Stepping on the Cracks

Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, 1991.

This is the first book in the Gordy Smith series, although the book really focuses on a girl named Margaret. Gordy Smith is the neighborhood bully and her nemesis. The series shifts to focus more on Gordy after the full story behind his awful behavior is revealed. This story begins in August 1944 because, although they don’t mention the year, the characters talk about seeing the story about the Liberation of Paris in Life Magazine.

Eleven-year-old Margaret and her best friend, Elizabeth, both have brothers who are fighting in World War II. Margaret’s brother is in the army in Europe, and Elizabeth’s brother is in the navy in the Pacific. The two girls have their own special ritual of stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk to “break Hitler’s back”, in a twist on the old stepping on a crack childhood superstition. Margaret knows that the war is Hitler’s fault, and she blames him personally for her brother, Jimmy, having to go away and fight and for the changes in her household since then. Since the war started and her brother went away, Margaret’s father has been very grim, and she knows that her mother sometimes cries when she thinks that Margaret can’t hear her. Her parents are happiest when they imagine what life will be like when the war finally ends. Margaret keeps a scrapbook of letters Jimmy has written to her and war-related news clippings and cartoons that she’s saved that remind her of things her brother has told her about his time in the army. Margaret hates Hitler and the Nazis with a vengeance.

At the same time, Margaret thinks about how odd it is that the war doesn’t seem entirely real. She knows that people in her community have already been killed in the war overseas, and her parents are worried about Jimmy. However, apart from the missing people in the community, like Jimmy, and the stars in people’s windows to signify people who are in the armed forces or who have been killed in battle, there are few outward signs that there is a war happening. They hear about battles, but their own town of College Hill, Maryland, is peaceful. There are some shortages of things because of war rationing, but otherwise, Margaret’s life has been continuing very much as before. She’s seen pictures of starving children in war zones, and she sometimes wonders why they suffer so much, and she doesn’t.

A neighborhood bully, Gordy Smith, gives the girls trouble, and Margaret thinks of him has being like a Nazi because he’s so mean. He calls Margaret and Elizabeth “Baby Magpie” and “Lizard”, pulls their hair, and gets his friends to gang up on them. At one point, he tries to force Elizabeth to kiss him. (One of those weirdos who are clearly interested in girls but have no idea how to be charming to girls.) Gordy brags about his brother in the army, saying that his brother has killed more Nazis than the girls’ brothers and that he’s going to join the army and kill Hitler when he’s older.

Margaret tells her mother about Gordy and says that she hates his guts. However, her mother tells her that young ladies shouldn’t say words like “guts” and that she should have some sympathy for Gordy because of the kind of family he lives in and what his father is like. (Personally, I don’t think sympathy alone is what’s called for to fix Gordy’s problems, but more about that later.) Elizabeth’s father is a policeman and has arrested Gordy’s father more than once for being drunk and disorderly. People in the community think of the Smith family as being “poor white trash” and wish they would move away. The other kids in the family are as nasty and troublesome as Gordy. Margaret doesn’t think Gordy’s family circumstances should excuse his awful behavior and still hates him.

One day in late summer, before school starts, Gordy and his two friends chase the girls out of the treehouse they built. They steal the comic books they like from the girls and rip up the ones they don’t like, tossing them from the top on the tree on top of the girls. Then, they start ripping up the boards from the platform in the tree so they can use them themselves, saying that girls can’t build anything well. It takes much less time and effort for them to destroy what the girls built than it did for the girls to build it. (This is always true of any kind of destruction, so that doesn’t mean anything complimentary about the destroyers, especially if they aren’t smart enough to realize that and think they’ve got some kind of special talent that’s better than building abilities – just saying because it’s true. All this stuff from the boys is just bluster and gaslighting to intimidate the girls into letting them have what they want by implying that they never deserved the things they actually owned and built themselves.) Margaret yells for help from her mother, but her mother doesn’t hear her. Elizabeth tells the boys that their act of sabotage makes them traitors and worse than Nazis, but they laugh it off.

Elizabeth tells Margaret that they’ll get even with Gordy and the other boys for this, but Margaret can’t imagine what they could do. She would rather stay away from Gordy. That’s easier said than done because Gordy steals the next set of boards the girls try to use to rebuild their tree house, too. One day, the girls see the boys going into the woods. They know that the boys have built a hut to use as a clubhouse with the boards they’ve stolen from the girls, and Elizabeth suggests that they follow the boys to find out where their hut is. Elizabeth thinks that it would be great revenge to find their hut, take it apart, and reclaim the stolen boards. After all, they have a right to their own boards. Margaret is more hesitant because they’re not supposed to cross the train tracks into the woods, and the woods are lonely. The boys have air rifles, and if the boys caught the girls trying to take back the boards, they could do all sorts of horrible things to them with no one around to save them. However, Elizabeth impulsively dashes off into the woods, and Margaret feels like she has no choice but to go with her.

The boys catch the girls spying on them at their hideout when Margaret accidentally sneezes. At first, Margaret is sure that the boys are going to kill them when they catch them. Instead, Gordy tries to scare the girls with a story about how he and his friends have actually saved the girls from the crazy man who lives in the woods. There’s an experimental farm near the woods used by the agricultural department at the local university, and Gordy spins a story about how the army was using the farm for an experiment on soldiers, using chemicals to try to make them stronger and braver. Gordy insists that the man they used in the experiment went crazy and broke out of the farm and has been hiding in the woods ever since, ready to attack anybody who finds him. Elizabeth says the story is a fake because she never heard anyone else say that, but Gordy insists that he saw the crazy man standing behind the girls with a knife. Gordy tells the girls that they better stay out of the woods or the crazy man might get them next time.

Elizabeth knows that Gordy must be lying, but Margaret is sure that the story must be true when she sees a wild-looking man with shaggy hair behind the boys in the woods. Margaret screams and runs for home with Elizabeth behind her. Unfortunately, Elizabeth didn’t see the wild-looking man herself. She thinks that Margaret was just being a chicken, falling for Gordy’s story and imagining that she saw something, and she teases Margaret about it. Margaret asks her mother about the experimental farm and Gordy’s story, without admitting that she was in the woods, and her mother says that it’s nonsense, that the farm is only used for agriculture. Her mother thinks that, if there is a strange man in the woods, it’s probably just some old tramp.

It does seem like a logical explanation, that maybe there was just some old tramp hanging around the woods who didn’t know that Gordy was going to tell some wild story about a murderous crazy man and just happened to wander by at the right moment to look scary. However, Margaret just can’t convince herself that’s all there is to it.

When the girls finally get up the nerve to go back to the boys’ hut, there are unmistakable signs that someone has been living there. There is also a knife, like the one Gordy said the crazy man had. Who is staying in the boys’ hut, and what are the boys really hiding?

My Reaction and Spoilers

I mostly think of Mary Downing Hahn for her ghost stories, like Wait Till Helen Comes and The Doll in the Garden, but this was actually the first book that I ever read by this author. I think I read it when I was in elementary or middle school. Because of some of the serious subjects of the book and some of the language used, this isn’t a book for young kids. It’s probably best for middle school.

America in the 1940s

This book is a realistic portrayal of life on the American home front during the war. I enjoyed the mentions of little things that were common in 1940s America, like the popular radio programs that people liked to listen to (like the Lone Ranger, the mystery horror show Inner Sanctum, and the children’s program Let’s Pretend), comic books and newspaper cartoons, magazines like Life and The Saturday Evening Post, and “Kilroy was here” graffiti. Sometimes, characters mention 1940s celebrities. After Gordy tries to make Elizabeth kiss him, she tells Margaret that a star like Joan Crawford would slap any guy who got “fresh” with her. Later, the girls overhear the boys talking about which pin-up girls they think are the most sexy, mentioning Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.

Note: The boys’ “sexy” talk is at a realistically juvenile level, laughing over pictures of pin-up girls with big breasts and using the word “hubba-hubba.” An adult hearing a conversation like this knows that the boys probably feel grown-up for secretly smoking cigarettes at their hideout while talking about sexy women, but at the same time, they plainly sound like little boys who use words like “hubba-hubba” because that’s as sophisticated as they know how to be. They have nothing else to say on this subject. As Elizabeth and Margaret could attest, these boys have never successfully kissed a girl at this point in their lives because they’ve been making themselves unappealing to the girls in their vicinity by the mean and obnoxious ways they act. When the girls later go inside the boys’ hut, they see that the boys have defaced their pin-up pictures by giving all the girls beards and blackened teeth. They are definitely not young Casanovas.

This was the first book that introduced me to the concept of putting banners with stars in the window as a sign that someone in the family is in the armed forces. A blue star indicated (and still indicates) a living service member or veteran. A gold star means that the service member died in action. That’s important to the story because, even at the beginning of the book, Margaret knows what the blue stars and gold stars mean, and she already knows people in her community who were killed in the war. One of the people in the community who has died in the war was a young man called Butch who was killed only months after he got married. His widow, Barbara, gave birth to their son after his death, so Butch never saw him. Margaret is sad when she thinks about Butch and his family because she can remember when Butch was a local hero as quarterback on the high school football team. Later, Margaret’s brother, Jimmy, is also killed in the war, and the family replaces his blue star with a gold one, while Elizabeth’s family still has a blue star because Elizabeth’s brother, Joe, is still alive.

Danger and Safety

There are a lot of themes about safety and danger in the story, both real and perceived. When Margaret thinks about the crazy man Gordy says is living in the woods, she thinks that she would feel safer if Jimmy was home because Jimmy would protect her. Yet, when she thinks about Butch getting killed, Margaret realizes that, when big, strong, young men can be suddenly killed, nobody is ever really safe. Even the strongest men she knows are not completely invulnerable, and there are big, frightening, unpredictable things happening in the world.

At one point in the story, the girls talk about what they would do if girls were sent away to war like their brothers. Elizabeth brags about how brave she would be, but Margaret freely admits that she’s a coward and everyone knows it. Margaret imagines that, if she were out on a battlefield, she would probably drop to the ground and play dead until it was all over.

Later, when the girls learn the truth about Gordy, it brings the full realities of the war home to them and challenges everything that Elizabeth thinks about bravery and cowardice. The truth is that Gordy built the hut to hide his brother, Stuart. While one of Gordy’s brothers really did become a soldier and Gordy brags about him, Stuart became an army deserter. When Elizabeth finds out, she’s furious because her brother and Margaret’s are risking their lives, and she thinks that Stuart is a coward, letting others die for him and their country because he’s too afraid to fight. However, when the girls confront Stuart, Gordy, and the other boys about the situation, they learn that it’s more complicated than that. It takes Elizabeth longer to see how complicated the situation really is, but Margaret understands when Stuart describes his feelings.

Stuart is a pacifist. He’s not a coward or a Nazi sympathizer, as Elizabeth first accuses him. His logic is that two wrongs don’t make a right. While Hitler might want to take over the world and send people out to kill others, Stuart knows that the men who get sent away to be soldiers mostly don’t want to be soldiers at all and have no real desire to kill anyone else. If they had their choice, they would just be living their own lives and minding their own business at home. His speech makes Margaret really think for the first time about the war from the point of view of the soldiers on the ground. When her brother was drafted, Margaret never asked him how he felt about going away to war, just assuming that he’d want to defend his country and beat the Nazis. Now, she regrets not asking him about his feelings and wonders if he was scared or if he went reluctantly. For the first time, she also has to confront the reality that her brother has been actively killing or helping to kill other people. Stuart deserted because he simply couldn’t face the prospect of killing someone. He shows the girls a letter he got from their other brother, Donald, the one who became a soldier, telling him how horrible the war is and how they’ve sometimes killed civilians and even allies because of mistakes they’ve made. Stuart also introduces the girls to the poem The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy. Margaret wonders how Jimmy felt about the idea of killing other people and if it’s really sane to be okay with the idea of killing. Margaret has always looked up to her older brother, seeing him as a protector, never thinking of him as a killer, but yet, he is actively engaging in killing. He doesn’t tell Margaret that part of things in his letters to her, but she realizes that’s what actually happening in Europe.

Finding out about Stuart creates a real problem for the girls. Because army desertion is illegal, the girls know they should tell someone about Stuart, but Gordy tells them that the hard reality is that deserters either get arrested or shot. If they report Stuart, they could be sending him to his death. Elizabeth, being the more brash and hard-hearted one, says that she doesn’t care because it would be no more than what he deserves (although she later takes that back). Instead, she settles for blackmailing Gordy and his friends into stopping their bullying of the girls and helping them rebuild their tree house.

However, the kids soon realize that Stuart can’t stay their secret forever. Stuart has gotten sick, and if he doesn’t get help, he could just die in the woods. Stuart was hoping that the war might just end, and people would stop caring about whether he’d joined the army or deserted, but nobody in 1944 knows when that’s going to happen. From their perspective, it could be months (close to the reality) or years. The war has been going on for years already. Stuart won’t survive in the woods for that long.

The kids also confront the reality that, while two wrongs don’t make a right when it comes to fighting, just standing back and doing nothing while other people are doing wrong is also wrong. Elizabeth is the first of the children to point out that the entire reason why desertion is illegal is that, if everyone just decided to opt out of fighting, people like Hitler would run overrun everyone because no one would put up a resistance. Leaving aside what the characters decide to do about Stuart for the moment, that brings me to the problems with Gordy and the people who should be responsible for him and aren’t.

Gordy’s Problems

I’m frequently the first to say, as Margaret does in the story, that just coming from a bad background shouldn’t allow a person to get a free pass on being a bully themselves. Two wrongs really don’t make a right, and to my way of thinking, people who bully others because they’ve been bullied themselves are bad because they’re doing to completely innocent people what they already know they hate being done to themselves. However, unlike what Margaret’s mother said earlier about how she wishes Margaret would have more sympathy for Gordy, I quickly realized that, first, sympathy is insufficient in situations like this, and second, Margaret’s mother is not really motivated by sympathy for Gordy. She has other, less admirable reasons for looking the other way, even when she knows exactly what’s going on in Gordy’s family and that he is actively abusing her own daughter.

Gordy frequently gets away with his bullying because people are afraid of both him and his father. On the way to school, when Gordy rips up Elizabeth’s homework and stomps on her school supplies to break them, and the crossing guards see it happen. However, even though it’s part of their duty to report things like this, they don’t want to do it. When Elizabeth asks them if they’re going to report it to their teacher, they make excuses about how that might be tattling and make their teacher mad and how it would be just their word against Gordy’s (ignoring the evidence of the ripped papers and broken school supplies). The reality is that they’re afraid of Gordy doing something to them in revenge. Elizabeth asks them if that means that she’s just going to have to suffer what Gordy does to her while Gordy gets away with it because they’re too afraid to said anything. The crossing guards are further afraid to give her a straight answer because everyone involved knows that the answer is, yes, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, and that’s exactly the reason why it’s going to happen. The crossing guards know that Gordy is going to continue being an abusive bully, and they know they’re going to let him do it without saying a word, and they know the reason why they’re going to do that is because they are scared. They’re not willing to put themselves on the line to protect Elizabeth even though that is a part of their job. Elizabeth, knowing all of this, tells them they’re cowards, and it’s the truth. Unfortunately, there are times when apparent cowardice can also be necessary self-preservation from a greater insanity, and much as I hate to admit it, this might be one of those situations.

There is the underlying problem in this community, and that’s the behavior of the adults. Part of the reason why the young crossing guards are so cowardly about the class bully is that they know darn well that no adult in their community is likely to act on anything they tell them about Gordy. Even if their teacher punishes Gordy temporarily by suspending him from school, Gordy will come back, mean and horrible as ever, with revenge on his mind. No adult is going to get to the real root of Gordy’s problems and solve them, so Gordy will continue to be a problem. It appears to be common knowledge in the community that Gordy’s father is an abusive drunk. Elizabeth and Margaret know it, and I think his teacher probably knows it, too. Gordy comes to school with a black eye. Barbara talks about it with the girls, saying that Stuart used to help protect Gordy from the worst of his father’s abuse and that Gordy needs someone to take care of him. Nobody can avoid knowing that the Smiths are an extremely troubled family. After Margaret and Elizabeth go to Gordy’s house to find him and witness Gordy’s father’s behavior for themselves, Margaret tries to talk to her mother about it, and her mother just says that what people do in their own houses is their business and they can’t interfere. That, right there, is part of the root of Gordy’s problems. The first root is his father’s drunken abuse, the second root is knowing that the adults in his community are aware of the situation and are deliberately looking the other way, and the third root are his own choices that prevent other people from getting close enough to help.

For the moment, I’d like to focus on Margaret’s mother and her non-interference policy when it comes to child abuse. A major part of the reason why Gordy continues to be abused by his father and why Gordy is able continue bullying and abusing other kids is exactly this policy of looking the other way. I think all of the adults in this community feel similarly, and I think a major part of the reason they do it is because the adults are scared of Gordy’s father and what he might do to them. Letting him beat his wife and children probably doesn’t feel great, but these adults excuse themselves for allowing that to repeatedly happen with their full knowledge by saying out loud that it’s none of their business while quietly thinking that letting a kid be beaten is better than being beaten or killed by this crazy man themselves. Apart from occasionally arresting Mr. Smith for getting publicly drunk and disorderly, after which he is released when he sobers up, nobody in the community, not even Elizabeth’s police officer father, does anything. The kids are the most active characters in the story, and the adults, like Margaret’s mother, want to shut them down from talking about it so they won’t have to feel like they should be doing something when they’re not. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but it does allow the adults to lie to themselves and pretend like it’s not a problem that they will have to deal with eventually, which is almost the same in the adults’ minds.

It is fitting that this is a World War II story because the situation with Gordy has parallels within the war itself. The United States initially didn’t want to become involved with the war because they saw what Hitler was doing as a European matter. People in the US didn’t want to become involved in the war because they knew it would mean risking their lives, and it wasn’t something they wanted to do if it wasn’t their problem and if it could be resolved without them. Self-preservation is a sign of sanity, but the problem with that mindset is that it doesn’t take into account the larger picture and the full, hard realities of the situations. Sometimes, even when you don’t go looking for trouble, trouble can come looking for you. The US wasn’t officially involved in the war effort except as a supplier until Pearl Harbor. That attack on the US naval fleet brought it home to the American public that it didn’t matter whether they wanted to be involved or not if another country decided to actively involve them.

It’s a similar situation with Gordy. Nobody wants Gordy to bully them, but he does it anyway. It doesn’t matter if the girls are in their own tree house in Margaret’s front yard, minding their own business; Gordy comes after them to destroy the tree house and steal the boards. Margaret’s parents know what happened, but they do nothing. All through the book, Margaret has times when she feels unsafe, but her parents don’t protect her from the closest and most obvious dangers, even when she tells her mother about them. Margaret’s parents don’t protect her because they are scared themselves and don’t want to get involved, even though they are already involved because it’s their daughter being abused … not unlike a deserter who flees the army to avoid fighting when his country is attacked.

Margaret would be the first to admit that she’s not the bravest person around, but yet, she is braver than many others around her because she can and will take action even when she’s scared. For most of the book, Margaret only gets into scrapes when she’s goaded into them by Elizabeth, but even Elizabeth observes that Margaret follows through once she starts something or sees that something needs to be done. The adults in the community can’t say the same. The abuse going on in the Smith household hasn’t stayed privately in the Smith household at all. It’s gone out into the community through Gordy and the other Smith children. It’s a public matter because Mr. Smith is repeatedly drunk and disorderly and intimidating to every adult in the community. It’s everyone’s business because everyone is suffering the results. However, the adults find it easier to keep telling themselves that they don’t need to do anything about it because they can’t deal with the discomfort that would come from a professional community intervention (or tell themselves they can’t deal with it, which isn’t quite the same thing), which is the one and only thing that could probably save the Smith family at this point, and by extension, everyone who’s been suffering from the second-hand bullying and abuse delivered by Gordy. While one person alone would genuinely be in danger from standing up to Gordy’s father, a concerted community effort including the police, local medical professionals, and the principal and teachers from the school showing a united front would be a safer and saner option. There is safety in numbers, provided that the “numbers” can get up the nerve to join the numbers.

I think Gordy should be held accountable for the things he’s done, and I think some reasonable adult should also point out to him that he’s been a fool to cultivate enemies instead of allies. Although Margaret and Elizabeth eventually become his allies for this adventure, sympathetic to the abuse that Gordy has suffered and to Stuart’s situation, if he had been nicer to them from the beginning, he would have gotten help for himself and his brother much sooner. Gordy is bitter toward other people in the community because he’s fully aware that they all refer to him and his family as “white trash”, although I think he should also be aware that it’s their behavior that causes people to look at them that way. Gordy himself has partly caused and perpetuated that image because of everything he does on a daily basis. While Gordy can’t help that his father is an abusive drunk, he can help being a bully himself, and as long as he acts like that, people will treat him as the bully he is and try to avoid him rather than give him the help he really needs. His father is his worst enemy, the adults in this town are largely useless, and Gordy is not only hurting others but sabotaging himself. Even when the girls try to help Gordy, they find it hard because he’s still mean to them and fights them every step of the way.

One final note I have is to point out that, while I’ve heard many kinds of insults and racial slurs in my life, the term “white trash” is possibly the only term I know that’s both an insulting slur to the people it’s used against and to an entire group of people who aren’t explicitly mention in the slur at the exact same time. That didn’t occur to me when I was a kid, but as an adult, I realize now the reason why the modifier “white” is added to the insult. The modifier implies a comparison. The implication is that the person using the term thinks that non-white people are “trash”, and they’re telling another white person that they’re also a kind of “trash” like that, as bad or maybe worse because, as a white person, they should be able to help their situation but aren’t helping themselves because they’re somehow inferior. It’s true that Gordy and others in his family haven’t been helping matters because they make it difficult for other people to help them, but it’s still a very weird dual insult.

Adam of the Road

Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray Vining, illustrated by Robert Lawson, 1942.

The story takes place in England in 1294. It’s summer, and eleven-year-old Adam Quartermayne is waiting for his father, Roger the minstrel, to come see him at the dormitory where he’s been living while he’s going to school at the Abbey of St. Alban. Roger Quartermayne has been in France, attending a minstrels’ school, where he has been learning new songs and stories. More than anything, Adam wants to go on the road with his father, traveling from town to town, playing their musical instruments.

Roger is a higher class of minstrel than most, truly skilled in his art, welcome even in noble manor houses and castles, and well-paid for his performances. Roger plays a viol, while Adam can play the harp. Adam practices his playing while at school and tells stories to the other students. Although his teachers would prefer that he spent his story-telling time talking about the saints, they allow him to entertain the other boys as long as his stories are tasteful and not rude or mocking. Adam’s father has impressed on him that a minstrel’s job is not to tell his own feelings but to choose entertainment that suits the mood of his audience, whether it’s happy or sad. (In other words, they know how to read a room, and a good minstrel can make the audience feel like he’s saying what’s on the minds of the listeners.)

Adam’s closest companions at school are his best friend, Perkin, and his dog, Nick. Since Nick isn’t allowed in the dormitory, Adam pays for him to board with a woman in town. He and Perkin go to visit Nick when they can. Adam has taught Nick to do entertaining tricks, as befits a minstrel’s dog.

When Adam’s father comes, he tells Adam that he has taken a position with Sir Edmund de Lisle and is now traveling with his party. Roger invites Adam to join him on their journey to London, and Adam eager accepts. His only regret at leaving the school is that Perkin cannot come with them, but Perkin says that they’ll see each other again. Perkin’s father is a ploughman (this video, from Crow’s Eye Productions, explains a little about the life of a ploughman and how they dressed), and he says that, if they pass through the village where he lives, they can stop and visit his parents and the parson who sent him to the abbey school.

The open road is like home to minstrels like Roger and Adam. They spend their journey entertaining Sir Edmund’s party with stories. Adam develops a crush on Sir Edmund’s pretty niece, Margery, although her brother, Hugh, is an annoying snob. Adam’s first efforts to join his father in playing music are awkward and embarrassing, but Roger says he will improve. Adam is also lonely without Perkin to talk to. There are other boys at Sir Edmund’s manor house, but they all ignore him. They become friendlier when Adam takes the advice of a friendly squire to lend them his horse for their jousting practice when Hugh’s horse is lame. At first, Hugh thinks that a minstrel like Adam wouldn’t know anything about martial arts, but Adam demonstrates that he has also had some training, causing Hugh to give him more respect. From then on, he is able to join the other boys in their games.

At the wedding of Sir Edmund’s daughter, Emilie, Adam has the chance to see many other minstrels and entertainers of various kinds. Although both Adam and his father are richly rewarded for their performance, Roger gambles away his share of the money playing dice with the other minstrels. He tells Adam to keep his own money close to him and not to hand it over to him, even if he asks for it. Roger recognizes that he has a gambling problem and can’t be trusted with money. Worse still, he gambled away their horse, too. It’s upsetting to Adam because they had never had a horse before, and he was fond of it. He also knows that Hugh was fond of that horse. Roger is embarrassed about what he has done, and Hugh worries that Jankin, the man who won the horse, will ride him to death because he doesn’t know how to take care of horses.

Although they are still in the employ of Sir Edmund, he will not be needing them for a while, now that the wedding of his daughter is over. Roger and Adam go on the road again, although they are supposed to return to Sir Edmund’s manor after traveling their route. In London, they meet up with Jankin again, and he tries to get Roger to gamble with him again for ownership of Adam’s dog, but Roger refuses, saying he doesn’t want to play anymore and the dog belongs to his son. However, when they happen to be staying at the same inn later, Jankin steals Adam’s dog!

Roger and Adam hurry after Jankin to get Nick back, asking people they meet on the road which way he went with their dog. They almost catch up to him at a ferry, but he gets on the boat and it leaves before they can reach it. Not wanting to wait for the ferry to return and desperate to reach his dog, Nick jumps in the water and tries to swim after the ferry, but he is still unable to catch up. When he climbs out of the river, he is alone and too tired to continue the pursuit anymore. He is separated from his father, but he still has his harp, thanks to a kind woman who helped him. What is he going to do? Will he ever find his dog or father again?

The book is a Newbery Medal winner. It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

The story offers a ground-level view of Medieval society. Through his travels, Adam mixes with children and adults from various levels of society. Adam begins at a monastery school, taught by monks. Then, he joins his father, working for a noble family and living at their manor, where Adam becomes friends with noble boys training to be knights. They meet other minstrels, and when they travel on the road, they also meet traveling pilgrims, stay at inns and speak to the innkeepers. When Adam is on his own, he briefly stays with a ferryman and his wife, travels with a merchant, is robbed by highwaymen and has to get help from local law enforcement, gets information from a shepherd, attends a large fair with people of all kinds, and toward the end of the book, spends time with Perkin and his family, helping his father with ploughing. Along the way, Adam learns many things about people and different members of society, including how girls are treated differently from boys, even in noble families and what common people think about the king and parliament and how they make laws.

During the course of the story, Adam and his father also discuss some of the philosophy behind their own profession. It begins with Adam’s reflection on what his father said about choosing his selections of songs and stories to appeal to his audience because his job is to please others, not merely himself. However, when Adam briefly joins up with some poorer minstrels, he comes to understand that it’s not just a matter of giving people what they want. A better minstrel not only gives people material they like but which appeals to the better sides of their personalities, elevating them to their highest versions of themselves, instead of just catering to everyone’s lower tastes. Understanding other people and their lives and tastes are critical to the job of being an entertainer. Adam also learns a little about the use of humor and how it can benefit both himself and others when used well. At one point, when Adam is recovering from an incident that was embarrassing to him, he makes a joke about it that amuses a new friend, and when his new friend laughs, Adam realizes that he feels better about the embarrassing incident. His use of humor softens his feelings of embarrassment and also provides a useful tool for entertaining and bonding with someone else. The story compares it to an oyster turning an irritant into a pearl that is both less irritating to the oyster and something beautiful for someone else. Although Adam goes through genuinely terrible circumstances through his travels, the experience shapes his views of life and the type of minstrel he wants to be.

I was genuinely worried about the animals in the story because I find it stressful to read about animal cruelty. Fortunately, both the horse and dog survive their experiences with Jankin, and Adam is reunited with his father and Nick.

I enjoyed the pieces of real Medieval songs that appear throughout the story, like Sumer is I-cumen In (You can hear the song in this YouTube video. This one explains what the Old English words mean. It’s about the beauties of nature and lively animals at the beginning of summer, apparently with a confusing line about farting billy goats.) and an old version of London Bridge is Falling Down, which also includes an explanation of the story behind the the song.

As another piece of trivia, Jankin is actually a Medieval nickname for John. In Medieval times, it was common to get new nicknames for certain common names by changing just one letter or sound in the name and/or adding “-kin” to the end of a name as a diminutive, like we might add a “-y” for Johnny. In fact, the name Jack that is used as a nickname for John comes from this earlier nickname – John to Jan to Jankin to Jackin to Jack. We get other nicknames that don’t completely resemble the original name from this same method of creating new nicknames, like the nickname Peggy for Margaret – Margaret to Maggie to Meggy to Peggy.

The Matchlock Gun

The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds, illustrated by Paul Lantz, 1941, 1969.

Ten-year-old Edward Van Alstyne lives with his family on the mid-18th century American frontier in upstate New York, not far from Albany, during the French and Indian War. His father is captain of the Guilderland militia. Edward has had a long fascination for the large, old matchlock gun that his great-grandfather brought to America from Holland and wonders why his father never uses, preferring his smaller musket. His father shows him the old matchlock gun and explains to him how it works and how it’s old-fashioned, very large, and more difficult to use than his musket.

While Edward’s father, Teunis, prepares to go out on duty, Edward’s mother, Gertrude, worries about what will happen if Indians (Native Americans) attack while he is gone. Teunis doesn’t think that’s likely, but he says that Gertrude can take the children and go to his mother’s house. Gertrude and Edward’s grandmother do not get along because Edward’s grandmother has never approved of her. His grandmother never thought she was good enough for her son because she doesn’t come from a Dutch background, like they do, and because her family is poor. Gertrude would rather not turn to her for help except as a last resort, and Teunis doesn’t blame her.

Gertrude is still nervous after Teunis leaves, and she refuses to let Edward take some butter over to his grandmother’s house, as he often does. She doesn’t want the children going too far from the house, in case there’s trouble. Then, a family friend, John Mynderse, stops by with a message from Teunis, saying that he is fine, but the “French Indians” (the Native Americans aren’t actually French, but they’re allies of the French – I’ll explain below) have burned settlements, and he won’t be home tonight. It’s worrying news. Later, they see smoke on the horizon and worry about how far away it is, unsure of the exact distance.

Although Gertrude tries to be brave, she admits to Edward that she thinks that the fires are close. Edward asks if they should go to his grandmother’s house, but Gertrude would prefer to stay in their own house and wait for Teunis to arrive home. Privately, Gertrude has realized that the old brick house where the grandmother lives is more visible from the main road than their small wooden house. She doesn’t think that there’s anything they can do to help Edward’s grandmother, but she is hoping that she and the children will be overlooked if the Indians come through their area.

Gertrude begins coming up with a plan for defending their house, and she asks Edward if he would be afraid of firing the big, old matchlock gun. Edward wouldn’t mind firing the big gun, but it’s so big, he doesn’t know if he could manage to hold it. Gertrude says that she has a plan for that. Although they are inexperienced, Gertrude and Edward manage to get the gun loaded, and Gertrude chops a hole in the side of their house that they can fire through. Gertrude doesn’t expect Edward to actually aim the gun or hit anything. They just prop it up at the hole, and Gertrude tells Edward that, if she calls his name, he must use a candle to light the powder in the gun. When the powder is lit, Gertrude says that the big gun will go off with a huge bang and might scare off any attackers.

The Indians do come and attack the old brick house, and then, they come for the house where Gertrude and the children are. Gertrude is struck by a tomahawk as she runs for the house as the Indians approach, but she calls out to Edward, and Edward fires the gun. The attackers are killed in by the explosion from the gun, but the family’s house is set on fire. The children manage to drag their injured mother to safety, and Edward rescues the matchlock gun from the burning house.

When Edward’s father and the militia arrive, Gertrude is injured but still alive. The old brick house did not burn, as Gertrude had thought, but the barns were destroyed. The grandmother and her slaves barricaded themselves in the brick house. Edward is praised as a hero for defending his family at such a young age and for killing more Indians by himself than the adults did. (That last part is a little creepy, but they do praise him for that.)

This book is a Newbery Medal winner. It is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction

The Backstory

This is one of those books where I find the backstory much more interesting than the book itself. This is one of those historical novels for children written and published during World War II that looks back on American history and past conflicts, trying to reinforce historical lessons, instill patriotic feelings, and help children come to terms with the war that was happening around them at the time this book was new. This particular story takes place in the Hudson Valley in New York, not far from Albany, before the American Revolution in a community that’s largely settled by people of Dutch descent.

The family in the story is based on the real Van Alstyne family, and the incident with young Edward helping to protect his family from attackers by firing the family’s old matchlock gun really happened. The story emphasizes the family’s Dutch background. The mother of the family, Gertrude, is described as having a Palatine background, which means that her family was Germanic, but the major emphasis is on the Dutch influences in their background. There are Dutch words and phrases throughout the story.

The Foreword to the story explains the family’s history, but I actually recommend that readers save reading the Foreword last instead of reading it before reading the story. It explains not only the family’s past, but what happened to the family after the incident in the book. Little Trudy grew up and married a man named Hogle, and she became known as an excellent spinner, or spinster, in the professional sense rather that the unmarried sense. Her spinning ability was attributed to having to help her mother from a young age because her mother’s shoulder was permanently damaged from the tomahawk injury she suffered in the story. Trudy is credited as the one who passed on the story about her brother and the matchlock gun to future generations.

When interviewed about his historical novels, which were more for adults than children before he wrote this particular book for children, the author said:

“I want my readers to get out of my books a sense of the relation of history to the present day. History is often taught as a study of dead things and people; or else, and worse, from the debunking angle. What I want to show are the qualities of mind and spirit of plain, ordinary people, who after all carry the burden of human progress. I want to know about people, how they lived, what they hoped for, what they feared. I want to know what it was like to be born into this time or that, and what a man left behind when he died.”

I see the point about focusing on the lives of ordinary people because history is largely made up of daily life. Much of my historical education had this focus as well, not just focusing on the famous people or the major events, which are usually a reflection and extension of what’s happening on the ordinary and every day level. Much historical writing these days also does focus on debunking, which requires prior knowledge of what’s being debunked and why to be really effective, so I don’t think it works too well on level of children.

My personal approach to history, however, is to put things into context. I’ve given you the context of WWII, when this book was written and published, and the author’s view, but to get the full story behind this story, it helps to understand the French and Indian War. In the book, the attacking American Indians are just shown in their role as attackers, attacking innocent women and children and burning their homes. It’s a savage image that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of modern people, but it helps to understand what’s happening in the larger conflict.

In spite of its name, the French and Indian War was not fought between French people and American Indians. Instead, the French and Indian War, also called the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), was fought between the British and the French, with the French aided by Native American allies. Both the French and the British were claiming territories for colonies in North America to support their empires, and as rivals for territory, each side was trying to assert its authority and control over certain regions. The Native Americans enter into the conflict because each side had Native American allies.

The reasons why Native Americans were willing to ally with these foreign powers and actively fight and risk their lives in the conflict were based on their perceptions of the treatment they were likely to receive from each side and the other tribes that were already allying with each side because of the war and their estimates of how the war was likely to affect their own territories and which side’s victory would be most likely benefit them. When European colonists entered North America, started their colonies, and began instigating these territorial conflicts, they were already entering a land inhabited by groups of people who had their own home territories and their own systems of alliances, relationships, and conflicts with each other. Essentially, the European colonists and this French and British conflict were destabilizing and unsettling Native American groups, and those Native American groups were trying to both work out new alliances with some of these newcomers that would grant them a greater degree of security and to push out groups of newcomers who seemed to represent the greatest threat to them and their territory. What each of these Native American groups wanted most out of this conflict was whatever they thought would best allow them to hold their own territory and put them in the strongest possible position to defend against rivals for that territory. Not all groups were eager to join this fight, but those who did believed that it was their best opportunity to protect themselves. In Walter D. Edmonds’s words, this is “what they hoped for, what they feared,” and this is what they were willing to kill and die for.

The reason why this war is important to American history is not only because it was a territorial struggle between major powers but also because it was one of the events that led to the American Revolution against Britain. The British colonist disputed having to pay Britain’s expenses for this war. The treaty and settlement that ended the war helped shape westward expansion that continued after the Revolutionary War. This war was also part of George Washington‘s early military experience, before he became the famous general of the American Revolution.

Part of what makes the Van Alstyne family’s experiences of this war both fascinating and tragic are that they belong to neither of the major sides of the war. They are not British or French. They are primarily of Dutch descent. That is emphasized repeatedly in the story. It’s how they think of themselves, and they are living among other colonists and settlers of similar backgrounds. Their misfortune is that they are living in one of the regions that is under dispute by larger powers. I think that’s part of the reason why the concept this story appealed to the author of the book. It’s about ordinary people caught up in larger events, and it shows the effect that larger conflicts have on ordinary people.

However, since the main hero of this story is a ten-year-old boy, I have to admit that it does make sense that the boy probably didn’t understand much about the larger conflict going on around him. The story only takes place over a little more than a day. His father leaves one evening, the children go to bed, the family is nervous the end day, they are attacked that night, and then, the father comes home. From the boy’s perspective, this attack on his family might have been the conflict in a nutshell. The territorial disputes between larger colonial powers was likely beyond him, which is why he doesn’t think about them during the course of the story. I still think that readers should understand it even if the characters don’t, though.

A Slave-Owning Family

One other thing that I think is important to mention is that there is slavery in the story, and Edward’s own family has slaves. In particular, Edward’s grandmother uses slaves. The slaves are not actually shown as characters in the story, but they are discussed. At one point in the story, Edward’s younger sister, Trudy, asks their mother why their grandmother has slaves and they don’t. Their mother explains that the old brick house where their grandmother lives and the land and slaves connected to it actually belong to the children’s father, as his father’s heir. So, technically, the slaves actually do belong to Edward’s father. However, their grandmother is very attached to the old brick house, so their father lets her live there and use the slaves to manage the house and estate.

A major reason why they explain all of this is so readers understand the setting of the story better and the relationship that this family has with the grandmother. Teunis built the wooden house where he lives with his wife and children so they could have some independence from his mother. He is willing to let his mother live by herself in the family’s big, old house with slaves to look after her and run the place, but it’s really better for his wife and children if they don’t live with her because of her attitudes. In particular, it’s her attitudes toward the mother of the family that make life difficult for them and leave them not wanting to get closer to her, not her attitudes about slaves. Teunis and Gertrude are willing to manage their smaller house without the help of slaves because it’s worth it to them to have to do without extra help in exchange for some separation from Teunis’s disapproving mother, which tells readers a few things about the grandmother we never see and the relationship the rest of the family has with her. Edward’s grandmother seems to be an overbearing and disapproving woman. While Teunis cares about her and her feelings, their relationship with her is better when they don’t live together in the bigger house, even though they could, making use of the household slaves themselves.

No one in the story disapproves of the idea of slavery, which also leaves a bad taste in the mouths of modern readers. Modern heroes and people who really believe in the ideals of freedom would have sympathy for enslaved people, not people actively practicing slavery itself. Since the family in the story is based on a real family, and keeping slaves was something that this real family actually did, it’s understandable from an historical viewpoint that the Van Alstynes are being described as they actually were. It’s important to acknowledge the way things actually were, even when they weren’t pleasant. But, there’s nothing that says that modern readers have like it. Just because the Van Alstynes are the main characters of this story doesn’t mean that you have to like everything about them or everything they do.

The focus of the story is a young boy who did a brave thing during an emergency situation and saved both his own life and the lives of his mother and little sister in the process. That’s ultimately what the author wanted the children of his time to take away from this story. His focus is on the boy and his family, and he doesn’t explain anything about larger social issues or even the background of the conflict they find themselves in. This is fairly short chapter book, a little less than 100 pages, and it seems aimed at younger elementary school students, not dealing with anything more complex than the main incident and adventure of the story. However, outside the story, readers can understand the wider context of things that happen in the story, and they can feel any way they want about that. If you understand the broader situation enough to have feelings about it, I think that’s a good thing.

For another review of this book, I recommend trying this one. It’s much shorter than mine, but it also has some thoughts about how people feel about historical aspects of this story.

Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, 1943, 1971.

The story takes place in Boston around the time of the American Revolutionary War, and famous historical figures appear in the story.

Fourteen-year-old Johnny Tremain is a young apprentice to a silversmith. Even though he is one of the younger apprentices, he has talent and is favored by the silversmith. His favored position allows him to boss the other apprentices, and the silversmith is even considering having him marry one of his granddaughters when he has completed his apprenticeship so he can inherit the business. Johnny doesn’t mind the idea of marrying one of the granddaughters, although he is in the habit of teasing them, and inheriting the business would give him a steady future, although the business isn’t particular lucrative. Most people basically like Johnny, although one of the older apprentices, a boy called Dove, resents him.

Johnny has one particular flaw, and that is that he is arrogant and prideful. While he is talented, he gets overconfident and too full of himself because of his talent. The silversmith even warns him and lectures him about it, telling Johnny not to lord it over the other apprentices that they are not as gifted as he is.

However, Johnny doesn’t listen to him, and he soon pays the price for it. The reason why the silversmith’s shop hasn’t been very lucrative is because the silversmith is getting old, and he can’t work as hard as he used to. That’s one of the reasons why Johnny feels like he has to push the pace in the shop and keep the other apprentices in line. When the silversmith is late making a particular order, Johnny takes it on himself to complete the work on a Sunday, which is forbidden by the laws of Boston at that time and would have been forbidden by the pious silversmith, too, if he knew what Johnny was doing. While Johnny is working, Dove hands him a crucible with a crack it in, thinking to embarrass Johnny by ensuring that the work will go wrong. Unfortunately, it turns out to be worse than that. Johnny’s hand is badly burned by molten silver.

With a crippled and useless hand, Johnny doesn’t see how he can continue his apprenticeship and become a silversmith. For the first time in prideful Johnny’s life, he is an object of pity, and he seems to have no future ahead of him. There aren’t many kinds of work a person in his time can do with only one usable hand. The silversmith’s youngest granddaughter has always been sickly, and people think that she isn’t likely to live to adulthood. Even the girl’s own mother says that it hardly seems worth the effort of raising her when she isn’t likely to survive, and privately, Johnny has also agreed. Now that Johnny is disabled, seemingly useless, and without a future, is he also hardly worth anyone’s help?

The silversmith’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. Lapham, seems to think he isn’t worth anything. In spite of her being the one who originally insisted that he do the task on Sunday that crippled him, she begins giving him repeated and casual insults like “lazy good-for-nothing” and “worthless limb of Satan.” Her previous praise and encouragement for Johnny and wish for Johnny to marry one of her daughters hadn’t been based on any liking for Johnny but only based on what she thought Johnny could do for her and her daughters in the future. Now that he can’t take over the business, Mrs. Lapham is ready to kick him to the curb. Mrs. Lapham discourages Johnny from eating much food, tells him that she’ll be needing the place where he sleeps soon for someone else to help her father-in-law with his shop, and tells the silversmith that he should get rid of Johnny. The silversmith refuses to kick the boy out onto the street with nothing and no prospects, especially since Johnny has been doing small chores for the family to earn his keep. The silversmith tells Johnny that he cannot continuing learning the silversmithing trade, so he’s going to have to find a new one. He encourages Johnny to explore the city and watch different people at their trades until he can find one that he thinks he can do, and then, he will give the contract for Johnny’s apprenticeship to his new master.

However, Johnny is still prideful and can’t see himself doing any of the unskilled trades that might take him, and he only half-heartedly tries to find a new position. He still sees himself as a craftsman, and that’s all he really wants to be. He still feels like other jobs are beneath him. One day, he goes inside the printing shop for the Boston Observer, which the silversmith disapproved of for trying to stir up dissent and resentment against the English king among the colonists, and immediately is fascinated at the way the boy working in the shop interviews a woman about an advertisement for her lost pig. Johnny feels an odd friendly feeling toward the boy, who is a good and patient listener. When the woman leaves, Johnny finds himself pouring out his own story to the boy, whose name is Rab, without his usual arrogance. Rab understands Johnny’s feelings and agrees that most of the jobs that would be open to him now are the unskilled jobs he doesn’t want to do. He says that the Observer could hire him, but it would be a position as a delivery boy and messenger, but that doesn’t sound like the kind of work Johnny really wants. Still, Rab tells him that if he can’t find anything else, he could come back and take the messenger job. Johnny hopes that he can come back and tell him that he’s found a much better job.

However, Johnny still can’t find someone to take him. When he tries to get a job from John Hancock, whose project was the one that ruined Johnny’s hand, John Hancock is repulsed at the sight of Johnny’s hand and won’t even take him as a cabin boy for one of his ships. Johnny is angry and despairing when John Hancock sends him away, but John Hancock sends a slave after him with a whole back of silver, apparently out of guilt. Hungry because he’s had so little to eat lately, he goes to a tavern and orders a great deal of food. He is disappointed to see how much of his money he wasted and realizes that he has been a fool for ordering too much all at once. He spends the rest of his money buying presents for the silversmith’s daughters and new shoes for himself. When Johnny comes home in his new shoes, Mrs. Lapham accuses him of stealing them from someone because she can’t imagine that he could earn enough money to buy them. The girls are happy with the presents until the youngest one suddenly gets upset at Johnny touching her with his bad hand because it looks weird and she’s afraid of it, ruining the moment.

There is one last thing Johnny has that might help him. He has had a silver cup his entire life with his full name on it: Jonathan Lyte Tremain. The cup also bears the family crest of the Lyte family, a wealthy merchant family in Boston. Johnny’s mother never introduced Johnny to her relatives before she died, although she said that she was from a genteel and educated background and their own names, Jonathan and Lavinia, were family names. Johnny knows that the head of the wealthy Lyte family is also named Jonathan Lyte, so he thinks that he could be a relative. For some reason, his mother didn’t want him to show the cup to anyone, although she told him to keep it in case he ever needed it. She said to only show it others if he was in dire trouble and it seemed like even God Himself had forsaken him, and his current situation certainly qualifies.

When Johnny goes to see Mr. Lyte, Mr. Lyte doesn’t believe that he’s really a relative. He thinks that it’s just a story to get some of the Lyte family’s money, and he’s heard stories like this before. Johnny argues unpleasantly with Mr. Lyte before telling him that he has a silver cup that will prove the relationship. Mr. Lyte seems interested in the cup and tells Johnny to bring it to him that night. Before returning to Mr. Lyte with the cup, Johnny goes to Rab and tells him what he’s about to do. Rab gives him some food and a change of clothes before he goes but warns him that Mr. Lyte has been deceptive and unethical in his business dealings.

Rab’s warning is prophetic. When Johnny produces the silver cup, Mr. Lyte agrees that it is part of a set that the family has, but he says that the cup was stolen from his house only two months before. He accuses Johnny of being the thief and has him arrested. Rab finds out about it and asks Johnny if he showed the cup to anyone else before the date when it was supposedly stolen. With his mother dead, the only other person who could vouch that Johnny had the cup before is Priscilla, the Lapham daughter that Johnny was originally supposed to marry before the accident that ruined his hand. Priscilla, called Cilla for short, is willing to testify in court that Johnny showed her the cup before, but Mr. Lyte begins exerting his influence on the Laphams. He places a large order for silver and pays in advance as a kind of bribe, and Mrs. Lapham, who has already decided that Johnny is no good, declares that she will keep Cilla locked up on the day of the trial so she can’t speak on his behalf, even though she knows young Johnny will be executed without her testimony.

Rab correctly realizes that some of the attitudes of people against Johnny are because Johnny is an arrogant hothead who has made enemies because of the sharp and snooty remarks he’s made to them and about them in the past. He points out that these people, who have felt oppressed by Johnny are now taking their opportunity to get even with him and get rid of him, just like the rival apprentice whose dangerous trick ruined Johnny’s hand. If Johnny is going to get out of this mess and change his life, he’s going to have to change his own attitude and behavior and learn to make friends, develop some humility, and show gratitude for the help that he receives.

Fortunately, Rab knows a lawyer who is willing to take Johnny’s case without pay, Josiah Quincy (historical figure – Johnny notices that he has a dangerous-sounding cough, like the kind his mother had before she died, and the real-life Josiah Quincy did die of tuberculosis), because Mr. Lyte is a Tory who has crossed the Colonial Patriots who call themselves the Sons of Liberty with his crooked business dealings. Johnny’s trial becomes the latest skirmish between the two sides of the Revolution that is building. For the first time in his life, Johnny does have cause to be truly grateful to others. Unfortunately, he has also made one more enemy. Mr. Lyte is publicly embarrassed at having been shown to bring a false charge against an unfortunate boy in court, and if anyone is even more proud and arrogant than Johnny has been, it’s Mr. Lyte.

Johnny takes the job of delivery boy for Rab’s newspaper and becomes more involved in the politics of the Colonies and the growing Revolution. He learns how to ride a horse for the first time, even learning to manage a previously abused and skittish horse. Johnny becomes known as a good messenger and finds other side jobs. He develops his use of his uninjured left hand and even increases his use of his damaged right hand. He becomes better read and educated as he builds his messenger career. However, Johnny is also drawn into the growing conflict and learning the truth about his relationship with Mr. Lyte.

The book is a Newbery Medal Winner and available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). It was made into a movie by Disney in 1957.

My Reaction

The Background of the Book

Because this book is an award-winner and has patriotic themes, it is a popular book for children to read and study in American schools. I didn’t actually read the book when I was in elementary school, probably because it contains works like “slut”, but I remember our teacher showing us the Disney live-action movie version from 1957. I still sometimes think of the Liberty Tree and the Sons of Liberty song from that movie. If you read the comments below the YouTube clip of that song, some people were commenting about seeing this movie when they were in 5th grade at school, and that’s about when I saw it, too, back in the 1990s. I found the song stirring then, although it looks a little corny to me now. For patriotic musicals, I prefer 1776, which I saw in high school and which is also corny but brings up some interesting historical topics. 1776 was based on a Broadway play written as the US approached its Bicentennial. If you look at my page of books from the 1970s, you’ll see that people were writing books for children focusing on the American Revolution, Colonial America, and other patriotic themes because the Bicentennial was on people’s minds at the time. The 200-year anniversary of the country was something people wanted to celebrate, and they used it as an opportunity to educate children about the history and lore of the country. Part of what makes Johnny Tremain interesting is that the original book was written in the middle of WWII, which was more of a worrying time rather than a celebration. The Disney move was made after the war, when people were in a celebratory and triumphant mood about how well the country was doing, and it ends on a triumphant note, but the original book was much darker.

During WWII, children’s authors had a choice about whether or not to mention the war in the books they were writing. If you look at my page of books written during the 1940s, you’ll see that some children’s authors addressed the war directly and even worked it into the plots of their books while it was still happening. I’ve marked which ones did that on the 1940s page. However, for those who didn’t want to write contemporary stories mentioning WWII, there were other options. Some authors wrote just-for-fun stories that had nothing to do with the war at all, which were good for helping children relax and take a break from the harsh realities going on around them, and some wrote books with historical themes.

The books with historical themes, like Johnny Tremain, often had a patriotic focus, putting the current war into perspective by reminding children that the country had been through struggles and dark times before, and reinforcing the patriotic ideals that made the struggle worth it. You can see these themes in both American and British books written around the same time, trying to help children understand that concepts of the war, what people were fighting to protect, and why the sacrifices and deprivations of the war were necessary.

There is a scene in Johnny Tremain where James Otis tries to make sure that the Sons of Liberty who are ready to fight the British understand what they’re really fighting for, the larger implications for the rest of the world, and the sacrifices they might make, including their lives. Some of his speech seems a little anachronistic with its mention of rights for everyone, regardless of race, because slavery is practiced during this era. I suppose it’s not impossible that Otis said something like that at some point, but racial equality would not have been high among the priorities of these people in real life. It felt like it was meant more for modern, 20th century audiences. He also makes a reference to rich people in France running down poor children in their carriages, which sounds like a reference to a scene in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, from 1859. My impression is that Otis’s speech in the book is meant more for the book’s original audience of children during WWII than for the original Sons of Liberty. Dr. Warren later makes comments about young men who give up their lives so that others can stand up like men and how a hundred or two hundred years later, men will be doing the same thing. I think those comments are also meant to help 1940s children understand why the men of their time, possibly their own fathers and brothers, might be willing to sacrifice themselves as soldiers.

Johnny Tremain is really a rather dark story in places, which is probably why my teachers showed us the Disney movie rather than having us read the book. They did have us read plenty of other dark stories when I was in school, even ones much darker that this one, although most didn’t have the kind of objectionable language this book does.

Story Themes

Although this is an historical novel, the main focus of the story is the transformation in young Johnny’s life and character as he suffers from misfortune, redeems himself, and plays a part in larger events and history. At the beginning of the story, even though Johnny is an orphan, he seems to have his future made at a young age. He has a particular talent for working with silver, and he’s in an apprenticeship and poised to take over the master’s business someday. However, like many classic heroes, he has the fatal flaw of hubris – he’s too proud of himself. It makes him arrogant and overconfident. His arrogance makes enemies of his fellow apprentices, and in one moment when he pushes his luck, his chief rival does something that seriously harms Johnny and apparently ruins his future. Johnny, who has never had any real patience or sympathy for other people who are less gifted or fortunate than himself finds himself in the position of needing patience and sympathy from others. His master sees the difficulty Johnny is in and tries to help him learn the lessons of humility that he needs to cope with the situation, but for someone as proud as Johnny has been, it’s not easy to cope with his humbled position. It’s a serious struggle for Johnny to find a new place in the world and a new path for his future. There are people who openly despise him for his weakened condition, which is unfair, and initially, he passes up some opportunities for improvement because he considers the jobs beneath him.

Johnny life changes when he finds himself in a situation so hopeless that he is really dependent on the help of other people. Some of those other people help Johnny in the court trial, not just out of a desire to help Johnny but also to embarrass Mr. Lyte by publicly exposing him for bringing a false charge. Still, they save Johnny’s life, and Johnny gains a new life by working for Rab’s family as a delivery boy and following Rab’s example in behavior. Rab is calmer and more thoughtful than Johnny, and he encourages Johnny to learn to be more thoughtful and to think before he speaks and acts. As Johnny does so, he notices that people begin treating him better because he begins giving the chance to do so instead of thoughtlessly offending them or picking fights. With Johnny’s change of attitude and behavior, he is able to forge new relationships, and new opportunities open up for him. While Johnny’s hand getting damaged seemed to be the end of everything to him and the delivery job at first seemed to be beneath him, these changes in his life actually lead to personal growth for him.

Through his work for the newspaper and the Sons of Liberty, Johnny becomes part of the American Revolution. It brings him into contact with many notable Revoluntionary war figures, including John Hancock, Josiah Quincy, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Dr. Joseph Warren. Not all of these figures are pleasant figures in the story. John Hancock, in particular, doesn’t treat Johnny well when he’s at the lowest point of his life. Dr. Warren is kind and attempts to help Johnny with his hand when they first meet, but at first, Johnny doesn’t want him to even look at it because he’s still ashamed of it and how it was damaged. Johnny later regrets that, and explains the details of his injury to him. The book ends with Dr. Warren performing a procedure to remove the scar tissue that has kept Johnny’s hand deformed. Without it, his hand will move more freely, and he will be able to fire a gun in the coming war and do other things he thought he would never be able to do again. It is uncertain whether or not he will ever regain enough dexterity to be able to return to being a silversmith, but his eyes have been opened to many other possibilities in life, and he has a cause to fight for first.

During the course of the book, Johnny also takes part in the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s famous ride. His role as one of the participants in larger events is partly to teach and reinforce history lessons and patriotic feelings for the young readers of this book but also to show that even a flawed and somewhat disabled person like Johnny is worth something, has a future, and can participate in larger events and make their mark on the world. The more Johnny does participate in larger events and make connections with other people, the more his life also changes for the better and the more opportunities open up for him.

Life is Full of Mixed Feelings

I also noticed that there are many cases where people have mixed feelings about each other. As I said before, although Johnny becomes allied with the Sons of Liberty and believes in their cause, not all of them really treat him well, at least at first. Johnny also realizes that he doesn’t agree with all of their personal attitudes. At one point, he realizes that Sam Adams wouldn’t approve of the quality of mercy toward his enemies, but Johnny actually does. Although Johnny doesn’t like the British soldiers, there are moments when some of them do something kind or honorable. He doesn’t like them as a group, but he privately acknowledges that he can like certain ones as individuals in certain circumstances. Johnny comes to see the British soldiers as human beings who can be likeable, and as he sees that the situation around them is going to lead to war, he realizes that having to fight and maybe even kill some of these people would be painful. Although he still believes in his cause and is willing to fight for it, the seriousness and pain of war becomes clear to him.

Johnny’s ability to see multiple sides to people’s personalities and the capacity he has to show mercy even toward people he doesn’t like or who have actively tried to harm him are important developments of his character. Mrs. Lapham, Dove, and Mr. Lyte were all pretty bad to Johnny, in different ways. As the story progresses and Johnny’s condition in life improves and he has some separation and independence from both of them, he feels less resentful toward them both and even begins to see them in a better light. Personally, I don’t think that erases the unlikable and even dangerous sides of these characters. Mrs. Lapham would have happily watched Johnny be hung for a crime he never committed and was perfectly willing to take a bribe to lock up her own daughter, knowing that she was an important witness who could save him. That side of her personality is a definite side of her personality, and that is something that she definitely and knowingly did. However, Johnny later has a feeling of nostalgia when he remembers that Mrs. Lapham did have a hard life in some ways and yet was a hard worker, who always tried to look after her household, even when it was difficult, so she isn’t wholly evil. In some ways, her evil side and opportunism is a reflection of the hard life she’s lived and what she thinks she has to do to get ahead in the world and provide security for her fatherless daughters. Again, I don’t see her as being a really good person as a person because of what she does, what she thinks is acceptable to do, and how she treats other people, and I don’t believe that much of that was as necessary or excusable as she seemed to think it was. However, with some time and separation, Johnny starts to remember that she did have some relatively good sides.

I do note that, while it’s good that Johnny sees people for what they are, even acknowledging that unlikable people have their good sides, this does not mean that it would be good or healthy for Johnny to allow himself to be at the mercy or under the control of these people eve again. No matter how hard a worker Mrs. Lapham is, I can’t help but notice she is fundamentally untrustworthy. Knowingly helping to frame a helpless boy for a crime with a death penalty is pretty close to deliberate murder, and that’s about as bad as a person can get. The argument could be made that Mrs. Lapham didn’t know that Johnny didn’t steal the silver cup, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m sure that she was fully aware that he didn’t because of her declaration that she would lock up Cilla on the day of the trial, which indicates that Cilla told her what she knew and that the cup was honestly Johnny’s from the beginning, and she was determined to prevent Cilla from telling the truth in court, making sure that Johnny would die so she and her family could profit from Mr. Lyte’s bribe. No, from what I’ve seen of Mrs. Lapham, merely being a “hard worker”, while a good trait by itself, isn’t enough to redeem her as a character or make her trustworthy because she definitely doesn’t have that hard-working trait in isolation from her willingness to throw people under the proverbial bus and even try to get them killed for the sake of money.

Although Dove is never as sorry for the accident that hurt Johnny’s hand as he told their master he was. Behind the master’s back, he is gleefully cruel to Johnny when he has the opportunity. Admittedly, what Rab says about that being Dove’s form of retaliation for Johnny’s own arrogant meanness toward him is true, but it is equally true that Dove’s own behavior never improves even when Johnny’s does. Initially, Johnny swears revenge against Dove, but when he sees that his life isn’t really ruined by him and Dove gets some comeuppance in other ways, Johnny begins to feel a little more kindly toward him and no longer feels the need for revenge. (Although, he does get Rab to help him toss Dove into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party because Dove was trying to steal some of the tea for himself, in spite of the participants agreeing not to do that ahead of time, and attempting to lie about it. It’s not the grand revenge that Johnny initially envisioned, but it is a brief moment of comeuppance.) Johnny even treats Dove nicely after he goes to work as a stable hand for the British troops. Dove is loyal to the British, but the British are not nice to him in return, largely because Dove isn’t particularly competent at what he does and because he is obviously self-interested. Johnny realizes that he is lonely and could use friends, but even when Dove admits that Johnny and Rab treat him better than anyone else does (largely so they can pump him for information about the British troop movements), Dove still repeatedly tries to tell the British that Johnny is a spy for the Sons of Liberty and openly admits it to Johnny. Dove feels like it’s his duty as a loyal Tory to turn Johnny in, not showing loyalty to the people who have shown him the most kindness. Johnny understands all of that. While Johnny’s behavior has changed and improved, and because of that, Johnny is more respected by the even the British than Dove is. In the end, Dove is his own worst enemy, and his own behavior is the reason why more people don’t like him.

Mr. Lyte deliberately tried to have Johnny executed for a crime he didn’t commit. That was pretty horrible, and Mr. Lyte also steals the silver cup from Johnny when he attempts to sell it to him. It’s all the more horrible when Johnny is a young relative of his. However, there is something of an explanation behind it. Mr. Lyte didn’t recognize Johnny as a relative because he knew Johnny’s father under another name and had believed that Johnny’s mother, who was his niece, had died childless. Mr. Lyte is still an unethical man, both in his personal and business dealings, but although he was wrong about Johnny not being related to him, the one thing he was honest about was saying that was what he believed. His beliefs were wrong and the actions that were based on those beliefs were also wrong, but he wasn’t actually lying about those particular beliefs, even though he has lied about other things. Later, when Johnny’s life changes, he no longer cares about having the silver cup or any relation to the Lytes.

On the other hand, there are also some characters who seem likeable initially but who prove to have dark sides. The most notable character of this type is Lavinia Lyte, the daughter of the wealthy merchant, Mr. Lyte. At first, Johnny has a crush on her because she is pretty, although he knows that they are probably related in some way. However, he eventually discovers that Lavinia Lyte is silly, shallow, spoiled, snobbish, and uncaring. She takes Cilla and her little sister Isannah into her household as servants and companions when their family doesn’t have much money. It does help Cilla and Isannah monetarily, but Johnny notices that Lavinia treats them very differently. She initially only wanted Isannah because Isannah is a pretty and adorable little girl. Lavinia is supposedly mentoring Isannah as a protege and raising her to enter high society, but really, she treats her like a pet lap dog or a living doll she can dress up and play with. Isannah is young and impressionable and has never been much of an independent thinker, often imitating other people throughout the story. Under Lavinia’s influence, Johnny sees that Isannah is becoming spoiled and badly behaved, just like Lavinia, and is not developing properly, either intellectually, morally, or emotionally. Meanwhile, Lavinia treats Cilla like an ungrateful servant, calling her “stupid” when she doesn’t do things right, even when she is merely doing precisely what Lavinia told her to do in the first place. Johnny gets fed up with this situation and tells Lavinia off for it. In return, she snobbishly tells him that he’s just a ragamuffin boy. Although Johnny still feels some attraction for Lavinia because of her looks, he learns what her personal character is really like and what being around her really involves. This remaining attraction he feels for her dies when he understands their real family relationship.

Rab is generally a good character and a positive influence on Johnny, but even he has his faults. People in his family don’t communicate their feelings as much as they should, and Johnny becomes jealous and angry with Rab when he discovers that he’s been courting Cilla behind his back and not talking to him about it. Rab’s desire for a gun so he can fight in their cause also gets him into trouble a couple of times. Even as one of the nicest characters in the book, Rab isn’t perfect, either.

The characters in the story feel very real because they do have multiple sides to their personalities and often cause mixed emotions. Johnny also comes to realize that feelings about people and relationships can change over time. Some relationships develop for the best and others for the worse. It is a sign of Johnny’s growth as a character that he can see and acknowledge the complexity of the characters of other people and his own feelings regarding them. His ability to understand and manage his feelings grows throughout the story.

The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat

Five Find-Outers

The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat by Enid Blyton, 1944, 1966.

Bets is happy that her brother, Pip, is coming home from boarding school, and he’s bringing his friends to visit. Now that the children are reunited, Bets and the others hope that they will find another mystery to solve! The others ask Bets if anything interesting has happened since they were home last, and she says not very much, although someone has moved into the empty house next door. The new neighbor is Lady Candling, who keeps Siamese cats.

The boy who helps the gardener, Luke, is nice and allows the children to visit and see the cats. Lady Candling says that the Siamese cats are valuable prize-winning cats. She keeps them in a large cage most of the time for safety, but Miss Harmer, the housekeeper, takes one out to show the children. Unfortunately, one boy, Fatty, owns a Scottie dog named Buster, and Buster comes into the garden looking for him. Buster frightens the cat and chases her! The cat claws Buster after he chases her into the bushes, and they manage to get Buster under control, but they have trouble finding the cat. Miss Harmer is upset that her cat is lost, and Bets goes to search for the cat.

While Bets is looking for the cat, the gardener, Mr. Tupping comes to find out what the fuss is about. Mr. Tupping is a violent and short-tempered man. (They also emphasize that he has a hooked nose, which I think is probably a stereotype. Enid Blyton’s books often contain derogatory racial stereotypes, although later printings have been revised to remove them.) Mr. Tupping hates children and animals, and he grabs Buster and locks him up, threatening to beat him later. The children try to help Buster, but he chases them out of the garden. Bets is left behind, but she locates the missing cat, and Luke helps to free Buster and get Bets out of the garden without Mr. Tupping seeing her. However, Mr. Tupping threatens Luke with dire consequences if he ever lets the children into the garden again.

This is just the beginning of their troubles with Mr. Tupping. When Mr. Tupping finds out that Bets has visited Luke again, he storms into Bets’s own little garden, rips her strawberry plants out of the ground, burns them, and yells at her. Bets is afraid to report him to the adults because she’s afraid that Luke will get in more trouble with Mr. Tupping. Luke is a poor orphan who lives with his stepfather, and he desperately needs the job, which is the only reason why he continues to work with the nasty Mr. Tupping. Mr. Tupping is also friends with the local policeman, and the children know that the local policeman resents them for solving a mystery before he did, so they’re sure that he will side with Mr. Tupping, no matter what they say about him.

Then, Lady Candling’s prize cat, Dark Queen, disappears, and Luke is blamed for stealing her! The children are sure that Luke is being framed for the cat-napping, but the evidence is against him. Pip and Bets’s own mother saw the cat in its cage when she went to tea with Lady Candling, and Luke was working in a garden bed nearby. Even Luke says that no one else went near the cage between then and the time when the cat disappeared. When a wooden whistle Luke made is found in the cats’ cage, the children are sure that it was planted to frame Luke, but how can they prove it? Then, the cat reappears, and later disappears again! What is going on?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction and Spoilers

I found this story frustrating because all of the adults in the story are so oblivious to Mr. Tupping’s violence and aggression. He is actively abusive to the children and animals, but nobody seems to notice or even inquire about signs of trouble. Bets’s mother never seems to notice that all of her daughter’s strawberry plants have suddenly disappeared from her garden and never asks her daughter what happened. Mr. Tupping is able to just march onto the family’s property and abuse an 8-year-old girl with complete impunity, and her mother never notices a thing. (Of course, if I were the girl in question, I would have done what I used to do when I was picked on as a kid – take a deep breath, throw back my head, and scream continuously until help arrives. I figured out at a young age that if you scream from your diaphragm, you can get extra volume and keep the scream going for longer without straining your throat, and it’s difficult for the adults to ignore. You can’t scream like that at every inconvenience or people will start to ignore it, but it’s definitely an attention-getter if you use it when it really counts! Just let Mr. Tupping explain his presence and actions when the adults come to find out why their daughter is screaming like she’s being murdered!)

Mr. Tupping is a very obvious villain. He’s also the first person on the scene each time the cat disappears, the one who strategically assigns Luke to work near the cats’ cages just before the prize cat disappears each time, and the keeper of the key to the cats’ cages when Miss Harmer is away, which she is each time the prize cat disappears. Yet, even though he has means (the key), motive (he hates the kids and animals and wants to get rid of Luke), and opportunity (always the first person in the cats’ cages whenever the cat disappears and the one person who controls where Luke is working), all of the adults immediately look at Luke as the thief, never even questioning Mr. Tupping. An adult would be more likely than a kid to know where to sell a prize-winning cat (heck, as a an adult, I wouldn’t even know where to deal in black market animals), but nope, all of the adults first think a kid did it, like kids have those kinds of criminal connections to the prize cat black market. It drove me completely crazy!

It’s worse because Mr. Tupping is friends with the local policeman and gets favoritism because of it. When the kids consult their friend who is a police inspector, he finds out that Mr. Tupping has a police record for being involved in a dog-napping case (surprise, surprise), which establishes his criminal history and connections to people who deal in stolen animals. I was disgusted that the local policeman never looked into his background himself, but I felt a little better when the inspector reprimands him for making friends with a criminal and overlooking evidence that implicated him and trying to prevent the children from bringing evidence and concerns to light. The local policeman is embarrassed, but at that point, I felt like he deserved to be.

The villain was obvious, but what saved this mystery was that he actually used a clever trick to confuse the time when he actually took the cat. I knew from the beginning who the cat thief was, so the real mystery for me was how he got the cat out of its cage without people seeing him. It turns out that Mr. Tupping takes the cat earlier in the day than everyone thought the cat was stolen. The Siamese cats look very much alike, but the one that was stolen had a marking that was different from the others. With a bit of paint, Mr. Tupping makes a different cat look like the missing one for most of the afternoon, quickly using a bit of turpentine to remove the paint at a strategic moment to make it seem like the cat disappeared at a time when Luke was near the cats’ cages.

Five Go Off in a Caravan

The Famous Five

Five Go Off in a Caravan by Enid Blyton, 1946.

The children (Julian, Dick, Ann, George) and their dog, Timmy, are all looking forward to the summer holidays.  They’re not sure what they want to do, but they think that it would be more fun to go somewhere without the adults instead of going home, but they can’t think of anywhere they can go without adults.  They doze off in the sun while talking about it, but Timmy wakes them when a circus procession passes by.

The children are fascinated by the circus and call to a boy traveling with them, Nobby, asking him where they’re going to be performing.  Nobby says that the circus is on a break, and they’re going to be spending some time at a lake that allows them to camp there with their animals.

As the children watch the caravans of the circus going by, they think that it would be great if they could hire a caravan (horse-drawn travel trailer) and travel in it themselves.  They have a horse, Dobby, who could pull one.  The children ask their mother if they can hire a caravan, and she says that she’ll have to talk to their father about it.  It turns out that their father needs to go up north for part of the summer and wants their mother to come with them, so he thinks that it’s alright if the children want to take a caravan and camp out while they’re away.  The parents decide that the children will need to hire two caravans and borrow an extra horse because they don’t think one caravan will be enough for the four children and their dog, and they insist that the children sent them a message every day to tell them where they are and how they’re doing.

As the children discuss their plans in more detail, they decide that it will be fun to go to the lake where the circus is and get to know Nobby better.  Nobby lives with his uncle, who is the chief clown of the circus, and the children didn’t like what they saw of him before because he didn’t seem jolly at all, but they think it would be fun to be friends with Nobby and get another look at the circus animals. 

The children are eager to get started, but their parents make them pack and plan properly.  When the caravans arrive, the girls choose the red one, and the boys get the green one.  The girls take the new horse, Trotter, and the boys take Dobby for their caravan.  The adults give the children a map of places where they’re allowed to camp.  On their way to the lake, the children camp on farms that allow caravans.

When the children arrive at the lake, Nobby is glad to see them, and he introduces them to his chimpanzee, Pongo, and his terriers, Barker and Growler.  Nobby is friendly, but his Uncle Dan (called Tiger Dan) and Lou the acrobat are rough and unfriendly and don’t want the kids around.  When the children camp near the circus that night, Tiger Dan and Lou try to run them out of the campgrounds, but the children send their dog after them.  The campgrounds are public property, and there isn’t any reason why the children can’t be there.  The children think that Tiger Dan and Lou stumbled on their campsite by accident when they were trying to have some kind of secret meeting.

The next day, the children decide to go camp in the hills, as they had already planned because they know it will be cooler in the hills.  Lou takes an interest in where the children are going, but they don’t want to tell him much because they don’t want Lou and Tiger Dan coming after them to harass them again.  They find a nice place to camp up in the hills on some land belonging to a pleasant farmer and his wife, who also provide the children with food.

However, it isn’t long before Tiger Dan and Lou locate the children’s campsite and try to talk them out of camping at that spot also.  Nobby doesn’t know why Tiger Dan and Lou are up in the hills anyway.  The circus people have been buying some of their food from the farmer, but Nobby says that it’s always the women who go to the farm to buy things, not the men.  It seems like Tiger Dan and Lou are up to something suspicious, but the children don’t know what.

Then, suddenly, the men seem to change their views of the children, encouraging Nobby to be friends with them and to bring the children to visit the circus camp.  The children are suspicious and leave Timmy to guard their caravans while they visit the circus camp, just in case the men try to mess with their camp while they’re gone.  When they return to their own camp, the children discover that the men have tried to poison Timmy with tainted meat!  Fortunately, Timmy didn’t eat the meat, but unfortunately, one of Nobby’s dogs eats some and is violently ill.  The children aren’t sure whether the little dog will survive or not, and they don’t know why the bad men want to get rid of them so badly that they would try to kill their dog.  Whatever’s going on is serious, and they need to get to the bottom of it!

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction

Traveling without parental supervision is the stuff of vintage children’s books and the dreams of children from every era! The kids in the Famous Five series have far more independence that modern children have, and in fact, the authorities might be concerned about children their age traveling without their parents. Actually, I would think that few adults even at the time of the writing of this book would even consider letting their children travel alone like that. That’s part of the appeal of this type of story, children being able to do things that real children never do.

I didn’t like the part about the dog being poisoned because I always hate it when bad things happen to animals in stories, but don’t worry! Nobby’s dog is fine in the end!

The Castle of Adventure

Enid Blyton’s Adventure Series

The Castle of Adventure by Enid Blyton, 1946.

Since the children’s last adventures, Philip and Dinah’s mother has used the children’s reward money to buy a home for them, so the children won’t have to continue staying with their aunt and uncle on school holidays.  They’ve also invited their friends, Jack and Lucy-Ann, to live with them, so they don’t have to return to their uncle’s house.  Now, the girls go to the same boarding school, and the boys go to their boarding school, and they’re all together on holidays.

When the children are out of school for the summer again, they and their mother go to stay in a cottage near an old castle on a hill.  The children are fascinated by the castle, but their mother doesn’t want them going near it because local people tell sinister stories about it.  She doesn’t explain about their stories, but she seems to think that it might be dangerous.  However, she does agree that the children can go have a look at an eagle’s nest near the castle, knowing how Jack feels about birds.  The children realize that they can use that to get a look at the castle anyway.

They make friends with a local girl named Tassie.  They call Tassie a “wild girl” because she’s a gypsy, has a pet fox, and runs around in old, dirty clothes and without shoes (she carries shoes with her but doesn’t wear them) and seems uneducated.  She doesn’t seem to know what an eagle is or what a bath is (although the children’s mother insists that she get one).  (No, I don’t believe that she’s ignorant for being a gypsy. I think it’s both a stereotype and a plot device.)  However, Tassie knows the area very well and helps the children find their way around.  Tassie is also afraid of the castle.  When the children ask her what stories people tell about the castle, she says that an evil man used to live there, and people would come to see him and never be seen again.  Still, the children want to explore the castle.

When they explore the castle, they find a water pump with a puddle beneath it, indicating that someone has been there recently to prime and use the pump.  Jack also realizes that the eagles in the next have a young eaglet who looks like it’s about ready to fly.  He persuades the children’s mother to let him build a hide (camouflaged shelter) so he can camp out and watch the birds.

While camping out, he realizes that there’s someone else in the castle besides himself.  At night, he hears someone moving around and using the pump, and he thinks he sees a flashing light, like someone signaling to someone else.  In the morning, he thinks maybe he dreamed it, but Lucy-Ann mentions seeing the flashing light.  Lucy-Ann thought that Jack was signaling to her, but Jack realizes that it was someone else and that he wasn’t dreaming.

Exploring the castle further, he finds a hidden room with old furniture and armor and realizes that someone has been hiding there.  Later, he sees some strange men in the castle and hears them speaking a language that he doesn’t recognize.  Who are they and what are they doing there?  Could they have something to do with the assignment that their friend Bill, an undercover investigator, is doing in a town nearby?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). It was also made into a tv movie serial. You can see it on YouTube.

My Reaction

Like other Enid Blyton books, there are racial issues in this book that were changed in reprintings. Enid Blyton books often feature stereotypical gypsies (more politely called Romany or Travelers these days) as characters and plot devices. Tassie is a pleasant and helpful character but still stereotypical.

I like the setting for the story. A supposedly abandoned castle makes an exciting place for our young heroes to explore. Even with the references to spooky stories about the place, the kids never really believe that the castle might be haunted. They very quickly realize that there are living people who have been hanging around the place. The sort of sinister characters using the place as a hideout are the same sort of villain characters as in the first book, which brings the kids’ friend Bill back into the story.

I enjoyed the movie serialization of the book, and I thought that it followed the story of the book well.

Island of Adventure

Enid Blyton’s Adventure Series

Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton, 1944.

Philip Mannering is spending part of his summer holidays at the home of one of his teachers, doing some extra studying, which is a bit depressing.  He has fallen behind in school because he recently suffered from Scarlet Fever and Measles, and he is trying to catch up.  He’s not the only boy studying at the teacher’s home, but he isn’t really friends with the others.

One day, he’s doing some studying on the hillside and hears a strange voice telling him to shut the door and not whistle.  There is no door on the hillside, and he wasn’t whistling.  Philip is very confused until he realizes that the voice is coming from a big, white parrot sitting in a tree.  Then, he hears a child’s voice calling the parrot from the garden of the teacher’s house.  Philip is happy, thinking that another boy has joined the study group, but it turns out that he’s only half right.

The voice in the garden belongs to Lucy-Ann Trent, who isn’t a student and isn’t there to study.  Her brother, Jack, is the one who needs to catch up in school because he never focuses on his studies.  Jack has only one interest in life, and that’s birds.  Jack owns the parrot, Kiki, and wants to be an ornithologist when he grows up.  He is bright but disinterested in anything that isn’t related to his chosen field.  Lucy-Ann is only there to spend time with him and keep him company while he gets extra tutoring.  The two of them are orphans.  They don’t remember their parents because they died in a plane crash when the children were very small.  Most of the time, they live at boarding school, which is why they don’t spend as much time together as they like.  Usually, during their holidays, they live with a fussy uncle, which is why the parrot is always barking orders at the children.

Philip also usually lives with an aunt and uncle when he’s not at school.  His father is dead. His mother is still alive, but she spends most of the time working at her art agency.  He also has a sister named Dinah, but they don’t usually get along.  Philip is surprised at how well Jack and Lucy-Ann get along with each other because he’s always fighting with his sister, who has a temper. (Although, admittedly, he does push Dinah to lose her temper.)  Strangely, Philip finds himself wishing that Dinah were also there because, when he becomes friends with Jack and Lucy-Ann, it occurs to him that she would nicely round out the group.

Philip, Jack, and Lucy-Ann become friends by bonding over their shared love of animals. Philip likes the parrot and tells Jack and Lucy-Ann that they would probably like his aunt and uncle’s house because they live by the sea, and there are many sea birds in the area.  Philip doesn’t know much about birds in general, but he likes collecting various small pets, including mice and caterpillars.  The teacher isn’t too happy about these animals because they disrupt study sessions.

Then, Jack and Lucy-Ann get a letter saying that they’re going to have to continue staying with the teacher through the rest of the summer because their uncle has broken his leg and can’t take them back.  The children aren’t happy about that and neither is the teacher because he had other plans after the summer tutoring session ended, even though the uncle has provided a generous check for the children’s care.

Then, Philip has a wonderful idea: maybe Jack and Lucy-Ann can come visit him and his sister at his aunt and uncle’s house.  Dinah has written to him that she’s bored and lonely and misses him, even though they usually fight.  She would like the company, and Philip knows that his aunt and uncle could use the money the children’s uncle is willing to offer for their boarding.  Jack and Lucy-Ann like that idea, but they’re not sure that their uncle and teacher would agree to let them go because they don’t know Philip’s aunt and uncle, and they think maybe Philip’s aunt and uncle wouldn’t want two strange children staying with them.  The children know their plan would be best for everyone, but since they’re not sure that they can persuade the adults, they take the attitude that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission and plot for Jack and Lucy-Ann to run away and join Philip on the train home.  Jack and Lucy-Ann secretly send their trunks to the train station along with Philip’s and tell the teacher that they’re just going down to the station to say goodbye to Philip when he goes.  Then, they quietly buy their train tickets and leave.

When the children arrive at Philip’s home, Aunt Polly is irritated because she isn’t prepared for unexpected guests.  There are no rooms or beds for them, and she says that they can’t stay.  However, she is surprisingly won over by Kiki, who says, “Poor Polly!” over and over in a sad tone.  Not knowing that Kiki is also sometimes called Polly, Aunt Polly thinks that the bird knows her name.  She often feels overworked and rarely gets any sympathy, so she appreciates this gesture from Kiki, who repeats the phrase more often, seeing that it pleases Aunt Polly.  Aunt Polly is also charmed that Polly tells people to get a handkerchief when they sniffle or sneeze because she’s always saying that to Dinah.  When she telephones the children’s teacher to discuss the situation and learns about the fee the children’s uncle is willing to pay for caring for the children, she decides that maybe the children can stay after all.  The relieved teacher promises to endorse the check over to her.

Aunt Polly is relieved to get the extra money, and she reveals to the children that she’s been very worried about expenses because Philip and Dinah’s mother has been ill and hasn’t been able to send the money she usually sends from her job.  Her doctor says that she’s run-down and needs a rest, but her job is an important source of money to the whole family.  Everyone is relying on her, but since she hasn’t been able to send her usual support money for the children, Aunt Polly is worried about how she will afford the children’s school fees.  Philip bravely says that he’s willing to quit school and get a job instead to help out the family, but Aunt Polly says he’s still too young.  Philip has wished before that he was old enough to be the man of the family and provide for his mother.  His uncle isn’t much help with money and doesn’t pay attention to family expenses, too absorbed in his academic work.  Aunt Polly says that the money she’ll get from boarding the Trent children will help out.

Philip says that part of the trouble is that the house where they live is really too large. About half the house is crumbling into ruins from neglect, and the other half is really too big for Aunt Polly to maintain.  Aunt Polly agrees but says that moving would be difficult because few people would want a house like this one, crumbling and located in a rather lonely spot along the coast.  Besides, the children’s uncle loves it because he knows all the history of the area, and he wouldn’t want to leave.  Philip thinks the only thing that will really help is when he and Dinah are old enough to get jobs.  Then, the two of them will be able to help their mother afford a place for three of them.

Philip’s aunt and uncle have a gloomy man named Joe working for them, and he tells the children that the tower room where the boys will sleep on an old mattress (a prospect that seems adventurous to them instead of an inconvenience) isn’t a good room because it’s the only room where they can see the Isle of Gloom.  He says that bad things are associated with the Isle of Gloom because bad people who did terrible things lived there.  Jack asks Philip about the Isle of Gloom.  Philip says that it’s difficult to see, even from the tower room, and it’s always covered in mist.  Nobody lives there now.  Jack thinks it sounds great because the birds on the island have probably never seen people before and won’t be afraid of them, so he could get some amazing pictures.  He thinks maybe he’ll even find some rare birds.  Philip says that he and Dinah have never been there before themselves, and he’s not sure whether there are birds there or not. 

Staying at the house by the sea isn’t easy.  All of the children are expected to help with the chores.  There is no electricity, and they use oil lamps that need to be cleaned.  The water has to be pumped from a well.  Still, Jack and Lucy-Ann think that it’s just part of the adventure.  They enjoy going swimming and fishing with Philip and Dinah, and Jack has fun bird-watching, but Joe the handyman is always spying on them and acting creepy.  He keeps telling the children spooky stories about things lurking in the dark.  For some reason, Joe tries to discourage the children from exploring the area or going out in a boat, but they soon make an interesting discovery. 

While the children are exploring a cave, Philip teases Dinah, and she hits him.  He stumbles back and ends up in a hidden tunnel.  Philip and Jack explore the tunnel and discover that it leads to some carved stone steps and trapdoor that leads up to a storeroom that’s part of the cellars at the house.  Philip says that he never knew this part of the cellar existed.  The boys discover that the door to the storeroom is usually hidden by boxes, but Joe has the key and comes in.  Kiki, who is with Jack as usual, makes some sounds that terrify Joe, who thinks that there are strange and spooky things in the cellar.  The boys think that it’s hilarious that Joe got scared when he’s always trying to scare them.  They steal the key that Joe left in the door so they can come and go whenever they like, but they wonder why Joe even hides the door to the storeroom in the first place.  Philip is sure that even his aunt doesn’t know about that storeroom, or she would have mentioned it before.

Joe is definitely doing something suspicious, going out at night in a boat, fearful that the children will find out what he’s doing. The children make friends with a nice man named Bill, who is staying in an old shack nearby. Bill says that he’s there for bird-watching, but he doesn’t seem to know that much about birds or talk about them as much as Jack does. Bill has a boat and takes the children out sailing, but he doesn’t want to take them to the island and warns them to be careful of Joe. Does Bill know something the children don’t, or does he have some dangerous secrets of his own?

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). It was first published in Britain, and some US copies use the title Mystery Island instead. The book was made into a movie in the 1980s, and you can see it on YouTube. The movie has John Rhys-Davies as one of the villains.

My Reaction

First, I’d like to get it off my chest that I didn’t like many of the family relationships throughout the book. Aunt Polly’s marriage is a little disturbing because she doesn’t have enough money to run the household, but her husband not only says that he has none to give her and wouldn’t give her any even if he did have money. He doesn’t seem to care about the welfare of either Polly, who is eventually revealed to have a heart condition, or the children in his care. He buries himself in his study most of the time and has almost no idea of what’s going on in the rest of the house or even who’s there. He’s not just obsessed with his studies, but at times, it seems like he’s deliberately hostile toward everyone else, including his wife, like their existence in the house is a terrible inconvenience to him.

I didn’t like the way Philip and Dinah were portrayed as always fighting physically in the book. Admittedly, my brother and I got into physical fights when we were little, but Dinah is twelve years old, and Philip is older than she is. Both of them seem to be too old to be acting the way they do in the story. Dinah is very emotional and has a hair-trigger temper, and Philip, knowing this, intentionally baits her into losing his temper. He likes to put creepy-crawly creatures on her or act like he’s going to, knowing she doesn’t like it and that she’ll react, and then he’s not happy when she lashes out and hits him. While Dinah shouldn’t react by hurting people physically, I could sort of understand it if she constantly has to put up with this from Philip. Living with someone who is always baiting you and escalating his behavior until you break would probably leave anyone broken in the end, and I can’t help but think that Dinah’s emotions would stabilize more if she didn’t have to deal with someone always trying to throw her off balance. Maybe she’d still be an emotional person, but I notice that it’s particularly Philip who gets her to fight physically while nobody else does because they don’t bait her into it. I found that sibling relationship kind of disturbing because Philip seems to know exactly what he’s doing, and as I said, he’s too old to be doing this stuff innocently.

Jack and Lucy-Ann seem to have a more fond sibling relationship. Lucy-Ann sometimes seems a little clingy with Jack, but I think that might be because the children are orphans and are not fond of their stern uncle, so they don’t really have anybody else to be close to except each other.

My copy of the book is one of the later editions that had some of the names and language changed to remove racially-problematic aspects of the story. In the original version of the book, the sinister handyman was a black man called Jo-Jo, and his race was unduly emphasized. I prefer the version where he’s just a weird guy named Joe.

The mystery isn’t bad. I knew right away that Joe was suspicious because he kept acting suspiciously, but the mystery is one of those type where it’s not so much about “whodunnit” as about “What is this person doing?” Readers know that Joe is up to something, but it isn’t clear for much of the book what it is. I had a couple of ideas early in the story, but neither was right.

Bill is also an interesting addition to the story. For part of the book, he looks a little suspicious because readers can tell that he’s not the bird-watcher he pretends to be, but he doesn’t seem to be allied with Joe. Bill is actually a good character, although he’s not what he appears to be, and he becomes one of the important characters in other books in the series.

50 Card Games for Children

50 Card Games for Children by Vernon Quinn, 1933, 1946.

I love games of all kinds, and I was fascinated by this vintage children’s book about card games! Along with the card games, there is also a section in the book with card tricks. The vintage pictures in the book are also nice.

If you’re curious about what kind of card games children were playing during the Great Depression and around the time of WWII, this book offers some interesting insights! There were many games in the book that were already familiar to me, but there were some others that I had never heard of before.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

Sections in the Book:

Card Games that Are Fun to Play

That struck me as an odd title for the very first section of the book, like whatever follows is going to be games that are not fun to play, but basically, this section contains multiplayer card games specifically aimed at children. It becomes clear when you study not only the contents but the titles of the other sections, which are about solitaire games, card tricks, and a section about popular card games that adults play.

I recognized a number of popular children’s card games in this section, like I Doubt It, War, Concentration, Hearts, Old Maid, and “Go Fishing” (which is what they call it instead of Go Fish, which is what I’ve always heard it called). There were some other games that I didn’t recognize, like The Earl of Coventry, Rolling Stone, Frogs in the Pond, and My Ship Sails.

Twelve Games of Solitaire

I was familiar with Klondike, Canfield, Pyramid, and Around the Clock (which I always called Clock Solitaire). I had never heard of Pirate Gold, Spread Eagle, Lazy Boy, or Down the Stairs before.

Twelve Card Tricks

These are magic tricks with cards. Some of them sound a bit complex when you’re reading the descriptions, but I think they would be more clean when actually trying them with a deck of cards.

Some Games That Grown-Ups Play

The games in this section are Rummy, Casino, Seven-Up (also known as High-Low-Jack), High Five, Cooncan, and Five Hundred. Actually, I have seen Rummy decks specifically for children, usually Animal Rummy, but that’s still a Rummy version, so that game isn’t just for adults.

An Easy Lesson in Contract Bridge

I never thought of Bridge as being easy because I’ve always been intimidated by the concept of bidding. I understand trick-taking games like Whist, but I haven’t wanted to try Bridge because of the bidding. Actually, I think this basic description for children is a good tutorial for people like me, who find the bidding concepts confusing.

The Poky Little Puppy

The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, 1942, 1982.

This is a famous class children’s book, the first in a series from the Little Golden Books collection! In fact, it was one of the original first 12 Little Golden Books that were published in 1942.

Five little puppies like to dig holes under the fence and go exploring. Then, four of the puppies realize that one of their brothers isn’t with them. They look around and find him sniffing at the ground. When they ask him what he’s doing, he says that he smells something.

The puppies realize that the smell is rice pudding, and they hurry home to get some. However, their mother is angry about the holes they dug and sends them to bed without dessert.

The puppy who originally smelled the rice pudding is slower than the others (or “poky” as the book describes him, which is why he’s called the Poky Little Puppy). He comes home later than the others, and while everyone is asleep, he eats all the rice pudding himself.

The next day, their mother puts up a sign telling them not to dig holes under the fence, but the puppies ignore it and dig holes anyway so they can go exploring. While they’re out, the Poky Little Puppy hears something.

The other puppies realize that it’s the sound of chocolate custard being dished up, and they hurry home to get some. Again, they’re punished for digging holes, and they’re sent to bed without dessert. And again, the Poky Little Puppy comes home last and eats all the dessert while everyone is in bed.

The next day, the puppies dig holes again, but this time, when they hurry home for dessert and their mother is mad at them, the four puppies who got home quickly fill in the holes they dug. Their mother, seeing that they fixed the holes, decides to let them have their dessert. The Poky Little Puppy, who came home late again, doesn’t get any because the others ate his share, too.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

My Reaction

This is a very simple story, but I remember liking it as a kid. Kids like stories with repetition, so the repeated incidents in the book appeal to them. The Poky Little Puppy thinks that he’s found a trick to getting all the dessert by staying out late enough that his mother has gone to bed and can’t tell him to go to bed without dessert. But, his trick stops working when the other puppies clean up their act and get the dessert before he even gets there. In the end, all of the puppies learn that digging holes means no dessert for any of them anymore.