The Radio Girls and the Campfire Girls: Part One

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I stumbled on the four Radio Girl novels advertised in the back of a Ruth Fielding novel which must have been a reprint as these were published in the 1920’s and that volume dated from 1915. (You will find my brief survey of Ruth Fielding in a post here.) Just a note that all four books are available on ebooks – I believe I read them all on Google Play rather than Project Gutenberg.

Although this clutch of novels was later repackaged with the Campfire Girls novels, they are more of the breed of The Automobile Girls or The Moving Picture Girls, (my prior post on those can be found here) than what turn out to be rather distinct novels devoted to the Campfire Girls and that real world movement which was picking up speed at the beginning of the twentieth century. (It should be noted that it is spelled both as one word Campfire and two, Camp Fire, at various times. Without really being able to lock it down I would hazard to say that the one word spelling is the earlier spelling. The contemporary organization uses two words.) While all belong to what I think of as the plucky young girl genre, the idea of exploiting the new inventions of the times – the new world opening up with the advent of the automobile, films and also radio – is the jumping off point for each of these.

As I have written about previously, the thrill of a changing (modernizing one if you will) world is at the center of each of these – and the evolving role of young women, emerging from their teen years pretty much at the same time as the century itself. It reminds us that society evolved slowly and these novels go to some pains to show that these are nice and average girls, in this series they are fairly affluent. (Unlike Ruth Fielding and some other plucky young dames who are of the poor and/or orphaned variety.)

It is boys not girls climbing onto the roof on the cover of this magazine from the same period.

I deeply regret that the Radio Girls series is only the four volumes because I liked the characters and the writing, as well as finding the topic endearing. These novels were published in the early 1920’s although the dates when penned are hard to figure out since the first three volumes all have publication dates of 1922, the last volume 1924 – I deeply suspect that at least the first three volumes, or even all four – were produced all at once like a long book. These were written under the pen name of Margaret Penrose, a Stratemeyer Syndicate nom de plume for a number of authors writing under a single name. I cannot find further information about who actually wrote them although they do seem to have all been written by the same unidentified person.

While it may sound surprising to say, these are chocked full of the thrill and excitement of radio as it was dawning. It amazes me how much mileage the author gets out of it. Most charming for me is where Jessie and Amy (our protagonists) speculate on what the future might look like – a world with radios and telephones you carry around with you – television! (I could not help but wonder what they would have made of the iPad I was reading the book on in bed that evening.) They reflect on the radio’s place in a world that was still reeling from the establishment of the telegraph and telephone not all that long before. Telephones and radios were just being adopted by middle class American families and were still indeed novel.

At the heart of the plot of each is a mystery of sorts – kidnapped girls, raising needed funds for a worthy cause, or perhaps alternatively being stranded on the water, an island or on a sinking boat and the radio helps save the day! It is worth noting that the author goes to great pains to make Jessie and Amy, but especially Jessie, the master of all things radio, where she outshines both her college aged brother and his friends.

Jessie’s mother, Momsey, tends to fret a bit about the radio – however it does seems that there was the very real possibility of the set-ups attracting lightening strikes so she wasn’t exactly foolish in her fears. (It comes to pass in one of the volumes where a fire is started in a house via lightening strike and an open circuit on a radio set-up.) Meanwhile, Jessie eschews purchasing a kit for her radio and uses instructions (from a magazine I believe) to set up her rig – which includes climbing a tree and out a window in front of their large home, in order to string the wires. In the end, both mother and father are in full support of the endeavor. Once an acoustical horn is acquired for the radio (at first each person had to wear headphones) the whole family and their guests endeavor to listen ongoing – even a ticketed demonstration for the community to raise funds for a hospital project takes place in the first book.

In a later volume the young girls get to perform on the radio too and we get a glimpse of the mix of the behind-the-scenes performers, professional and amateur vying for radio time. Kim turned me onto some of the radio magazines that existed at the time, ones that seem to mix the upgrades in equipment and mechanics with the emerging star power of the day – sort of a film star magazine for radio. These are very appealing and I may pick up a few on eBay and wander through them.

How the Radio Girls are repackaged as Campfire Girls and the republication schedule of these is a bit of a mystery to me – the original copyright is on the volumes I read. I see some evidence that maybe the subsequent publication was issued in the 1930’s. Each was originally published with the double name title convention such as, The Radio Girls on Station Island or The Wireless from Steam Yacht. Campfire Girls replaces Radio Girls in the titles and they are repackaged and presumably sent out again to another generation of young readers by the new publisher. I can only imagine that they must have been somewhat confusing to girls who were expecting not just plucky heroines, but some actual reference to the Campfire Girls – those novels are chocked full of Campfire Girl lore.

While a tad resentful at first that my Radio Girls were subsumed into another entity, I gathered a few early volumes of the Camp Fire Girls on my iPad. I hope to eventually see if the original characters and story lines of the Radio Girls were picked up – they do not appear to be. However, the very different charm of those lured me in and in a subsequent post I will write about the first volumes I have tackled in that very long and interesting series, the genesis of the series which predates the Radio Girls with the earliest volumes coming out around 1912. As I like to start at the beginning of things I am still in the early volumes published before 1920, so more to discover and come on that.

Judy Bolton Mysteries: Part 2

Pam’s Pictorama Post: While bunker-style living here in Manhattan during our modern plague has not resulted in an increase in reading time (quite the opposite as days seem to somehow blur into seven-day-a-week, 14 hour day work-a-thons), I do make time every night for a bit of Judy Bolton before bed. With the last few volumes looming on the horizon I know I will miss her and the dollop of her 1940’s daily life when I eventually finish the last volume. However, today I offer this next Judy installment as suggested reading for those of you hunting a little escapism from your current reality.

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I have always believed that in stressful times that one should be extremely thoughtful about what one is reading. (Kim is currently deep in Max Brand – I thought he’d already read all of him – and of course Little Orphan Annie on weekends, but none of this is different, just business as usual for him.) These days I read only what I feel is necessary of the newspaper in the morning and quickly move on.

In the evening, I need something to lead me into a relaxed enough state to sleep. Therefore, I try to put down the phone (Wynton Marsalis, please take note) and pick up my Judy Bolton novel to read a chapter or so. I am finishing up volume 20 currently, The Warning on the Window, and am fascinated by the fact that my copy, with a 1949 copyright, sporting a dust jacket and purchased on ebay, had never been read! I found several pages that had never been split. Imagine this book being passed from hand to hand over seventy years and never read. Extraordinary!

 

As I mentioned in my first post about Judy (which can be found here) about halfway through the series Judy marries one of her two suitors throughout the earlier volumes. While Judy’s role is not diminished to one of housewife, some of the aspects of 1940’s pre-feminism jabs at me in these latter volumes. Judy’s husband leaves his nascent law practice to join the FBI after one of their adventures and somehow the series that was about her with him occasionally helping becomes about her helping him. Although hers always does end up being the star role the author now feels the need to work at storylines that allow for this. (Meanwhile, reality has never been a strong suit of these books, but the evidence of this sticks in my crawl a bit.)

Meanwhile, Judy and Peter have acquired a child along the way, Roberta, whose father is mysteriously “at sea” and from what I can tell they have never heard a peep from him. As a result they now have a ready made family and Roberta’s mystery solving abilities, given her age, somewhat make up for Judy’s post-marital status.

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As part of this shift in storyline, I was a bit worried about Judy’s black cat, Blackberry, who seemed to be meeting his demise in The Living Portrait. A puppy, Tuffy, was introduced in this volume as Roberta’s pet and I was quite peevish when it seemed that Blackberry would be sacrificed for him. I hope I am not giving away too much plot when I assure readers that he makes a strong eventual comeback and remains part of the family. (In fact up next, The Black Cat’s Clue.)

The thing that interests me most about the second half of the series is that Margaret Sutton’s writing style seems to morph in tandem with Judy’s role as wife. Almost immediately the books become a bit more complex. The mysteries go from being excuses for a storyline with unreal plots to more logical storylines. They are still stuffed with really bad criminals and if anything Judy appears to be in actual danger in some of these stories. In particular The Secret of the Musical Tree managed to have me a bit worried about her at one point. (Even if harrowing at times, all is of course viewed from the safety of knowing that Judy appears in another volume, waiting patiently for me next to the bed.) Judy as an adult clearly meant that Sutton could step out a little in a different direction.

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Undated photo of Margaret Sutton

 

To both Judy and Sutton’s credit, Judy spends little if any time worrying about her appearance (Judy’s attire is only ever noted if it is a plot point) and only glancingly makes mention about things like cleaning the house or cooking a meal. Judy’s mother tends to worry about Judy’s mystery solving ways and one gets the sense that this is the evolution of young women of the times moving yet another notch out of the home and into the working world.

Still, plot devices are needed in order to get Judy away from her husband and let her do her stuff, which by today’s standards is unnecessary and even insulting. Peter can therefore expect to be conked on the head unconscious, or to find that somehow Judy is off in another town, unable to phone, and turns out to be knee deep in trouble. Despite being dated in this way, these books are a more or less perfect antidote for the stresses of the spring of 2020 for me. Just intriguing enough to lead me peacefully down the garden path, again and again each night. I highly recommend them if you like me need a bit of evening escapism.

 

 

Judy Bolton, Girl Detective: Part One

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Pictorama readers know that I have a very real soft spot for juvenile novel series and I detour today to begin a fairly long missive about girl detective, Judy Bolton. I have been reading these on and off for the last year or so. While I may tend toward the completist even in my following of favored authors (see my thoughts on Edna Ferber here and my numerous posts on Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s adult novels, which start here and here), I am a persnickety reader of series books, acquiring them and reading them in order. A missing title in one of these is a real fly in the ointment from my perspective. Just a warning before you really settle in, spoiler alert as I will probably end up giving away some of the series plot line.

I did a long stretch of reading and reviewing as I worked my into and through a number of other series. I never read any of them as a child. My sister Loren was the Nancy Drew reader in the family and I can remember admiring how nice they all looked lined up in a bookcase in her bedroom. Somehow they just really belonged to her though and I never read them, although I guess I could have with some wrangling. (The same is true for the Black Beauty books and the Tolkien novels. These were things I associated with her and territory I never entered.)

Among my favorite series discoveries are Honey Bunch (my review can be found here), Grace Harlowe, the Automobile Girls and especially The Moving Picture Girls novels. (A post devoted to those can be read here). I had put my series reading on the back burner and was focusing more on authors when Kim got a tip that I might like the Judy Bolton series and purchased one for me appropriately called The Mystery of the Half Cat.

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I took to Judy Bolton like a duck to water and I have been weaving them into my reading since. As I write today, I am halfway through the 40 volumes in the series, although it should be noted that only 38 were written by the original author, Margaret Sutton. (Margaret Sutton, aka Rachel Beebe.) The books were largely published by Grosset & Dunlap. Unlike the Stratemeyer syndicate books, Margaret Sutton was a real person and wrote all of the novels in the series herself and this is evident in the writing. While these are still all based on formula (mystery introduced in the first quarter of the book, develops in the second, is positively puzzling obfuscation in the third and resolves in the last) Judy develops as a character over these many volumes. Wikipedia offers the interesting comment that it may have been pressure from Stratemeyer that killed the series rather than flagging sales in the interest of Nancy Drew, but nowhere can I find an explanation of how this played out amongst their commingled ownership and whatnot.

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Judy Bolton as a character is interesting and a bit complex. She appears to age more slowly than the years it takes for these volumes to unfurl, the first twenty books span from 1932-1949 and Judy seems to start at her senior year in high school and then hovers in the year or so just after, time advancing slowly while she works in the newly opened law office of her sweetheart and eventual fiance, Peter Dobbs. (They marry in the 17th volume, The Rainbow Riddle. Marriage does not appear to diminish Judy any.) Her parents would have liked her to consider college, but she has decided that working with Peter and unpaid sleuthing is her destiny. She is an odd mix of a more modern woman and one of her late thirties, early forties decades.

What I like best, in some ways, about Judy Bolton is that she is actually quite unlikeable at times. She is stubborn and sometimes myopic and self-indulgent. Other characters routinely call her out on it, as they should. There is something very human and endearing about her gaffs however and she generally recognizes her mistakes, as most of us do, and makes them right.

Early on Peter gives Judy a black kitten she names Blackberry (he of the half cat above) and he routinely finds his way into most, but not all volumes. This of course endears the series to my black cat loving heart! Her brother Horace acquires a white cat who seems to disappear in later volumes, but he also acquires a rather rude bird who remains prominent. Horace shows up in most of the volumes, playing a bigger role in the early volumes.

Judy’s affections swing between Peter and the wealthiest boy in town, Arthur Farringdon-Pett. Most remarkably, Arthur owns an airplane – how could a girl resist that I guess. Judy and Arthur go so far as to get engaged in later volumes, until Judy realizes her heart really belongs to Peter.

It interests me more than a little that people actually die in this series. Criminals die, people die in car accidents, her grandparents eventually die over time. Meanwhile, a lot of children are being raised by somewhat random people or given to orphanages, and therefore there are several mysteries which resolve in people being related to otherwise unlikely people – long lost heretofore unknown siblings, cousins. Perhaps for someone writing in the post-Depression era this was somewhat less unlikely than it seems today. People found themselves impoverished and left babies for adoption or even just with other people.

The series opens with Judy forced to leave her hometown of Roulsville in favor of higher ground in nearby Farringdon, an imaginary exurb from which recognizable places in Connecticut and Manhattan can be reached within a day’s trip. There are farms, Judy’s grandparents have one in Dry Brook Hollow – a seemingly poorly named area as that is where the flood occurs in book one. It is theoretically based on the Pennsylvania area where Sutton grew up and returned to for the inspiration for her novels.

The stories build on each other and landmark events are retold which advertise earlier books, but also adds to the sense of the created, shared universe. Certain key events, like the flood in the first volume, are mentioned in virtually every volume – sometimes in more or sometimes less detail. Other stories waft in and out of the tale of the moment, depending on the relatedness of the current cast of characters and location. It is said that each book was started from a kernel of a real incident, such as the flood, which inspired Sutton.

Judy’s father is a doctor, but somehow they only hover at the line of middle class. Early on Judy expresses discomfort with the wealthier girls in school – understandably because they treat her poorly at first – but also equal insecurity about how to act around a neighbor who is poor and attends the local secretarial high school, leaving eventually to work in a factory. (I have to just take it on faith that secretarial high school was a thing – like technical schools of other kinds which have morphed more into college years than high school now.) Their town, Farringdon, has a strict dividing line between the “good” area of town and the “poor” area, although one thing that seems to be entirely absent are people of any ethnic group at all, no one is black, Jewish, or hispanic. I believe Gypsies are mentioned, but not in a good way. There are hoboes and all sorts of men who are only marginally employed. They are almost always threatening and have ties to the local underworld.

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Evil Gypsy fortune teller in this volume.

 

Oddly, these books are not available on Project Gutenberg or other online sources and therefore it has been necessary to purchase the books which I have generally found used on ebay, paying on average about $10 each with shipping. (The series has been reprinted in paperback, which might explain the extension of the copyright, but those tend to be more expensive than just purchasing the old volumes.) For the most part purchasing the old books has been fine; I think only one has fallen to pieces in my hands while reading it and only one other went astray for a period before showing up on 86th Street. A few have even sported dust jackets. (The books are nominally illustrated by Pelacie Doane and I will only offer that they are appropriately period drawings and covers.)

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I can’t say I find the (limited) illustrations inspiring and sadly could find none featuring Blackberry.

 

 

I’m not sure what happens when I am done with these volumes – we hardly have shelf space to devote to 40 volumes although part of me loves the idea of the long line of matching volumes. I guess I will either resell them or give them away. Kim has expressed interest in reading a few so I will keep them around for awhile. Research online tells me that the later ones may get difficult to find and since I am generally a completest in most things I will be bereft if I can not read them all.

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Sutton in one of her author photos.

October is the month when the annual Judy Bolton Weekend is held in Cloudersport, Pennsylvania. This four day fiesta celebrates all things Judy and Sutton. I am already working on enlisting Kim in that adventure later this year – although it is admittedly far and the travel route without a car is a bit unclear from New York City. In addition, there is a fan club run out of Mt. Carmel, PA which is devoted to Judy, Nancy, Trixie Belden and the like. All this to say, having already gone on for quite a spell, there is still indeed more likely to come.