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: