Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Boy and His Dog Named Boy

While I was traveling I took along Julia Mickenberg's Learning from the Left: Children's Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (Oxford, 2005) to read.  The main thing I learned from it was that a lot of the authors of books I'd read and liked as a child were leftists, socialists, Popular Front, even a few actual Communists.   Quite a number of people of the left moved into publishing even before the McCarthy era, and more found that they could work in children's publishing, including as writers, even after they were blacklisted everywhere else.  Some, like Lois Lenski and Wanda Gag, wrote fiction, but others wrote history, biographies, and science books.  Much of their work is still in print.

When I got back to Bloomington, I went to the library to look for some of those books.  I'd been thinking about rereading Lenski even before I read Mickenberg; her Strawberry Girl, about poor farmers in Florida at the dawn of the 20th century, had made a big impression on me when I read it in fifth grade -- mainly because it was the first time I'd ever encountered the word "hell" in a book meant for kids.  But I also remember her highly stylized illustrations.  I checked out and read Strawberry Girl and San Francisco Boy, about Chinese American children in San Francisco in the early 1950s, and Doris Gates's Blue Willow, about migrant farm workers in California during the Depression.  While I was looking for them in the library I also found Jim Kjelgaard's 1945 novel Big Red.  I'm not sure I read that one as a kid, but I did read at least one of the sequels: Outlaw Red rings a bell.  Kjelgaard wasn't one of Mickenberg's subjects (though according to his daughter he was a strong supporter of the NAACP), but I decided to get Big Red too.

Big Red is the story of teenaged Danny Pickett and his father Ross, who scrape by as trappers in rural (upstate?) New York.  Danny's mother died so long ago that she's barely a memory for him.  Father and son live by squatter's right in a cabin on the estate of railroad magnate Dick Haggin,who worked his way to wealth from humble beginnings.  Haggin has just acquired an Irish setter, Champion Sylvester's Boy, for seven thousand dollars, and has a dog show in New York City coming up.  Danny meets Boy when he reports that one of Haggin's bulls has been killed by the evil bear Old Majesty, and it's love at first sight for both of them, but of course they come from different worlds.  Mr. Haggin can see Danny's quality, however, and lets him have custody of the dog before the show.  Danny names him Red and trains him to hunt partridge, over the objections of his father, who can only see Red as a varmint dog.  Haggin sends Danny with the dog to the show, where Boy / Red wins best of breed.  Danny's head isn't turned by the fleshpots of New York, of course; he's just a simple country boy with only one thing on his mind: hunting and trapping.  Under his tutelage Red flourishes, and the story proceeds inexorably to the final showdown with Old Majesty.

Kjelgaard was a solid, skillful writer, and I enjoyed reading Big Red; I might even try some of his other books.  But I was amazed at how thoroughly asexual the book was -- except for the dog, of course: Red is provided with a worthy mate who provides him with heirs, including one who had "about him an invisible but very definite aura of the essence that Danny knew as quality.  It was as though the tiny mite had inherited all the finest qualities of both his father and mother, and in so doing was just a little finer than either one" (253).  But Danny himself has no interest at all in girls (or boys, for that matter: he has no comrade of his own age, just his father and the kindly Mr. Haggin).  The only female character in Big Red is a "quality woman" from Philadelphia who demands the dog from Mr. Haggin, though Danny knows she "didn't want a dog, or know what a fine dog was.  She wanted Red because he looked nice, and would complement her own faultlessly groomed self" (100).  Mr. Haggin is helpless before her imperious demands, and only Nature and chance saves Red from exile in Philadelphia.  There's one bit of comic business when Danny's father fears that he might lose Danny to a woman's wiles: a telegram arrives instructing Danny to meet one Sheilah Maguire at the train station -- but of course Miss Maguire is Red's mate, not Danny's.  This is the tradition that spawned Isaac Asimov's Foundation series and the first Star Wars film: a world, indeed a universe almost empty of women, populated by clean-limbed youths, their venerable male mentors and benefactors, and their companion animals, who are almost men themselves.