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: