Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Bondage of Ballinger, by Roswell Field

The Bondage of Ballinger, by Roswell Field

a review by Rich Horton

Well, I don't think this book was a bestseller. And the writer is, as far as I can tell, quite forgotten, and perhaps only ever known for having a notable father and a quite famous writer for a brother. What it is, is a book for a certain class of people ... many of whom may read this blog, or, at least, are part of what I perceive my desired audience for this blog to be. And those people are "bookmen": book collectors, indeed, as portrayed in this novel, obsessive book collectors to the point of unhealthiness.

Roswell Field's father, also named Roswell Field, was a St. Louis lawyer, and he is remembered for one earth-shaking case, the Dred Scott case: he was Scott's advocate. (So, like Clarence Darrow, he is remembered for a case he lost.) He had two sons with literary careers. By far the more famous is Eugene Field (1850-1895), still very well remembered for light verse, often for children, such as "The Duel" (aka "The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat") and "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod"; as well as for one short story, "Daniel and the Devil", an inspiration for Stephen Vincent Benet's much more famous "The Devil and Daniel Webster". The Eugene Field House is a minor attraction in St. Louis (where I live), though Eugene, as with his brother, later moved to Chicago. The younger brother was Roswell Field (1851-1919), who, like Eugene, attended the University of Missouri and ended up moving to Chicago.

Roswell seems to have been a quite prolific writer of books that seem, at glance, to be somewhat gloopily sentimental. Certainly "gloopily sentimental" applies to The Bondage of Ballinger. This book was published in 1903 by Fleming H. Revell, a Chicago-based firm that began as a publisher of Christian tracts. My edition, which I found at an antique mall in Springfield, IL, seems quite possibly to be a first, and it's in very fine condition, though there is no dust jacket.

The book opens with a longish history of the Ballinger family, beginning with Giles, a "staunch Puritan" who fought with Cromwell, and fled to Massachusetts after the Restoration. His descendants were for some time clergymen, and then schoolteachers, and then comes Thomas, sometime in the first half of the 19th century. Thomas is pleasant and sweet and lazy and loves nothing but books. He fails at every trade he tries except for printer. He falls in love from childhood with a Quaker girl, Hannah, and marries her despite her father's misgivings, after which they enter on a peripatetic life, Thomas finding jobs for a year or two at a time as a printer, but spending most of his money on books, especially rare books. He treasures especially books he has had personally autographed by the likes of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. He and Hannah make it all the way to California, before wandering back to Chicago, and settling permanently in a cottage on the lakeshore (apparently on the North Side).

All this time Thomas is just barely making enough to keep he and his wife provided for, but then he is enticed to quit his job and open a rare book store. This actually might have worked out well, except that he can hardly bear to sell any of his books, so he ends up mostly just buying more books and refusing to sell his treasures even when customers beg him. Clearly bankruptcy is the only future for him ... but, somewhere along the way, a chance collision with a very young girl, Helen Bascom, the only daughter of a very wealthy grocer, leads to a sort of redemption, as Helen become entranced with Thomas and his books, and Thomas, almost by accident, gives her an excellent education in literature, which proves vital when disaster looms for the Ballinger couple.

The portrayal of Thomas Ballinger and his wife Hannah is sweet but almost cruel. Field calls them "children" throughout, though the novel follows them from very young childhood to somewhere in their 60s. Hannah's sin is weakness: an inability to stand up to Thomas's refusal to properly provide for her. Thomas, though a very sweet and nice man, an enemy to no one, simply will not take any responsibility to provide for his wife. And Field makes this very clear. That their ultimate fate is happy is simply due to luck.

The book is really not very good. As I said before, it's gloopy. It is also often quite boring. The sweetness cloys, and Thomas unworldly attitude towards finance seems exaggerated to the point of caricature ... well, really, Thomas' entire character is a caricature. The resolution, with Helen prevailing on her father to secretly provide for Thomas and Hannah, is pleasant but not quite plausible. In reality, it's a minor and deservedly forgotten book.

But I'm glad I found it, for two reasons: one, the portrayal, even if exaggerated, of a breed to which I belong: book collector; and, two: the serendipitous discovery of connections to St. Louis natives of some note in Roswell Field the elder and in Eugene Field.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Old Bestsellers: The Adventures of Richard Hannay, by John Buchan

The Adventures of Richard Hannay, by John Buchan

a review by Rich Horton

John Buchan (pronounced, apparently, Bucken, instead of Bewcan as I had always thought) is primarily remembered these days for one short novel, published almost exactly a century ago (in 1915): The Thirty-Nine Steps. The book I am considering here is an omnibus (published by Houghton Mifflin) of that novel and its first two sequels, Greenmantle (1916) and Mr. Standfast (1919). The form of the book is curious: the three novels are bound together in what appear to be the original plates of the standalone books. Each novel is much longer than its predecessor: The Thirty-Nine Steps is about 35,000 words, Greenmantle about 90,000, and Mr. Standfast about 120,000. So each novel is printed in a different font: the first quite large, the second normal, and the last smallish. This particular edition seems to have been put out not long before the Second World War, probably not long before Buchan died.

Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland, in 1875, son of a Minister in the Free Church of Scotland. He was educated at Oxford, and entered government service upon graduation, first working in South Africa. By this time he had already published four novels. Upon his return to England he joined the publishing firm of Thomas Nelson (which eventually became the now prominent American Christian publishing firm, though not entirely directly). He also studied law and passed the bar. Buchan married in 1907. He became a Member of Parliament, served with some distinction in the First World War (though not in combat), and continued a prominent career after the war, returning to Parliament and also lecturing and otherwise maintaining involvement with several Scottish universities. In 1935 he was appointed Governor General of Canada (as a result of which he is often considered a significant figure in Canadian Literature, which seems a bit of a stretch), and at the same time he was made the First Baron Tweedsmuir. Throughout this time he continued writing, publishing some 27 novels in all. He died in 1940. Quite an impressive career, really.

The three novels in this omnibus form what could be called a World War I trilogy. The Thirty-Nine Steps is set in the early summer of 1914, in England and Scotland, in the runup to the War. Greenmantle is set in winter 1915/1916, mostly in Germany and Turkey. And Mr. Standfast covers the period from late 1917 to the middle of 1918, with major episodes in Scotland, Switzerland, and in France (during the crucial turning back of a major German offensive aimed at Amiens). All are narrated by Richard Hannay, a Scotsman who has spent much of his life in South Africa. He is a Major in the first book, a Colonel in the second, and a Major General by the end. Buchan wrote two more novels (The Island of Sheep and The Three Hostages) featuring Hannay as the main character, and he appeared in smaller roles in other works.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is easily the most famous. Hannay, at loose ends in London, encounters an odd American named Scudder who claims to have stumbled on a dangerous conspiracy aimed at murdering a Greek politician, but who is suddenly murdered, leaving Hannay as the prime suspect. Hannay flees to Scotland, partly because of hints the Scudder gave him, hoping he can track down the conspirators, even though he cannot even read Scudder's encoded journal. The bulk of the book is an extended chase scene, or series of chase scenes, quite exciting and imaginative stuff, with Hannay repeated disguising himself as character of various nationalities, and barely escaping both the police and the conspirators. He finally comes up with sufficient evidence to take to the government, and to organize an effort to capture the bad guys, the only clue being Scudder's mention of "thirty-nine steps".

This book has been treated very well in the theatre, in movies, on TV, and on radio. The most famous adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie version, one of Hitchcock's greatest early films. This starred Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll, and it differed quite significantly from the novel. The best of the other versions, to me, is a comical theatrical adaptation, first staged in 1995 and significantly revised in 2005. Its plot is a combination of Buchan's original and Hitchcock's adaptation, though it has a lot of fun throwing in references to other Hitchcock movies. I have seen a local production, and it is thoroughly delightful.

Greenmantle was published just a year after The Thirty-Nine Steps, only months after the action it depicts. Here Hannay, now serving in France and Belgium, is called back to London for a dangerous mission: it seems that the Germans are planning to use a Islamic prophet of sorts to help cause trouble in the Middle East. Hannay and three companions: his old friend from South African, Peter Pienaar; a dyspeptic American named John Blenkiron; and a fellow military man and good friend named Sandy, must find their separate ways to Istanbul, trying to figure out who this mysterious prophet might be. Again much of the novel is chase scenes, particularly in Germany, where Hannay, disguised as a disaffected Boer, manages to fool some important Germans, including a certain Colonel Stumm, and the beautiful, mysterious, and evil Hilda von Einem, into taking him part of the way to his destination, before he is discovered. In Istanbul he runs afoul of a prideful Turk, and ends up along with his friends in the middle of a pitched battle at Erzerum. (This is in fact one of the key battles of World War I.) Again, pretty exciting stuff, and Blenkiron in particular is a neat character.

Finally, in Mr. Standfast, Hannay is again unhappily taken from his command in Europe and sent to hunting spies. He begins by trying to find out who the real bad guys are in a nest of silly pacifists (to his disgust, pretending to be a pacifist himself) ... and discovers to his horror that one of them was one of the conspirators from The Thirty-Nine Steps, a master of disguise himself. Another mission to Scotland (particularly the Isle of Skye) leads him to one of the communication depots of the spies, but he is unable to get enough information to truly stop them. Meanwhile he has met and fallen for a beautiful girl, at 19 less than half his age, one Mary Lamington. The story continues to Switzerland and a reunion with Peter Pienaar, who has been crippled flying a warplane. The mission is to finally trap the master spy, with Mary as the bait ... and after than episode, we proceed to France, and a not badly done description of one of the most desperate late battles of the War. So this too is a gripping adventure story, with chase scenes and desperate escapes, masters of disguise, and even a scene where the villain gloats over the hero, and forbears to kill him, trusting that he cannot escape certain death anyway. It's also a fine love story, and a pretty good war story.

I've given these novels shortish shrift, but they are all very good fun. It should be added that Buchan had at least his share of the prejudices of the time: there is some casual anti-Semitism, the attitudes towards black people are, I suppose, what you might expect from a South African of that period, and the treatment of Germans is almost silly in its caricature. But if you can ignore that, or calibrate it to the attitudes of that day, these are three very fine adventure stories.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Forgotten SF Novel: Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman

Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman

a review by Rich Horton

Once again I haven't finished my latest true "Old Bestseller". Instead I'm covering a Young Adult science fiction novel from 1978, that is, I think it's fair to say, quite forgotten now, and was really never well known at all. But the writer was an interesting and (in a very modest way) somewhat notable writer in her day. Sonya Dorman. born 1924, died 2005 (married name Sonya Dorman Hess, and she sometimes signed herself a form of that name), published about 20 stories in the SF magazines and anthologies between 1963 and 1980, as well as one story (also apparently SF) in Cosmopolitan in 1961. At least two stories received particular notice. "When I Was Miss Dow" first appeared in 1966 in Galaxy, and has been widely anthologized, including in the second Nebula Award Stories volume, in Pamela Sargent's influential anthology Women of Wonder, and in the landmark Norton Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ursula Le Guin and Brian Attebery). And "Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird" appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions.

Dorman was also a poet, and arguably her reputation as a poet surpassed her reputation as an SF writer. I recall running across one of her poems in a school anthology back in high school -- the poem was "Piazza Piece", and I thought it (still think it) excellent, and I was shocked to realize I knew the author as an SF writer.

Between 1969 and 1973 she published three delightful (if slightly retro) novelets in F&SF about a young woman named Roxy Rimidon. Roxy is a young woman in the "Planet Patrol", sort of a special police group in a unified Earth sometime in the nearish future. The three stories are "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird" (December 1969), "Alpha Bets" (November 1970), and "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" (August 1973). A little while back I ran across Dorman's only novel, Planet Patrol. I quickly gathered that it was a Roxy Rimidon story, and so I snapped it up. It was published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan (there's a classic old publishing house, long gone now I guess) in 1978.

I had hoped it might be a completely new story, but I wasn't surprised to find out that it's mostly a fixup of the three F&SF stories. Well, there's nothing wrong with that, and it had been some time since I had read the stories, so I read the novel, and I confess the first thing I thought was "This isn't as good as I remembered". That too is not a rare feeling, but it really did seem disappointing. So I went back to the original F&SF issues, and reread the stories, and found that, while they are substantially the same as the episodes in the novel, the original stories have a distinct energy that seemed lacking in the novel. Most of this, I believe, is due to the market for the novel: YA. Dorman rewrote the stories, presumably to fit the market, and the rewrite leached a lot of the charm from the stories, for me. Some of the changes are pretty minor: a couple of character names are altered. But there a further changes that are much more important, and not surprisingly, most of them involve sex. To begin with, in the stories Roxy's age is between 22 and 25, while in the novel she's between 17 and 19. Right at the beginning, when she's in training, she throws herself (more or less) at the Planet Patrol Academy's leader, a Colonel with an unsuitable wife -- that's entirely excised from the novel. And in the final episode, the F&SF version has Roxy jumping into bed with one of her colleagues -- again, gone from the novel. There a few other less prominent changes, but to me they all work to the detriment of the novel version. It should be said, the fundamental plots of the episodes remain unchanged (and there is one additional shortish episode in the novel). (there is also a subplot in the stories suggesting Roxy has mild telepathic abilities which is removed in the novel.)

Planet Patrol opens with Roxy in the Planet Patrol Academy, getting criticized for being a bit too full in the hips. (I said the stories are a bit "retro".) There is a little bit about the training exercises, mostly the same in the book and the first story ("Bye, Bye, Banana Bird"), though the original story has a more and more interesting stuff (including the bits about Roxy making a bit of a move (unsuccessfully, I should add) on the Colonel). The novel continues to her first assignment (not in any of the F&SF stories), a somewhat implausible and slight story of rescuing an Akita from a crevasse.

The next segment in the novel is the story "Alpha Bets", set at the biannual "Games" (sort of a future Olympics between the ten Dominions into which Earth is divided). Here we are introduced to the central conflict (such as it is) of the novel: the resentment felt by Earth's two interstellar colonies, Alpha and Vogl, over their restricted roles as basically "breadbaskets" or "mines" for Earth. They are not even allowed to compete in the Games, though that will change in the next year. Roxy's brother is one of the best Tumblers in the world, and when his partner is injured, Roxy improvises by recruiting a new partner for him from an Alphan family that she had met, whose son had made it clear he resented not being able to compete.

Then Roxy is assigned to investigate potential Vogl insurrectionists on a Caribbean island. (This segment was originally the second half of "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird", and thus originally Roxy's first assignment.) She discovers a murdered Planet Patrol Sergeant, and ferrets out the nasty Voglians who are responsible, but in the process comes to realize that while their methods are evil, the Vogl insurrectionists have a valid grievance.

This leads to the final episode, which was, in F&SF, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain". (Curiously, the title derives from a brief scene in "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird" (that does not appear at all in the novel).) Roxy visits her mother while planning to testify at the Inter Dominion meeting in favor of more autonomy, and especially an independent Planet Patrol branch, for Vogl and Alpha. But she is kidnapped and threatened by more Vogl insurrectionists, leading to a crisis of conscience: should she still testify as she had planned, or will that testimony seem to endorse their violent methods? She finds a way to testify honorably, and ends up assigned to be part of the Planet Patrol group that will help set up the first Vogl Planet Patrol academy. But on Vogl she learns that Vogl has its own internal problems, and also that they have secretly done some original research into cyborgization that surpasses anything Earth has done ... The resolution is a little bit odd, in that Roxy and company do fairly little to solve the problems ... but perhaps that makes some sense.

I still quite enjoyed the stories on rereading them -- as noted, the novel not quite so much. It's all very fast moving stuff, a bit retro in feel in a couple of ways, but very good fun. And, I should add, rather uncharacteristic of the rest of her work, which is by and large still quite worth looking up.