When I saw the title of this 1902 children’s novel I wondered how a young dark-skinned hero would be represented. I was pleased with what I read.
During the Spanish-American War of 1898 Colonel Austin was in Tampa, Florida writing a letter to “the Boy and his Mother,” which was how his family was always designated. He heard someone say “Good mornin’, sah,” looked up, and saw a small black boy dressed in rags, with tear-stained cheeks.
The colonel asked the boy his name and was told George Washington McKinley Jones. (William McKinley was president during the war.) He asked where the boy’s folks were, and was told his father was in prison for life for killing a friend, and his mammy died yesterday, and had just been buried. The boy liked the Colonel’s face, and came to him because he was starving and wanted to find work. When asked what type of work he could do the boy said he was “de best shot you ebber saw.”
The boy was asked if he wanted to be a soldier boy. He said no, he wanted to be a hero. Did he know what a hero was? The lad replied in clumsy dialect (which is the only annoying part of the story): “A hero is a pusson, sah, what ain’t afraid to tackle a job too big fur other folks, an’ goes right froo wid it or dies a-doin’ it!”
Colonel Austin called to another officer and told him they had a volunteer who enlisted as a hero, and the volunteer was to be fed all that he could hold. The Colonel set out to learn if the boy was telling the truth, and locals told him the boy belonged to no one. He was honest and good-natured, and could hit a bull’s-eye whenever he’d been lent a gun to use at a shooting contest. (No one explained why the boy’s father killed a friend.)
The boy was taken in as the mascot of the Ninth Infantry, and was given the shortened name of G.W. His first assigned duties were singing and dancing to amuse the soldiers.
A little while later a box came from up North addressed to George Washington McKinley Jones, in care of Colonel Austin, but since G.W. couldn’t read, he didn’t believe it was for him until he took the box to “his Colonel,” who told him it really did have his name on it. Inside the box was a private’s uniform made to the boy’s measurements. There was also a letter from the Boy and his Mother, telling him that he could repay them for the uniform by bringing the Colonel home to them, safe and sound. G.W. knew who they were, for he often looked at their photograph displayed in the Colonel’s tent.
Once G.W. had changed into his new clothes the Colonel told him to never disgrace the uniform. Now the boy had two new solemn duties – to make sure the Colonel stayed out of harm’s way, and to never break any order given to him. Disobeying his Colonel would disgrace his soldier’s uniform.
The Tampa sun was brutally hot, and while all the soldiers shed their coats, G.W. refused to unfasten a single button, for he loved his uniform, and insisted on wearing it properly. He gave daily sharp-shooting exhibitions, and everyone said he was the best shot in the camp. He was even awarded his own small rifle as a prize. Never had the boy been so happy.
The Colonel insisted G.W. be in bed by eight-thirty, and even though he loved being with the soldiers and singing for them, he couldn’t be coaxed to stay up later than he was allowed, for he’d “enlisted” to be a hero, so he couldn’t break any rules, no matter how much he wanted to.
At last the order came for them to sail to Cuba and go to war. G.W. didn’t exactly know what a war was, but he was sure it would give him a chance to be a hero. After days of G.W. being sea sick, land was reached, and a brand new tent camp was set up.
He began to hear stories of war being dangerous, and often the Colonel looked anxious, so G.W. knew he had to stay close to him, for it was his job to make sure he would return safe and sound to the Boy and his Mother. But the Colonel ordered him to never go more than a half-mile from camp, and to never go over the hill where the Colonel spent more and more time away from the others.
Fever broke out in the camp, and G.W. became the favored nurse, carrying water, bathing aching heads, and granting every request for staying close by and singing hymns he’d learned from his mother. The soldiers seemed to forget he was just a boy being over-worked.
Then the war came close enough for G.W. to know it rumbled like thunder and flashed like lightening. His weary Colonel came back one evening to tell him arrangements had been made for him to be sent to the Boy and his Mother if anything should happen to the Colonel. But how could he ever go to them if he had betrayed his duty to make sure the Colonel remained safe?
G.W.’s mother had sometimes had visions, and one day G.W. had one as well. It was about going over the hill to find the Colonel, but that would mean disobeying orders, and disgracing his uniform. He was just a boy, grown weak from tending fever victims, and his Colonel wasn’t there to advise him. How could he decide which duty he must follow?
This is a short book, little more than a long short story. It has a bit of a “preachy” tone to it, emphasizing the importance of duty and sacrifice, but I found it compelling, and will read this more than once, for it will become a permanent part of my Bookshelf Companions. There are melodramatic parts, where the sensible part of my mind told me some scenes could not have taken place, but I wanted to know what happened next, and I cared about G.W., his Colonel, the Boy and his Mother, and all those young soldiers who started out knowing little more than G.W. did about what war really was.
I won’t say here how G.W. solved his crisis of conflicting duties during time of war, but I’ll tell you that some months later his Colonel told him of another way to be a hero. He would need to learn how to make his way in life, and the Colonel wanted him to attend military school, along with the Boy. The head master wanted him there, but many would make it hard for him, because of his dark skin. If G.W. consented to the plan it would be a chance to show how brave and honest he was.
If you’d like to know the entire story A Little Dusky Hero can be downloaded free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/31366