Jack the Hunchback

This 1892 book begins when Farmer Pratt and his son, Tom, are on a beach in Maine to collect a cartload of seaweed for use as compost. They spot a ship’s lifeboat drifting to shore while carrying passengers – a boy with a misshaped body, plus a two-year old toddler.

The boy’s name was Jack Dudley, a cabin boy who said the ship he’d worked on had exploded. After being put in a lifeboat with Captain Littlefield’s son, Louis, the boat went adrift before Mrs. Littlefield could join them.

Farmer Pratt claimed the right to sell the boat, and planned to send the children to the local poor farm, but Jack escaped, determined to walk all the way to Captain Littlefield’s house in New York, carrying Louis throughout the journey. Farmer Pratt wouldn’t have been concerned about the runaway if the next day’s paper hadn’t told of a minor explosion on board a ship, and of a generous reward being offered by Captain Littlefield for the return of his son. The farmer wanted that reward.

Jack walked until late afternoon, then stopped at a cottage owned by a lady called Aunt Nancy, and asked if he could do chores in exchange for a night’s lodging for himself and Louis. Aunt Nancy was a sweet, but slightly eccentric, older lady who was glad to take in Jack and Louis.

She had a farm and earned a little money from a neighbor sharecropping one of her fields, and from taking in a few summer boarders. Each year, when the boarders came, Aunt Nancy hired a boy to help her, and since Jack was such a willing worker she wanted him to stay with her, but Jack said he had to keep walking to New York.

Aunt Nancy had a brother who lived in New York, and she was sure he would know about Captain Littlefield. She would write to him, and Jack and Louis would stay with her until she received a reply letter. Jack had his doubts that the brother would know about everyone within the state of New York, but he was willing to stay with the lady who was so kind to him.

Jack was a great help to Aunt Nancy. While she continually cleaned her already-clean house and prepared meals he cut fire wood for the cooking stove, took over milking old crumple-horn the cow, repaired fences and dug up ground for a vegetable garden. And each night before going to bed he went with Aunt Nancy as she searched every room to make sure there were no burglars hiding in the house. There never had been any burglars in the area, but one couldn’t be too careful.

One day Jack was repairing a fence by the road and saw Farmer Pratt drive by. Jack was able to stay out of sight, but was sure the man was still trying to send him to the poor farm. A little later Farmer Pratt came to the house and asked Aunt Nancy about the children and, since he wanted all of the reward money for himself, he told her he wanted to find the children because he felt obligated to send them to the poor farm. Aunt Nancy refrained from saying she knew anything about the boys. Though she hadn’t told a lie, the overly-pious lady felt she’d done wrong by not telling the entire truth.

A neighbor boy named Bill Dean, along with two of his cohorts, wanted Jack to leave, for they believed they had the right to get all of the hired-boy work in the area. Poor Jack was beaten up, and threatened with more abuse if he didn’t move on. The three bad boys were constantly causing mischief, and trying to get Jack blamed for their wrong doing, apparently never figuring out that no one would be likely to hire boys known throughout the neighborhood as troublemakers. Near the end of the book Jack came to the rescue of a trapped Bill Dean, which did not reform the surly boy, but did get him to stop tormenting our hero.

That just left the problem of Farmer Pratt. Aunt Nancy remained upset over what she felt was her grave wrongdoing in not telling the caddish farmer the truth about knowing where Jack and Louis were, so Jack felt he had to make the sacrifice of walking to the Pratt place, in order to tell the farmer Aunt Nancy was sorry, and to offer himself up to be taken to the poor farm, thus keeping young Louis safe.

The book has a happy ending – Louis was returned to his parents and Jack obtains a permanent loving home.

I chose to read this story because of it’s title, for I wanted to know how an 1890s children’s book dealt with a main character who had a physical deformity. Many of the unpleasant characters were cruel to the boy, but he held no grudges because that’s how he’d always been treated by most people. Throughout the book Jack was described as being a cripple, and not being strong enough to succeed at most jobs, but he was always shown as a willing and capable worker, and never found any task that he could not finish. With a slight rewrite the book could have been about someone who wasn’t a hunchback, and I suspect the author was just looking for a gimmick to make the story a bit different from others.

Jack and Aunt Nancy were likable characters and, though the plot didn’t always make perfect sense, the various adventures kept my interest.

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