Grace Harlowe, the Automobile Girls and the Moving Picture Girls Novels

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Pam’s Pictorama Post: So I am going to go way off my usual course and take a moment to discuss some early 20th Century series books I have been reading over recent months. Thanks to Project Gutenberg and the availability of some of these books online, I have been able to read many more of these than I ever would have been able (or could have afforded) to do otherwise. I started some of this reading with the Honey Bunch books, but was buying the books which was becoming expensive and taking up considerable room. (I wrote about those in May in my post Honey Bunch.)

I began my online reading adventure with the Grace Harlowe books, first the four volumes covering her high school years and then another five taking place when she and her friends head to college. I have been unable to locate the six books that take Grace to Europe during WWI or the ten devoted to adventures out west, although I would love to at least sample them. The volumes I read were all written by a single author, Josephine Chase, under the name Jessie Graham Flower. (I believe some of the later ones were written by others.) Out of the three series I am talking about today, the adventures of Grace Harlowe were the best written. (I would happily scoop up the remaining books if I could find them.)  Grace and other characters are well define – Grace is sort of a girl’s Frank Merriwell. She is generous, smart and, even when it is at great personal cost, always does the right thing; she is noble. As a result, even those who start out hating her ultimately become her ardent defenders.

These books commence in 1910 and the last of Grace’s pre-war stories is published in 1917. This means it was written in ’16 and while war was on the horizon for the United States, we weren’t in it until April of ’17. Grace Harlowe is very much a young woman of her time, striving toward being a modern woman. However, they are careful with the character, and the most strident ideas – women voting, driving – are expressed through one of her close friends. In that way, Grace can remain a model for everyone. (Grace likes to run and that raises eyebrows – even riding a bike was still strange and questionable for women, as was attending college.) It is an interesting and sobering reminder that the move toward greater freedom and independence for women was not at all a straight line forward. Women were unsure of this path.

A bit more slapdash, but very charming nonetheless, are the six Automobile Girls books published between 1910 and 1913. Written under the name Laura Dent Crane and published by the Henry Altemus Company. I am very glad these have not been lost to the sands of time. Plucky, poor sisters Barbara and Mollie Thurston become friends with the wealthy Ruth Stuart who owns the fabulous motorcar christened Mr. Bubble. The sisters are fatherless and Ruth without a mother, but Ruth has an Aunt Sallie who chaperones the driving adventures. Ruth driving and the girls alone, even with Aunt Sallie in tow, draw considerable consternation throughout these stories. The tension between being a nice girl, but independent and becoming freer, is evident here too. Unlike Grace Harlowe, Ruth Stuart, while generous, very lovable and smart, does not need to embody propriety too – Babs Thurston balances her out somewhat – supplying some of the grit and simpler qualities and values of the time. (I found a postcard which, in a bizarre way, almost illustrates these books and can be found at Buster.)

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Pushing forward a tiny bit is the Moving Picture Girls series of seven books published between 1914 and 1916 by the Stratemeyer Syndicate under the name Laura Lee Hope – the famous pseudonym of the author of the Nancy Drew series. This series depicts the story of the DeVere family, father Hosmer and daughters Ruth and Alice, as they are drawn into the world of silent films in the making. The father, a stage actor, is initially forced into silent films due to a throat ailment (one that does not ever seem to clear during the course of the books) which leads to his daughters acting in them as well. There is a great deal of discussion about stage theater and vaudeville and movies – and the need to justify films as legitimate and those who make them not necessarily “improper” is ongoing.

This series – presumably written by numerous people – is a bit more uneven and the characters have less definition. However, the enormous charm of this book is the contemporaneous descriptions of the making of early films which they take great pleasure in describing. The head of the troupe, Mr. Pertell, takes the Comet Film Company on all sorts of locations and, aside from the occasional non-film related mystery, there are film patents to be protected and even other companies trying to steal shots of the Comet players at work. While this is less pointed about women (there is a bit of a line drawn between these two ‘good’ girl daughters acting and the vaudeville actresses also in the troupe) and their emergence, these cover the changing world as represented by film in its infancy here. It was a time when a couple of hundred dollars and some pluck and you too could set up in the film business.

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As we now know from history, 1917 comes and WWI changes everything, and the sort of wonderful emerging world of the infant 20th century is quickly shaken with massive changes and the world charges forward. For me these books are a portrait of that very vibrant incubation period before the war and especially revealing to see women finding their sea legs in a bold new world.

Honey Bunch

Pam’s Pictorama: I am going to swerve way off topic today and discuss my affection for the Honey Bunch series. Before I drill down on that specifically I should confess that since childhood, whenever under tremendous stress, it is my habit to curl up in bed with what I shall describe as incredibly light reading. I trace this practice back to when I was about twelve and saw my sister Loren get hit by a car (it was summer and we were walking to the beach; she was hit from behind by a car going around an obstruction that blocked her from view) which was unsettling to say the least. She was knocked unconscious, smashed the windshield, had a severe concussion and a very badly broken leg. The broken leg, which resulted in a huge plaster cast, sidetracked her from her many beloved sports for a number of months. Anyway, all this to say that the evening it happened a visiting mother of a friend looked at me and said, “You’ve had an awful fright. You find something nonsense to read before you go to bed tonight so you don’t have bad dreams.” And I still have been following that advice ever since, whenever I am very stressed or sad.

A Honey Bunch book is about as benign a book as you can get. Clearly meant for the early reading set – or those still being read to, although they are “chapter books” – Honey Bunch is an adorable small child and the books describe various minor adventures she has, such as a trip to the seashore (not to be confused with her first trip to the ocean), a trip on a plane or to a farm. She has a lovely kitty friend – as every small child should – named Lady Clare, and she has a garden. Honey Bunch is a pretty well traveled kid for the pre-school set of her day, but she enjoys routine as much as most small children, all cats, and myself. A plot might include the temporary loss of a treasured doll, a misunderstanding with a friend, or amazement at getting on a train, but you can be pretty sure all loose ends will indeed be sewn up nicely in the end.

For those of you not in the Honey Bunch know, it was another of the famed Stratemeyer Syndicate, along with the slightly better known Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery series. The books were written under the name of Helen Louise Thorndyke, which is a nome de plume for a series of writers. Josephine Lawrence wrote 17 of the 32 volumes and the most by far, with Mildred Wirth Benson running a distance second at five. (Josephine Lawrence also wrote a number of adult novels, include Make Way for Tomorrow, which was made into a brilliant tear-jerker film by Leo McCarey.) The majority were published by Grosset and Dunlap and the cover art by Walter S. Rogers makes them nice objects as well, as you can see above with one of my copies. I think there would be less satisfaction in reading a Honey Bunch book that wasn’t one of these beautiful editions. You are usually provided with a single handsome inside illustration as well.

While even I cannot recommend a full diet of Honey Bunch, or reading of this genre, the occasional mental rest of a Honey Bunch books has stood me in excellent stead, and I do believe has contributed to ongoing good mental health. I suggest purchasing a few and keeping them in the house. You never know when you might need to sink into bed with Honey Bunch: Her First Little Circus.

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Honey Bunch inside illustration.