Monday, July 11, 2011

Swept Away

In the past few years I've been deliberately revisiting books I liked as a child. Not long ago, though, I stumbled on a book in a used bookstore that I hadn't read, but remembered from the library shelves and had wanted to read but never got to. At least I don't think I did: after fifty years I'm not always sure. But unlike some of the books I've reread, nothing in this one was familiar.

The book is Frank R. Stockton's The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine, originally published in 1886. If the author's name sounds vaguely familiar to you, as it did to me, that may be because he was also the author of "The Lady, or the Tiger?", a much-anthologized story with an open ending.

The copy I bought was an illustrated edition from 1933. Quite a few copies of that edition are evidently still around, which made it easier to find pictures of the dust jacket online. (There are also numerous e-book versions, starting with Project Gutenberg; the book was even adapted as a radio play in the 1940s, which you can find here.

At first glance the story seems familiar enough in the Robinson Crusoe / Swiss Family Robinson mode. The summary from Squidoo, where I found the image above and the link to the radio version, describes it well: "an adventure about the two widows, Mrs. Leeks and Mrs. Aleshine who, after a lifetime of hard work on their farms, set out on what is supposed to be a relaxing retirement cruise to Japan."

What it doesn't mention is that the story is narrated by Mr. Craig, a young man who meets the ladies on the cruise and accompanies them on their adventures. He's just a little bit intrusive; I'd expected, and would have preferred, either an omniscient narrator or the viewpoint of Mrs. Lecks and Aleshine themselves. (As I read the book, I realized that I'd always mispronounced Mrs. Aleshine's name in my head: as a kid I parsed it as Al-uh-shine, but of course it's Ale-shine, as the radio program confirms.) Still, Craig is bemused but respectful of his companions' foibles and virtues. First the three stumble onto an isolated island that happens to contain a comfortable American-style house well stocked with supplies, though its owners are nowhere to be found. Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine quickly take charge as responsible tenants. More castaways join them, and ...

Well, I don't want to give away too much. It's an entertaining story, with dry rather than broad humor, and I'm glad I finally got to it, even if it did take me fifty years. In its good-natured fondness for matter-of-fact, competent old women it reminded me of Mary Lasswell's Suds in Your Eye and its sequels. When I consider Stockton and writers like Frances Hodgson Burnett, I think I need to look more at nineteenth-century American popular fiction.