy always wore around his neck.

Kim hated wearing the restrictive shirts and trousers worn by Sahibs, preferring loose-fitting native clothing. Though he’d received a few reading lessons, sitting in a classroom didn’t interest him. He would prowl through alleys and run across rooftops to deliver messages, or learn secrets, and he’d then report to those who gave coins to boys who didn’t mind a bit of danger.

When Kim was 13 he met an elderly Tibetan Lama on a pilgrimage to find the Holy Places of Buddhism, especially the River of the Arrow. The Lama’s chela (disciple) had died, and Kim agreed to travel with the holy man, for the journey would be a chance to take his own pilgrimage and find the Red Bull in a green field.

He soon discovered the Lama was an innocent who didn’t understand people could be dishonest, and since Kim was familiar with the seedier realities of life he became the Lama’s protector.

When a horse trader by the name of Mahbub Ali learned that Kim would be traveling through the town of Umballa he asked the boy to give an army officer a written message about the pedigree of a white stallion. Kim knew he was not being told what the true message was, but he accepted the assignment.

When he arrived in Umballa Kim found the correct location to pass on a sealed packet of papers, and then he spied and overheard an officer say that he’d received information concerning the need for 8,000 soldiers, plus heavy artillery.

Kim and the Lama traveled on India’s Grand Trunk Road, and while the Lama was focused on enlightenment, and seeking clues to where the River of the Arrow might be, Kim wanted to explore locations near the road, to learn more about parts of India he’d never seen before.

One day Kim came upon a field and saw a group of soldiers scouting out a location for their regiment to make camp. One of the soldiers had a flag depicting a Red Bull on a green background. He had come upon his father’s Irish regiment.

Kim rushed back to tell the Lama he had found his Red Bull, and then found a comfortable place for his holy man to sit and wait for his return. He snuck into the army camp in hopes of learning about the promised legacy from his father.

The regiment’s Anglican chaplain caught the boy spying, dragged Kim into his tent, and then called upon the Catholic chaplain for assistance. Kim attempted an escape, the Anglican tried to grab hold of him, and tore off the leather amulet holding the three “magic” papers. Kim frantically insisted that he must have his magic returned to him, and the chaplains cut open the amulet to see the contents.

They found a paper certifying Kimball O’Hara’s membership in a Masonic Lodge, a military document, and the boy’s birth certificate. Kim told the men he needed his papers, and that he must return to care for his holy man. He was told he couldn’t leave – he was a military orphan and the regiment would make sure that he was educated, and trained to be a soldier.

Kim was allowed bring the Lama into the camp in order to say goodbye to him, and as soon as the man learned his beloved helper was a Sahib he agreed he must be sent to a Sahib school. Kim was told the regiment would take him to his new school, but the boy said that wasn’t going to happen because they would soon be in a war involving 8,000 soldiers. (He knew a thing or two about keeping secrets, and so said nothing about delivering the message concerning “the pedigree of a white stallion.”)

All who heard the boy’s war prediction scoffed at the foolish tale – until they were ordered to change plans and take part in a military action involving thousands of soldiers. Then officials took a special interest in the white boy who looked and acted like a native.

Kim was told the very best Sahib school in India was St. Xavier’s, where he could not only learn how to read and write, but how to survey land and prepare accurate maps. There were military men who took part in what was called the Great Game by disguising themselves, learning secrets, and providing maps of remote locations. Kim had no interest in learning to be a soldier who marched all day, but the Great Game would be a life of adventure.

Kim was enrolled at St. Xavier’s, became a good student, and usually followed school rules. His only infractions were the few times when he was seen outside of the school, conversing with an old beggar. The Tibetan Lama had put his pilgrimage on hold in order to live near his young Sahib disciple.

When Kim was 16 several men who took part in the Great Game – including Mahbub Ali the horse trader – decided the young man had received enough schooling and should be sent on his first mission, but not before he was given six months to travel with the Lama. They understood that Kim would not give his full attention to his life’s work until the holy man was at peace in his search for enlightenment.

Kim was given an amulet to wear, and told that if he met someone he thought might be a part of the Great Game there were certain subjects to be mentioned, using certain speech patterns. Then he was sent off on his six month holiday.

Unfortunately, during a train ride with the Lama, Kim met up with an injured man. Kim caught sight of the man’s amulet, conversed with him on certain subjects, and learned the Great Game required that a message be delivered, and that the injured man was too weak to escape from enemies on his trail ….

Several years ago I watched an old movie entitled Kim, so I knew the novel would contain adventure, and that is the major portion of the story, but I didn’t realize how much of Kim involved the Lama’s pilgrimage, and discussions about India’s diverse religious beliefs and traditions. For the most part I found the pilgrimage conversations to be of interest, though there were a time or two when I wished the talkers had gotten to their point a little sooner. Be warned that those wanting non-stop thrills and adventures might find Kim a little slow-moving at times.

For those seeking an exotic tale set during the days of British colonial rule in India I recommend Rudyard Kipling’s classic novel.

Kim can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2226

Two Wyoming Girls

Two Wyoming Girls and Their Homestead Claim was written by Mrs. Carrie L. Marshall, and published in 1899. It is narrated by Leslie Gordon, the youngest of two sisters, and is the type of book that is enjoyable to read if you don’t think too much about whether most of the plot twists could logically occur.

The story begins when Leslie’s father, Mr. Gordon, is preparing to spend the day working in a mine, even though it has been raining for days and eldest daughter, Jessie, warns him that an old miner told her that the mines are prone to flood in wet weather. Mr. Gordon tells Jessie that old miners tend to be superstitious, and that he needs money to gain title to his homestead claim, and to fence in his field crops. Their rancher neighbor, Jacob Horton, is determined to get the Gordon family off their land, and each year the Horton cattle “accidently” trample their crops right before harvest time.

Alas, Mr. Gordon should have listened to the advice of the old miner, for the mine did flood, and he and many others were killed. Since Mrs. Gordon had died two years earlier, Leslie and Jessie needed to keep up the homestead,and care for three-year-old brother, Ralph, with only the help from elderly Joe.

Joe had been born a slave on the Gordon plantation, and his former master had assigned him the task of caring for the little boy who was to become the two Wyoming girls’ father. Even after Mr. Gordon had grown – and decades after slavery had ended – Joe refused to give up on his job of looking after the Gordon family.

Following the long tradition of storybook ex-slaves Joe spoke in nearly-impossible-to-understand dialect consisting of misspelled (and often misplaced) words. As a reader, I found that the only thing worse than trying to interpret Joe’s rambling conversations was when Joe was talking to young Ralph, who spoke in baby-talk – consisting of different misspelled words.

Unfortunately for Leslie and Jessie, they had greater concerns than figuring out confusing speech patterns. Right after their father’s death nasty Mr. Horton showed up to inform them that girls can’t hold down homesteads, but he’d be willing to pay them a little money if they packed up and left. He was told they planned to stay.

Mr. Horton came by a few days later, right when the girls’ were experiencing an emergency. Jessie had developed an awful toothache just after Joe had taken both of the horses to go and buy seed. Mr. Horton told the entire family to get into his wagon, for he’d drive them all to the far-off dentist. Leslie said she had to stay and milk the cows, but told everyone she’d go and spend the night with a widowed neighbor.

As soon as the wagon left Leslie remembered that the law stated a homestead couldn’t be left unoccupied for even a single night, so she decided to not leave home. It was a good thing she stayed.

Leslie worried about being alone, so she went to bed with her father’s rifle close by. She was awakened by a strange noise, and saw flames outside of the bedroom window. This startled her so much that, in her confusion, she grabbed up the rifle and fired through the window. A man screamed, and when she got out of bed and looked outside she saw someone running away.

The fire was quickly extinguished, and Leslie saw that a pile of pine cones and other flammable items had been piled up against the house.

The next day Mr. Horton’s kind and naive wife drove the Gordon family back home. The good news was that the dentist happened to be passing right by the Horton’s home, so they were able to get him to stop long enough to pull Jessie’s tooth, so there was no need to drive all day for a dental appointment. The bad news was that Mr. Horton had met with a odd accident.

Mrs. Horton explained that late at night her husband decided he needed to go out and salt the cattle. (I’m assuming he meant he had to set out salt blocks, and not that he had to go about with a shaker, sprinkling salt over his cattle, but when it comes to the Hortons one never knows.) While out on his salting mission he someone grabbed hold of a tree stump and cut his hand, but when he returned home he refused to let his wife look at his injury, and he bandaged his hand without any assistance.

No one except Leslie connected the significance of Mr. Horton being injured on the very night that Leslie had shot at a man outside of her window. As for poor Mrs. Horton, she was the only one in the community who hadn’t figured out that she was married to a cad.

Troubles continued for the Gordon sisters. Money was needed for fees connected to getting legal title to the homestead, but the day before Joe planned to harvest their wheat crop Mr. Horton’s cattle strayed onto their land and trampled the entire planted field.

Then just before their crop of melons ripened Joe left in the night, without a word of goodbye. The sisters picked the melons and, though she hated going about as a peddler, Leslie went around to their neighbors selling fruit. The melons were popular, but all she received in payment was a stack of I.O.U.s

The next day they picked a wagon-load of melons, and then the entire family made the long drive to a work camp. The camp cook bought all the melons, paid cash, and gave them a bonus of a half-dozen ducks and a couple of jack-rabbits he’d just shot.

It was such a long drive that it was starting to get dark before they could get home. Suddenly a pack of wolves surrounded the wagon, and the team of horses began racing in terror. Though Leslie was the better driver she handed the reins to Jessie so that she could crawl to the back of the wagon and begin shooting at the wolves. And then three-year-old Ralph decided to help. After yelling at the “bad dogs” to go away, he began tossing things at them.

Here is a helpful hint for when a pack of wolves is surrounding your wagon, which is being pulled by a team of run-away horses. Toss out all of the freshly killed game animals. Wolves would prefer to eat than to chase horse-drawn wagons.

The day was drawing near when the Gordons had to go to town and attempt to gain title to the homestead. Their father’s name was on the homestead papers, but Jessie would turn eighteen the day before they would go to apply for the land title, and that meant she’d be old enough to be the head of a household. They had proof of her age, for generations of the family had their births recorded in the back of the big family Bible. When Mr. Horton came by, taunting them with how he would be taking over their land, he was told that they could prove Jessie would soon be of legal age.

Their troubles should soon be over, but did they have enough money to pay all of the legal fees? Would they find out why Joe had gone off when they needed his help? Could any bad neighbor be cruel enough to try and steal a Bible in order to deprive a family of their home? And if Mr. Horton decided to come thieving in the middle of the night, would he be able to tell the difference between a family’s Bible and their big unabridged dictionary?

This is not a perfect book, for the author used a bit too much imagination when it came to plotting what happened next. I’ve done research on the Homestead Act, and many of the “rules” set forth in this novel are not found in the actual Act. And at times ex-slave Joe’s devotion to the descendants of the family that once owned him was cringe-worthy.

But I found the Gordon sisters to be likable, and their personalities were fully developed. At times tomboy Leslie and homemaker Jessie bickered as siblings do, though they worked together despite their differing skills and opinions. Leslie had a sense of humor, plus she was willing to admit when she made a mistake, and I consider those good traits in people I choose to admire.

If you’d like to know more about the Gordons’ adventures Two Wyoming Girls can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/32383

The Corner House Girls

I decided to search for examples of lesser-known early series books and discovered The Corner House Girls, subtitled How They Moved to Milton What They Found and What They Did, which was written by Grace Brooks Hill, and published in 1915. The book tells the adventures of four Kenway sisters – Ruth, Aggie, Tess and Dot. The girls are between the ages of sixteen and eight years, and though I never figured out each of the girls’ ages, I did learn that Ruth is the oldest and Dot the youngest.

The book begins with four impoverished orphan girls living in an ugly tenement building, on an ugly street, in the ugliest district in Bloomingsburg. It was a good thing the long subtitle told me they’d be moving to Milton, because things were sure dire at the beginning.

Their father had been killed in the Philippines, but no information was given about why he had been there. (His girls were too young for him to have been killed during the Spanish-American War.) Mrs. Kenway had died two years before the story began, and the majority of the sisters’ income was from their father’s pension.

The only adult living with the girls was Aunt Sarah Stower, who wasn’t really their aunt, but only their mother’s uncle’s half-sister, and Aggie said “that’s a relationship that would puzzle a Philadelphia lawyer to figure out.” (Apparently the author couldn’t figure it out, for Sarah seems to have been a step-sister, and not a half-sister.) Aunt Sarah hated housework so she never did any, but she sat around all day sewing, crocheting and knitting, which was better than nothing.

One day Tess and Dot were out buying vegetables, plus the five cents worth of peppermints the family bought each week for grouchy Aunt Sarah. A trouble-making boy named Tommy Rooney tried to steal the peppermints from them, but was prevented from doing so by a well-dressed gentleman named Mr. Howbridge. The gentleman, who was a lawyer, asked the girls where the Kenway family lived, for he had come to tell them of Uncle Peter Stower’s death.

Uncle Peter had been the family’s only rich relative, and was Aunt Sarah’s step-brother (the author calls him a half-brother), but he hadn’t liked her. The Kenway sisters were the only living relatives, and were to inherit their uncle’s large Corner House in Milton, plus many rental properties he’d owned.

Mr. Howbridge had drawn up Peter Stower’s Will, but alas, Uncle Peter had been a secretive man and no one could find where the Will had been hidden. However the Probate Court agreed that the only known heirs were to receive everything, and since the Kenway sisters were all underage, Mr. Howbridge would be their guardian.

Arrangements were made for the girls to move to the big Corner House, which had three stories, plus an attic. Ruth gave away most of their furniture to poor neighbors, but Aunt Sarah kept her favorite rocking chair. The family packed up their personal possessions, and as they were preparing to leave town they met up with that trouble-making Tommy Rooney, who informed them he was planning on running away from home.

When they arrived at Uncle Peter’s mansion the sisters were awed by what they saw, but Aunt Sarah had lived there before she’d gone to stay with the Kenways, and she knew what she wanted. After her step-father had died her step-brother had made her move into a dinky room in the servants’ quarters, but now she took possession of the nicest second-floor bedroom, where she sat in her rocking chair and began crocheting. It would take a lot of work to get the old house in proper order, but Aunt Sarah had no intention of helping out.

Mr. Howbridge hired a widowed lady named Mrs. McCall to be the family’s housekeeper, and soon afterward an elderly black man, Uncle Rufus, came by asking for work. For twenty-four years he had been Uncle Peter’s servant, and though he was now supposed to be retired, he wanted to return to his former duties. Ruth wasn’t sure if Mr. Howbridge would approve, but she hired Uncle Rufus out of pity for the man.

Even though Uncle Rufus was advanced in age he was of great help to the family. Unfortunately he talked in what I’ll call Old Time Loyal Southern Servant dialog, and whenever he spoke I had to wade through misspelled words and guess at what he was saying.

The Kenway girls met lots of friendly people, but no one wanted to come and visit them because the Corner House was haunted. There was a ghost who lived in the attic, and it could be seen on stormy days. Another disturbing thing was that food kept disappearing, which couldn’t be attributed to the ghost, for ghosts don’t eat, do they? And at times the youngest girls claimed to see glimpses of a boy that looked just like Tommy Rooney, the former neighbor boy who had wanted to run away.

The Kenways had many adventures in their new hometown. They discovered Uncle Peter had been miserly in keeping his rental buildings in proper repair, so Ruth asked Mr. Howbridge for help in making improvements. The lawyer approved of her interest in the poor but hard-working tenants, and he agreed to most of what she wanted to spend.

Unfortunately the lawyer-guardian was out of town when a problem more distressing than an attic ghost showed up at the Corner House. Mrs. John Augustus Treble (who soon acquired the nickname of “Mrs. Trouble”) marched into the house with her spoiled-brat daughter, and announced that her deceased husband had been the nephew of Peter Stower, she was the true heir to the Stower fortune, and she intended to kick out the Kenway girls and Aunt Sarah.

Oh dear, the girls had not yet found Uncle Peter’s missing Will, and what if they never did? What if Mrs. Treble found the Will and destroyed it so she would inherit everything?

I won’t tell the ending of the story, but will let you know that there were at least a dozen Corner House Girls books published, so rest assured that Ruth, Tess, Aggie and Dot were able to stay at the Corner House. And even though Aunt Sarah wasn’t the most useful person when it came to housework, she did know a thing or two about where that pesky Uncle Peter liked to hide important papers.

As for the ghost in the attic, it wasn’t a real ghost, and the girls were able to persuade some of their new friends to come to the Corner House for a ghost-reveal party. The mystery of the missing food was solved, and it turns out that there was a good reason why the youngest girls thought they saw someone who looked just like that boy who’d said he was going to run away from home.

I enjoyed The Corner House Girls enough to read the second book, The Corner House Girls at School, though I don’t have any immediate plans to read more of series.

If you would like to learn more about the girls adventures The Corner House Girls can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/38743

The Corner House Girls at School can be downloaded at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/21034

The Scent of the Roses

Aleen Leslie’s 1963 novel wasn’t marketed as a children’s book, but the story is about a grade-school-age girl and, since I first read it as a junior high student, it was a part of my young adult years. Though The Scent of the Roses is a mystery I’ve reread it for its wonderful depiction of life a little over a hundred years ago.

The story is recollections of adult Jane Carlyle, who tells readers that when she was ten-years-old she could not recall anything that took place before she entered the Weber’s Pittsburgh home on the evening of Saint Valentine’s Day in 1908. She didn’t remember her parents, or even the murder. Her life seemed to begin when 30-year-old store owner Sophie Weber brought the girl home from a buying trip and introduced Jane to her astonished mother and adult siblings.

That evening Jane was put to bed, but then got up to use the bathroom, became lost, and found her way to a location where she could overhear the grownups talking about her. She learned Sophie had gone to New York City to purchase Easter merchandise for the department store where most of the Weber’s worked. Sophie and Jane had stayed at the same hotel, became friends, and Sophie had rushed to the room when she heard the girl screaming after witnessing the murder. The shock caused Jane to loose her memory. No relative was able to care for Jane, so Sophie wanted to adopt her in order to have a child, even if she never married.

Later on Sophie told her that her mother had died, no one knew where her father was, and she’d lost her memory after becoming ill. Because she had no recollections of her parents Jane didn’t miss them, but devoted herself to learning about her wonderful new family. The most colorful family member was Mrs. Weber, a widow with two goals in life: getting her oldest daughter, Sophie, married, and catching a ride downtown each day to visit the Nickelodeons – theaters that showed short silent movies. Pictures that moved and told a story were a modern marvel in 1908.

Soon after Jane’s arrival two of Sophie’s married siblings temporarily moved back to the family home. Sister Ermanie had informed her husband that she refused to have her baby any place other than her mother’s home, so the couple arrived as uninvited guests. A little later brother Hugo’s wife got into a snit and returned to her wealthy parent’s home. In response Hugo closed up his house and took his four children to stay with his relatives.

Whenever visitors arrived Mrs. Weber called for her youngest daughter, Elise, to make some coffee and put the homemade soup on the table.

On occasion a policeman would come by to inquire if Jane had regained her memory, and one time a man claiming to be a newspaper reporter asked one of Hugo’s daughters if the little girl staying with the family remembered anything from her past. But most of the book is about amusing stories regarding the Webers. In an effort to find a husband for Sophie Mrs. Weber places a newspaper advertisement for a male boarder, and the man chosen to rent the one remaining spare bedroom was a most amiable gentleman. His one fault was that he made his living as a house burglar.

For a time Jane adored Sophie, but one day a classmate taunted her by saying her father killed her mother. In a well-meaning effort to protect her Sophie had failed to tell Jane that she had witnessed her own mother’s murder, and that her missing father was a suspect. Later on Jane discovered that Sophie was hiding information from the police, and she suspected her guardian of being connected to the horrible crime.

Despite Jane’s mistrust of Sophie the girl continued to love staying with the Webers. Each book chapter is named after a holiday, and the girl delighted in taking part in festive occasions. Since she had no memory of past holidays each one was a new experience for her.

But then one evening, during a major celebration, Jane became overtired and over excited and kept insisting that a guest knew about something the person claimed to have no knowledge of. She was recalling an event from her past, and that meant danger, for she might soon remember who had killed her mother.

The mystery was finally resolved, but even after knowing who-done-it I enjoy rereading The Scent of the Roses to experience another visit with the Weber family. (The book title comes from a Thomas Moore verse: You may break, you may shatter the vase if you will, But the scent of the roses will hang round it still.)

While telling the story the author slips in interesting tidbits about life in 1908. I can “see” Sophie’s stylish clothes and the beautiful home furnishings. I can “hear” the low sound of the flames in the fireplaces fueled by natural gas. I join Jane as she listens to the adults around the dining room table discussing either family matters, or the all-important business of running Weber’s Dry Goods store. And I still become excited by the life-or-death struggles during the final chapters.

If you enjoy historical fiction, with a touch of “cozy” murder mystery, I highly recommend The Scent of the Roses. The novel is no longer in print, but it was popular enough for used copies to be readily available from online booksellers at a reasonable price.