The Book Report I Never Wrote

September 1, 2017

curwoodI wish I had read a book like James Oliver Curwood, Disciple of the Wilds, by H.D. Swiggett, when I was in school and had to write a book report. I would have had the material for a real book report. I knew teachers wanted something different from a summary of the plot, but I really didn’t get what that was. The reports my fellow students gave also varied from rambling plot “summaries” to concise ones, but little about the quality of the writing, the editing, or the message.

While proofing this book for Distributed Proofreaders, my mental process started with, “Who is this guy James Oliver Curwood and why did someone write a book about him?” Once that question was in the process of being answered, then my questions were more along the lines of, “Why was that random information included?” and “Really, didn’t you just tell me that but in different words?” to “Wow! Where did that come from?” and “Did the editor actually review this book? Did the author slap together articles into a book? Did he take research notes, shuffle them like a deck of cards, then turn them in as a book?”

I would have actually had material for a book review.

So, who is this guy James Oliver Curwood and why did someone write a book about him?

Curwood (1878-1927) was, in his day, a famous author with over 30 books published between 1908 and 1931. Two of his books each had more than a hundred thousand copies printed and sold of the first edition (The River’s End and The Valley of Silent Men). At least eighteen of his books and stories inspired movies. In fact, The River’s End has been turned into a movie three times: a silent version in 1920, and sound remakes in 1930 and 1940.

Curwood was an avid outdoors person from boyhood. He was not particularly attentive in school and dropped out or was expelled in tenth grade. As his biographer tells it,

When he was not present in school he was either writing tales of the wilds, or living them along the banks of the rivers nearby. In fact he had absented himself from classes on many occasions to devote more time to his stories. Jim Curwood finally developed into a real problem for his teachers in high school.

One day as he quietly came tip-toeing to his seat … the teacher … completed what he had to say with: “And dear Lord, we thank Thee for returning Nimrod safely to us this morning.” From that day forward his nickname at school was “Nimrod.”

As a teenager, Curwood went on long outdoor trips. He was a hunter who later became a serious conservationist/anti-hunter. Though he was American, his real love was for the Pacific Northwest of Canada. He turned his experiences in the outdoors into a series of adventure novels in that setting.

Curwood’s first published story was “The Fall of Shako,” printed in his hometown paper, The Argus of Owosso, Michigan, on November 21, 1894. He was 16. He wasn’t paid for it, but it brought him some notoriety. A resident of Owosso who didn’t like James’s father, also a James, assumed the father had written the article and wrote a blistering criticism which derided “the story [as] an insult to the intelligence of the people of the community and one composed of childish drivel.” The editor, seeing the possibility for publicity, published the criticism on the front page. The community sent hundreds of letters objecting to the harsh criticism of a youthful writer. The story made it to every large paper in the country. As Swiggett put it, “He was getting his name before the public as a writer and that in itself was worth its weight in gold.”

While Curwood didn’t complete high school, he passed an entrance exam to attend the University of Michigan for two years. He left to become a reporter, and thus started his adult writing career.

With the publication of Curwood’s first two books and the release of numerous articles and short stories in various magazines, all set in Canada, the Canadian Government offered the now somewhat famous James Oliver Curwood the sum of $1,800 a year plus expenses if he would explore the distant wilds of the Dominion and use all he saw as a basis for material in his future writings.

OK – so that’s the “school book report,” a short retelling of the story. Now for the review of the biographer’s style. In the first part of the biography, Swiggett lays out information about Curwood in an informative and easy-to-read story form. But the second portion provides randomly presented information, repetition, and unsubstantiated statements.

Perhaps I’m overstating it when I say “unsubstantiated,” but this passage seemed unsupported to me:

Jim was gloriously happy, of that there was little doubt, but for some apparently unknown reason, his wife was not. Perhaps it was because he had excluded her from his real life….

Had she stopped to realize that her husband was on his way to the top of the ladder and would eventually reach that goal, the marriage might have lasted.

This passage implies that, though she may have been seriously neglected, had Mrs. Curwood known that her husband would become rich and famous, the neglect wouldn’t have mattered and she would have stayed with him. I saw nothing that supported this and much to indicate that she was simply left behind to care for their children alone while he went off on his travels.

The next chapter discusses books being submitted and accepted for publication. It then jumps back to Curwood neglecting his wife and this resulting in divorce. Next it hops to book submissions and publication. The sense of a story is lost.

From this point forward the book seems to consist of a few paragraphs about a topic, a jump to something else that may have already been covered, and then another jump. For example:

⦁ A three-month trip to the wilderness with his brother
⦁ The offer from the Canadian government to pay him to explore and write about it
⦁ A trip to northwest Canada
⦁ Decision to settle in Owosso
⦁ Church supper in Owosso where he meets his future second wife
⦁ A trip to the wilderness with his new wife
⦁ Starting to write his third book in the wilderness cabin
⦁ Back to Owosso to build a house and writing studio, Curwood Castle
⦁ Back to the wilderness
⦁ Lots of books published
⦁ Jump back to book three
⦁ Discussion back and forth of books
⦁ Contract with publisher Bobbs-Merrill ends
⦁ Back and forth about his book Kazan

While the first half of the book told a story, the second half felt like the result of a stack of reference cards being dropped on the floor, picked up, poorly assembled back into order, and then just slapped into text. I suspect a deadline approached with less time than needed. However, the first half did create enough curiosity that I took a look at a James Curwood book as it went through the rounds at DP. But that’s a story for another day!

This post was contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.

A Soldier’s Daughter

September 5, 2015

A Soldier’s Daughter, by G.A. Henty, published in 1906, covercontains three stories. Each one is set in a different continent, but they are all very adventurous. What is more, they all show the bravery of girls — an unusual way to present them at the beginning of the twentieth century, when girls were expected to act like “ladies,” and adventures were considered to be the exclusive province of men.

The first story, “A Soldier’s Daughter,” tells us about Nita, the daughter of a major in a British military camp in Darlinger, India. The following quotes give an idea of what Nita’s father expected from her:

I have quite made up my mind at last, Nita, when I return from this expedition, to pack you off to your uncle in England; you are getting a great deal too old to be knocking about in a barrack-yard, and there are no ladies here who would keep you up to the mark. I know that you are a favourite with all the officers, but that only makes matters worse. You have been a regular tomboy for the last five years, and it is quite time that you were
taught to behave as a young lady.

I like a woman who can play an accompaniment to a good old English, Scotch, or Irish song.…

… there is no more necessary accomplishment on the frontier than for a woman to be able to make her own clothes.

But Nita is a very brave girl. One day, when her father is away with most of the troops, a local tribe attacks the camp, and Nita is captured. Nita not only manages to escape, but after a long, perilous, and adventurous trip, she and an officer — whom she rescued! — finally manage to reach a British camp, where Nita’s father, who thought his daughter was dead, can hold her in his arms again. And of course Nita is proclaimed a heroine!

The second story, which is situated in Germany, is called “How Count Conrad von Waldensturm Took Goldstein.” This is about a young count, who, after a war in which his father was killed, finds out that a rival Baron from a neighbouring castle has attacked Waldensturm and kidnapped the count’s sister Minna, with the purpose of marrying her to the baron’s evil son. With the help of the people of the villages, who are as eager as Count Conrad himself to overthrow the Baron of Goldstein, he is able to free his sister, and, with tricks and an ambush, to kill Baron Goldstein and his son, and make himself master of Castle Goldstein. And all this would not have been possible without the help of Bertha Grun, the daughter of a villager, who was appointed by the baron to be Minna von Waldensturm’s lady-in-waiting.

The last story takes us to Australia, and is called “A Raid by the Blacks.” The Roberts family are living on an outlying farming station in Australia. In those days, when life on a remote farm was extremely hard, people could use all the hands that were available, for every task. But look at the differences in education Effie and her brother received:

The boy, who was now fifteen, had been for the past two years at Sydney, living at his uncle’s and attending school. In another year he was to return to the station. He had gone most reluctantly, but his father had said: “I can quite understand your liking this life, Ned, but I don’t wish you to grow up simply a bush farmer. The colony is increasing fast, and there will be plenty of openings for a young fellow of intelligence and a fair education. I hope that by the time you grow up I shall be able to settle you on a farm like mine, and stock it well for you, if you decide upon following this sort of life, or to start you in any line that you may like to adopt in Sydney. You have had two years of running wild, and if you remain here you will speedily forget what little you have learned; but in any case, three years at school will be a great advantage to you.”

Effie, the daughter, was now fourteen, a strong healthy girl who could ride any horse on the station, had been taught to use both pistol and rifle, and was as bold and fearless as a boy.

Effie had her own tasks on the farm:

Effie went out twice a day with food for the horses, and each time carried a dozen large apples in her apron, which she gave them after they had eaten their corn.

Effie still was a girl of her time, however. When she had to escape the farm in boy’s clothes to ride off and get help from the neighbours, she was a bit embarrassed:

As Effie felt shy about appearing in boy’s clothes, Mrs. Talbot lent her a blouse and skirt.

The reader should note that the stories in A Soldier’s Daughter are not “politically correct” by today’s standards, in terms of how different races are presented. But the book is a creature of its time, and in my opinion, Nita, Bertha and Effie showed that they were real heroines!

This post was contributed by DP volunteer Eevee.

Wednesday the Tenth: A Tale of the South Pacific by Grant Allen

September 10, 2014

Picture of Book Cover

I wanted to tell you about an excellent adventure story, published in 1890, that I read recently.

The book is Wednesday the Tenth: A Tale of the South Pacific by Grant Allen. To be honest, I picked it up because it was short and I wanted something that would be easier and quicker to read than my usual fare. I’m glad I did, though, because it was an exciting and suspenseful tale that had me enthralled to the end.

It starts with a rescue, when two boys in an open rowboat are discovered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by a steam yacht plying its trade among the islands (yes, I know that’s a sailing boat on the cover, but it is definitely a steam vessel in the book). They are the children of missionaries and they tell a harrowing tale of slave traders who get the locals drunk and rouse them up against the family, after the father thwarts the slave traders’ attempts to get the locals to sell people to them.

The family are taken prisoner and held by the locals who plan to kill them—and then eat them. The boys manage to escape and set to sea in the rowboat, in the hope of finding help.

In this excerpt, the boys have just been picked up by the yacht and the crew have given them a small amount of food and water (not too much as they are literally starving). The older boy is already lying unconscious on a bunk and the younger is about to follow him, but manages to utter a few words:

“Steer for Makilolo … Island of Tanaki … Wednesday the tenth … Natives will murder them … My mother—my father—Calvin—and Miriam.”

Then it was evident he could not say another word. He sank back on the pillow breathless and exhausted. The color faded from his cheek once more as he fell into his place. I poured another spoonful of brandy down his parched throat. In three minutes more he was sleeping peacefully, with long even breath, like one who hadn’t slept for nights before on the tossing ocean.

I looked at Jim and bit my lips hard. “This is indeed a fix,” I cried, utterly nonplussed. “Where on earth, I should like to know, is this island of Tanaki!”

“Don’t know,” said Jim. “But wherever it is, we’ve got to get there.”

Wednesday the tenth of the month is when the sacrifice is scheduled to happen. The boys are convinced it’s Friday, but the sailors on the yacht are equally convinced it’s Saturday. Even so, the yacht’s captain gives orders to make for the island at full speed, sure they’ll make it in time.

Now, obviously, all doesn’t go as smoothly as anticipated or there wouldn’t be a book to read. As they get close to their destination they run aground on a reef that isn’t where the charts say it should be.

… Jim, looking up from in front, with a cool face as usual, called out at the top of his voice, but with considerable annoyance, “By Jove, we’re aground again!”

And so we were, this time with a vengeance.

“Back her,” I called out, “back her hard, Jenkins!” and they backed her as hard as the engines could spurt; but nothing came of it. We were jammed on the reef about as tight as a ship could stick, and no power on earth could ever have got us off till the tide rose again.

Well, we tried our very hardest, reversing engines first, and then putting them forward again to see if we could run through it by main force; but it was all in vain. Aground we were, and aground we must remain till there was depth of water enough on the reef to float us.

They get off the reef, but the yacht’s damaged, and they’re running out of time. Between engine troubles, the tide and a contrary wind will they make it before the missionaries are killed and eaten?

You’ll have to read it yourself to find out.

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