Friday, June 27, 2014

Why I don't recommend The Boxcar Children or The Rover Boys: The Dangers of Dime Novels

The Dime Novel

I have been wanting to write about the problem of dime novels for a long time, but have never actually begun recording my thoughts until now, though my sisters have heard several long dissertations on the subject. The reason I am writing this now, is because I see many dime novels being extolled as "fast paced adventure stories", "classic childrens' literature", and the like. Lately there seems to have been a movement to bring back some of the dime novel series of the past, repackage them, and market them to homeschoolers.

So, what is a dime novel?
By my definition, a dime novel is a high-action, fast paced book, of inferior writing quality; compensating for lack of substantial worth by intense action. If, when reading a book, you find yourself thinking: "This is like watching a cliff-hanger movie serial", then it is most likely a dime novel.

Characteristics of a Dime Novel

Dime novels are very easy to spot, once you know what you are looking for, since they usually share similar characteristics.

The plot of the story usually covers a lot of action, packed into a short space of time.

Generally speaking, dime novels are fast paced stories that follow the main character(s) through many adventures over the course of several weeks or months. Sometimes the story only covers a few days, but generally the time span is a little longer.
Usually, if the main character is a boy, he comes in contact with another boy or a man who becomes his implacable enemy, and tries to destroy either his life or reputation; often both. If the main character is a girl, she generally is confronted with some mystery that she has to unravel. More classic dime novels are geared for boys, so although there are a few aimed at girls, they are not so numerous as those directed at boys.

The main character is very moral, dauntless, courageous, high spirited, and intelligent. Because of this, he attracts attention quickly: both that of employers and wealthy men, and that of villains whose schemes are thwarted by him.

Usually the main character is a either an adventurous, roving fellow who leaves home to seek his fortune, or he is an intelligent, hard-working lad who is turned away by a grouchy step-parent or sibling. In the one case, he usually has any number of adventures in the army or navy; in the other, he works his way up by "grit" and intelligence, aided by rescuing some wealthy citizens from train robbers, or some such danger. Or he attracts the attention of an engineer by his knowledge of mechanics, and quickly rises over the heads of men who have been in the business for years, creating enemies by his "indomitable spirit" and superior knowledge. These enemies surface multiple times throughout the book.
Here is a quote from Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins, speaking of dime novels:

"I am not satisfied with these optical delusions, as I call them. Now, I put it to you, boys, is it natural for lads from fifteen to eighteen to command ships, defeat pirates, outwit smugglers, and so cover themselves with glory, that Admiral Farragut invites them to dinner, saying, 'Noble boy, you are an honour to your country!' Or, if the hero is in the army, he has hair-breadth escapes and adventures enough in one small volume to turn his hair white, and in the end he goes to Washington at the express desire of the President or Commander-in-chief to be promoted to no end of stars and bars. Even if the hero is merely an honest boy trying to get his living, he is not permitted to do so in a natural way, by hard work and years of patient effort, but is suddenly adopted by a millionaire whose pocket-book he has returned; or a rich uncle appears from sea just in the nick of time; or the remarkable boy earns a few dollars, speculates in pea-nuts or neckties, and grows rich so rapidly that Sinbad in the diamond valley is a pauper compared to him. Isn't it so, boys?"
"Well, the fellows in these books are mighty lucky, and very smart, I must say," answered Will, surveying an illustration on the open page before him, where a small but virtuous youth is upsetting a tipsy giant in a bar-room, and under it the elegant inscription, "Dick Dauntless punches the head of Sam Soaker."
"It gives boys such wrong ideas of life and business; shows them so much evil and vulgarity that they need not know about, and makes the one success worth having a fortune, a lord's daughter, or some worldly honour, often not worth the time it takes to win. It does seem to me that some one might write stories that should be lively, natural and helpful tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such as we can love in spite of the faults that all may have. I can't bear to see such crowds of eager little fellows at the libraries reading such trash; weak, when it is not wicked, and totally unfit to feed the hungry minds that feast on it for want of something better."

They often seem to be instructional historical fiction, but do not teach enough about the subject to be worth reading, and make up for lack of good content by devising the most thrilling adventures possible.

"The North Pacific
A Story of the Russo-Japanese War"
This book is a classic example of what I am talking about. When I saw it on Gutenberg, my first thought was: "Oh, the Russo-Japanese war... I don't know anything about that. Maybe this will be a good, educational book." But although it is set during the war, and the characters are in the vicinity of the action, the story focuses almost entirely upon the individual adventures of the characters, to the exclusion of any historical instruction.

Perhaps the most easily spotted characteristic of a dime novel, is that it is one of a long series.
If you see a series of more than five books with the same main characters, beware! They are most likely dime novels. I can think of only a very few series with more than three titles including the same main characters, that are not dime novels. It is not hard to recognize these books, even singly. They have titles that all begin to look the same after a while, such as The Rover Boys At School, The Motion Picture Girls at the Seaside, The Boy Allies In The Baltic, and The Pony Rider Boys in New Mexico to name a few. There are also others which are not so easily spotted, and are often slightly higher quality, such as With the Dyaks of Borneo, The Hero of Panama, Cast Upon the Breakers, and Young Captain Jack. A few of these latter titles are somewhat educational, but are generally not worth the time it takes to read them. Also, a series usually follows 2-4 boys (or girls), while a single book usually only has one main character.

Here is the table of contents from The Submarine Boys On Duty, by Victor Durham

  I. Two Boys Who Planned to Become Great
   II. The Fighting Chance
  III. Josh Owen Starts Trouble
   IV. The Trick of the Flashlight
    V. One Man's Dumfounded Face
   VI. Along the Trail of Trouble
  VII. When Thieves Fall Out
 VIII. A Swift Stroke for Honor

IX. The Submarine Makes Its Bow to Old Ocean
    X. Under Water, Where Men's Nerves are Tried
   XI. The Try-Out in the Depths
  XII. The Discovery From the Conning Tower
 XIII. A High-Sea Mystery

  XIV. An Up-To-Date Revenge
   XV. The Courage That Rang True
  XVI. The Last Second of the Nick of Time

 XVII. In the Grip of Horror
XVIII. The Last Gasp of Despair
  XIX. Jack Strikes the Key to the Mystery

   XX. "One On" the Watch Officer
  XXI. The Man Who Dropped the Glass
 XXII. A Dive That was Like Magic
XXIII. Wanted, Badly—One Steward!

 XXIV. Conclusion

(Each numbered * above indicates a single continuous event in the highlighted chapters beside it. As you can see, 3-5 chapters are devoted to describing a single event, stretching the action out to the greatest length possible.)

What is wrong with dime novels?

1. They portray life as a fast-paced adventure, filled with mysteries and villains who must be conquered by courageous boys (or girls).

2. They often portray authority as bad, if the authority's decisions are not in line with the character's own desires and natural turn of mind. Not all dime novels have this in them, but many do.
(For example: A "high-spirited boy of about 16 desires to become an engineer; his strict guardian wants him to become a shopkeeper. The story portrays the guardian as cruel, and the boy as noble when he rebels.)

3. They teach slang, and often focus largely upon pranks performed by the boys upon each other; some fairly innocent, others dangerous.

4. The characters usually have good morals, but the reasons behind the morals are not taught.

5. They very frequently include flirtatious relationships between boys and girls.
Romance is a worthy element in a book, as long as it is kept within proper bounds, and in the right setting. Boys going over from their college to the girls college and taking their girlfriends out to dinner is not the right setting. This sort of thing occurs frequently in dime novels.

6. Reading dime novels is like eating sugar: The more you have, the more you want.

The main danger of dime novels is that it is very easy for a child to develop a taste for exciting, easy-to-read books, and not be interested in higher quality literature which develop their minds. Just as a child who is allowed to eat sweets all day long will not receive proper nutrition, the mind of a child who develops a "dime novel tooth" will not develop in the way it ought. They will imbibe wrong ideas of life, and be bored when they realize that most people do not have an exciting adventure every day.

So, are dime novels always bad?

Not necessarily. In my opinion, there is such a thing as a pretty good book that fits in the dime novel category. This is because adventure books are excellent vehicles for instruction. In case you haven't already noticed, G. A. Henty's books have some of the characteristics of dime novels, but his historical fiction books are some of the most educational available. Unlike real dime novels, his books convey real, sound instruction to the reader. I do not feel that reading 90+ Hentys was foolish, since that is how we learned the bulk of our history. However, reading the first 20 Rover Boys books was a pure waste of time, since they convey virtually no useful information or history, and create an appetite for more dime novels.
In short, reading a couple of these books may not hurt a child, but there is a serious danger that they will be drawn into wanting to read only this sort of book, and not appreciate higher literature.

Remember that the most important book for any child or adult to read and love is the Holy Word of God, the Bible, and it is the only perfect book. No other book can in any way approach it, and human authors will have errors in their works. But this doesn't mean that we should read anything and everything that comes down the tube, just because "no one is perfect". Whatever we read should be in line with the principles of the Bible. Usually the characters in dime novels are very moral: honest, hard-working, courageous, generous, and generally upright in their lives. But often the reason for having good character and principles is not given, and this has undermined our culture. We must always be careful that not only are children shown good examples, but they are told why those examples are good, namely, that they are in line with the Bible. We don't cheat our neighbors because it is not right, but the reason it is not right is because God says it is wrong, not just because it hurts our neighbor. Please everyone, give your children good literature to read, not just interesting literature.

"And whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God."
(1 Corinthians 10:31)

"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
(Philippians 4:8)

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