The Books We Got For Christmas

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Youngsters of the Nineteenth Century must have read every word of it with eagerness. Today it is almost equally certain that many of the authentic but over-long historical passages are skipped by children impatient to get on with the story. The account of the mental condition of Raff Brinker, the father, and his resulting rough treatment of his loyal family is pretty strong meat for young readers, who, today, are overprotected from such facts of life. Mrs. Dodge saw more clearly than most modern writers that children can take a good deal, honestly presented. Most of us have forgotten Raff Brinker and his troubles, but all of us remember the gay pictures of Hollanders skimming over the gleaming ice, particularly the men, skating with placid enjoyment, puffing on their pipes, “whizzing and smoking like so many locomotives.” And no race in juvenile literature is so exciting as the final race for the shining silver skates.

Howard Pyle, in 1883, transported American children to a romantic England in his The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. In the previous year Robert Louis Stevenson had given children everywhere his incomparable Treasure Island, which Pyle’s own student and protégé, N. C. Wyeth, illustrated so superbly that when we visualize Long John Silver, it is Wyeth’s bold pirate we see.

Pyle illustrated his own Robin Hood. But in the merry tales themselves, he also created unforgettable pictures of Sherwood Forest in the springtime. “Up rose Robin Hood one merry morn when all the birds were singing blithely among the leaves, and up rose all his merry men, each fellow washing his head and hands in the cold brown brook that leaped laughing from stone to stone. Then said Robin: For fourteen days we have seen no sport, so now I will go abroad to seek adventures forthwith. … Three blasts upon the bugle horn I will blow in my hour of need; then come quickly, for I shall want your aid.’”

It is a tribute to the vitality of Robin Hood that only recently he had another “hour of need” when in Indiana a woman member of the state textbook commission called upon authorities to ban Robin from the schools as a dangerous subversive because he robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Hearing afresh his bugle horn, men rushed to Robin’s aid, rescuing him for his loyal friends, the children.

A very different sort of character who has survived a different sort of hostility is Little Lord Fauntleroy. It was because of his wardrobe that Fauntleroy was in his own time, and is forever, anathema to boys. Eugene Field expressed their unanimous sentiment when he wrote, “Mighty glad I aint a girl—ruther be a boy, without them sashes, curls an things that’s worn by Fauntleroy.” No one except doting mamas and little girls could accept the lace collar, the velvet knee breeches, and the wide sash.

Romantic mothers by the thousands bought the book when it came out in 1886 and put it into the grubby hands of their offspring. One look at Frances Hodgson Burnett’s young hero, complete with curls, was enough. Later the author appeased boys somewhat by writing The Secret Garden. But even Little Lord Fauntleroy, while sentimental in the manner of the day, is a surprisingly lively and readable story. If boy readers ever got past the hero’s elaborate costume, they discovered he wasn’t so bad—or so good—as he was painted. He had an inflexible code of fair play, he was afraid of no one, he was loyal and generous—and could outrun all the boys on his block in spite of the velvet breeches. But, while Little Lord Fauntleroy may have inherited a dukedom, he never got a foothold in the great democracy of boy readers, all because of those unfortunate clothes.

The same sort of gentility that tried to force Little Lord Fauntleroy on rebellious boyhood, tried to keep The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn away from the impressionable young. And no wonder! According to Mark Twain, “Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.”