Home / General / “At last he was playing a man’s part, acting in close coöperation with the Government of his country”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (X)

“At last he was playing a man’s part, acting in close coöperation with the Government of his country”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (X)

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One of the most interesting genres of books one finds on Gutenberg is old children’s books. I first found these interesting when in doing some research, I had to read the series of books written by conservationist George Bird Grinnell in the early twentieth century, tracing the tale of a sickly eastern elite child who moves to the West and becomes a real man through killing a whole lot of animals in a class-appropriate manner. So every now and again, I flip through some old kids book.

Harold Bindloss was a writer of boys books in the Pacific Northwest. You may remember him from such barnburners as Thurston of Orchard Valley and Lorimer of the Northwest. I read his 1910 book The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound. This tells the story of an eastern boy who has some small advantages but not too many who has to go to work as a teenager and sort of fails in his business efforts. As a last resort he goes to a distant relative who is ranching on the Puget Sound. He thinks it’s going to be romantic, like what he read in dime store novels, but ranching in Washington meant digging farms out of the forest. What’s interesting about this book is that Bindloss is writing a book meant to appeal to boys but he basically notes over and over again how just bloody hard this work was. Blasting stumps, setting forest fires to clear land, knowing there are no crops you can raise that will get you rich, hoping that those apples and pears you plant will someday make you a functioning crop, the isolaton from towns–these are the stories Bindloss tells over and over.

So in the sheer and surprising honesty about this at a time when railroads and timber companies were hiring promoters to con the poor into buying their logged-off lands, where they entered extremely economically disadvantageous situations that their descendants remain stuck in today (in other words, this is how the crappy little rural settlements that dot southwest Washington got started), this book is kind of fascinating.

As a boys’ book, it’s pretty meh. It’s overlong. The adventure part of it, as an opium smuggling ring is trying to go through their land to get their junk from Canada to the U.S., is occasionally interesting. And over and over again, the boys get into trouble while in a boat, situations that seem to primarily exist so that Bindloss can talk about boats. It’s hard to see the 13 year old of 1910 getting into this, although who knows. There is the occasional jaw dropping racism. When the single Chinese character speaks, it is of course as follows:

“Got any chow, John?” he asked. “Velly good chow,” answered the Chinaman. “Lice, blue glouse, smokee fishee.” “Blue grouse!” said Harry disgustedly aside to Frank. “It’s the nesting season, but I guess that wouldn’t count for much with them.” He turned to his host. “I’m not a heathen. Savvy cook American? Got any flour you can make biscuits or flapjacks of?”

Ah, nothing like a Chinaman for a good laugh!

So, overall, it, like so many of these books, are kind of interesting to me as a historian. As far as you going back and reading it, well, do you like boating terminology and tepid plots?

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