Pam’s Pictorama Post: I am sitting down to start this post with the first three books in the Ruth Fielding series under my belt, as well as having made a good start on Volume 4. Unlike some of the recent entries in my forays into juvenile fiction of the early 20th century, this series, part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, is of the multiple author variety all under the nom de plume of Alice B. Emerson. Titles 1-19 are written by someone named W. Burt Foster and so those I write about today are all his. (I cannot find tracks of him other than these books, at least not with a casual search.) For anyone I manage to engage in reading these – the excellent news is that they are widely available online for free in a combination of Project Gutenberg and Google Play Books.
This series of 30 books starts in 1913, making it even earlier than the Miss Pat series and as extensive a series as Judy Bolton. (For new comers, a quick gander at Pictorama posts devoted to those series and you can find the Miss Pat ones here and here and two on Judy Bolton here and here.) Wikipedia makes note of the fact that Ruth ultimately marries and that this is unusual in the Stratemeyer universe. Although of course the aforementioned Judy Bolton, another Stratemeyer alum, marries as well.
The main character, Ruth, is of the plucky orphan variety and we meet her in Volume 1 as a young girl who has just lost her father, the second of her parents to die – no time is spent on any details around this. She is sent to live with a distant uncle on her mother’s side who is billed as a miser – a word we don’t hear that much any longer, but surely has it remains relevant today. He seems to get over that fairly early in the series, at least to some degree, although the moniker does stick. But the first volume shows her mettle and despite a certain modest reserve and even shyness, she manages to rescue people with quick thinking and initiative, more than once.
Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall, or Solving the Campus Mystery (Volume 2) is my favorite one so far. I am reminded of a book that came into my possession as a pre-teen that must have been written in the 30’s or 40’s. It was a novel about a girl going away to boarding school and who modeled her life there on these kinds of early stories – like this volume, midnight suppers and secret societies abound. It must have come to me in some box of books or something and for the life of me I cannot remember the name of it. However, as I read this book the scenes come back to me vividly and I remember my own fascination with these rites as a result. However, my life was a public school one, not boarding school so I never got to explore what I am sure was a much different contemporary reality. It was written harking back to the time of stories like this.
The third volume (Ruth Fielding at Snow Camp, or Lost in the Backwoods) takes us to a Snow Camp (not a term I am familiar with but seems self-explanatory) somewhere near the Canadian border. (Ruth appears to reside somewhere in the northwest part of New York State in a town I cannot find if real called Cheslow, and near a town Kim thought he invented called Lumberton. It would appear that Burt Foster, aka Alice B. Emerson, lived in that region as well. See Kim’s illustrated novel The Amazing, Enlightening and Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley for his version of Lumberton.) Here we explore snow shoeing, much ice skating, toboggans and being lost in a blizzard. Ruth turns out to be an unusually resourceful young girl, especially in the outdoors. She proves to be a strong swimmer and there is a girl, generally known as The Fox, who is her nemesis despite that fact that Ruth has saved her from drowning in two out of the four volumes I have read thus far. Mary, The Fox, is utterly ungrateful. I’m sure somewhere in the next 26 volumes she will change her ways however and see the light however.
Volume 4, Ruth Fielding at Lighthouse Point or Nita, the Girl Castaway, takes the gang (a small gaggle of girls and a more or less complementary bunch of boys) to the seashore where they take a runaway under their wing. And in the fifth volume, a lesser favorite, Ruth and her friends take a trip out west. Kim has always warned that out west was usually the end of a series and while it doesn’t kill off Ruth or the series it does make for a lesser book in my opinion.
While these stories are less formulaic than some of the others I have read (not that I dislike those either – nothing wrong with a good formula really), you can count on Ruth to get in the path of at least one, usually more, wild animals in each story. As I round the bend now on Volume 6 I can vouch for her escaping encounters with various large cats in several volumes – puma, mountain lion and something called a catamount which appears to be a type of cougar – and in addition I remember a bear as well. Sometimes she kills the the animal, sometimes someone else does (at the last moment before she herself is killed), but she is indeed a resourceful and one brave little miss!
Ruth’s story lines also favor the finding of lost strong or money boxes – if you lost one or had one stolen, you’d want her on the case because, while these are not detective stories, she has a way of retrieving them again and again for their owners. Seems like banks still weren’t entirely in favor back at the turn of the century, and many of these plots mean that someone has lost their entire life savings in such a missing or stolen box. To date these have been stolen, swept away by floods and buried in an avalanche thus far in my reading.
I will warn that there is some dreadful racist descriptions in a few of these volumes. Unlike Judy Bolton trying, if awkwardly, to figure out her relationship to the Native Americans she encounters, Ruth lives in an extremely white world taking place several decades earlier. Poor, occasionally indigent, people are largely the greatest diversity in these books, but on the one or two occasions she encounters (at least thus far in my reading) anyone of color the descriptions are crude.
If the teens were an era of casual banking, it was equally a time of casual parenting. Stray children abound in these stories – orphans for the most part, but also children who seem to wander away from families, living with other relatives or even strangers; occasionally children stolen or spirited away as well. While in part this can be attributed to the page-turning novel genre which these hail from, I think it was also somewhat a reality of the time. There just seem to be stories from that generation about this uncle who went to live with neighbors or that child sent off that even Kim and I know between us. I remember a few years ago when my mom casually mentioned that my grandmother had a brother who was “stolen by gypsies from the backyard” and never seen again! First, how could I have reached middle age and never heard that family tale and second – gypsies?
Volume 8, Ruth Fielding and the Gypsies; or The Missing Pearl Necklace, is the book I am immersed in as I wrap this first part post up. You’ll have to wait to hear whether or not I think she gives the Romany a fair shake or not. (Spoiler alert – mixed bag really.) I have just been told that Jazz at Lincoln Center will take the coming two holiday weeks off and I intend to happily immerse myself in Miss Fielding’s further adventures from bed, in my pj’s, while listening to music and drinking smoking hot coffee!