Friends, I’m over on Bookshop Talk today, where I’m gabbing about DIME NOVELS! Head on over there to learn more about the pulp fiction of the American frontier.
Read Part I here.
(This book was first published in dime novel form in 1860. The version I read was found in a Bedford Cultural Edition anthology, entitled READING THE WEST: AN ANTHOLOGY OF DIME WESTERNS, edited by Bill Brown, 1997.)
(From the introduction) Though the historical setting of the novel is vague, its events clearly take place when the Six Nations of the Iroquois still controlled the Mohawk Valley, sparsely settled by Dutch and English pioneers….Mrs. Stephens…extracts her plot out of history to concentrate on the fate of her heroine in a sentimental tradition….[Mrs. Stephens] tells the…story of a “forlorn wanderer” (p. 94), an Indian woman denigrated by both the Dutch and the Indian populations, “the heart-broken victim of an unnatural marriage” (p. 163)….Intermarriage was a fact of frontier history….Effectively avoiding any treatment of intermarriage itself, Mrs. Stephens concentrates instead on the transcultural price of maternal devotion: “It was her woman’s destiny, not the more certain because of her savage origin. Civilization does not always reverse this mournful picture of womanly self-abnegation” (p. 103).
Known as the first dime novel, MALAESKA was actually a reprint of a three-part serialized story that originally appeared in The Ladies’ Companion in 1839—twenty-one years before it was printed as a dime novel. There were a few changes made for the dime novel debut. “Mrs. Stephens complicated the plot, amplified the descriptive passages, added epigraphs to the chapters, and streamlined the punctuation” (Brown 55). Mrs. Stephens was, at the time of its printing in dime novel form, a well-known and celebrated writer. In other words, MALAESKA was the perfect story to introduce the dime novel genre.
Having read several dime novels before I picked up this one, it came as no surprise to me that the story was exceptionally racist, both in the writing and in the behavior of the characters. Prejudice is a theme in this book, but it simply exists—it is not dealt with. Malaeska, the Indian wife, is portrayed by the author as a simpleton at best, and an animal at worst. At the beginning of the book, she speaks in halting English and never refers to herself in the first person. When angry or excited, both she and her son (who is also the son of a white man) are described as animal-like in appearance:
The boy started up—his eye brightened and his thin nostrils dilated, the savage instincts of his nature broke out in all his features.
By the end of the book, Malaeska is described as “white in education, feeling, every thing but color.” She no longer has an aversion to the word, “I,” and “habits of refinement had kept her complexion clear and her hair bright.”
All too often, in contemporary novels, are characters with a skin tone that is darker than the average Caucasian’s described as “caramel-colored,” or “coffee-colored.” Such descriptions have become cliché. Back in Mrs. Stephens’ day, the descriptive word of choice was “dusky,” apparently. I don’t know how many times the author used that word when referring to Malaeska’s skin color or the skin color of other Native Americans, but she used it too much.
The writing was also full of heavy-handed foreshadowing, melodramatic monologues (people talk to themselves an awful lot in dime novels), and depressing bits. Lots of people die. This book is not a happily-ever-after kind of story.
I was absolutely fascinated by the long passages of landscape description. Setting is very important in dime novels, and Mrs. Stephens sets up nearly every scene with copious amounts of description of her characters’ surroundings. To some extent, the natural world, while affording serenity for her characters (white and Indian), also represents a descent into “savage” or “wild” or even “un-Godly” realms (Malaeska leaves her home in the woods and travels to the city in order to accept the white man’s god, so she can be with her dead husband in his heaven.). That the natural world—particularly the forest—represents evil was not a new idea in literature when Mrs. Stephens wrote MALAESKA.
MALAESKA was, by far, the most dramatic of the dime novels I read. I thought it was very similar in style and themes to James Fenimore Cooper’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Heavy stuff.
Please note that while I generally do not review books that I don’t love, the purpose of Parts I & II of my dime novel reviews is to introduce the dime novel genre.
I get great ideas when I’m writing. Unfortunately, I don’t get great ideas about the book I’m in the process of laboring to produce; I get ideas about new books. Exciting, but frustrating at the same time. The little whiner in me wants to give up on the hard, hard work of really writing a manuscript in order to play with the new, shiny idea. Or ideas, as the case may be. A couple of years ago, when I was smack in the middle of the novel that is now ready to send to publishers, I got the idea of writing a western fantasy novel. Western as in the Old West.
I’m a rural Wyoming girl, so this idea was particularly exciting to me. I grew up in a tiny community (the Smoot population sign reads and has always read 100), where pioneer celebrations happened yearly, where old log cabins were a feature in many pastures, and where the “farm kids” were known as the best athletes because they had developed uncanny strength “bucking bales” (lifting and hauling hay). I also lived near an elderly woman who told me and the other girls my age stories of how Butch Cassidy frequently visited her family when she was young. Boil all this together with a John Wayne movie or twenty, and you get the reason I’ve always been obsessed with outlaws and the Old West.
But I also looooove fantasy novels, and I love writing fantasy. So I decided to combine my two loves and write…well, a crazy novel.
Two years and one somewhat agonizing novel after I got the idea, I started writing my western fantasy. Right away, I realized that even though I was a western kid, raised in Wyoming and in possession of a Mormon pioneer background, I needed to do a lot of research.
First item of research: Read a bunch of dime novels (You can read this post to find out more about what dime novels are.).
I’m happy to say that I’ve read a bunch, and I’m totally addicted. They’re nuts! They’re completely melodramatic nutso stuff! I love them! So, without further ado, here are a few reviews of some of my favorite (so far) dime novels:
- THE PRAIRIE BRIDE OR, THE SQUATTER’S TRIUMPH, by Mrs. Henry J. Thomas (first published by Beadle & Adams in 1869; the version I read was reprinted by The Globe Pequot Press, 2006)
(From the back cover) Tired of her controlling stepparents, headstrong heiress Annie Howard goes west and encounters a series of adventures–including a blazing prairie fire, a sinking riverboat, the kidnapping of her beloved servant, and, of course, romance.
Okay, first of all, Annie does not have “stepparents,” as the back cover synopsis would lead you to believe. She lives with her stepfather and his middle-aged daughter. Moving on.
This was the first dime novel I read, and it was very exciting…until the author gave everything away with some ultra heavy-handed foreshadowing along the lines of: Stepfather! I will never marry your son, Charlie Norris, whom I have not met! And later, Hello, handsome gentleman who saved my life on the prairie after I ran away from my stepfather who wanted me to marry his son. I am now betrothed to you. And what a coincidence that you have been using a nickname the entire duration of our acquaintance, your true name being Charles Norris. Gah! The author actually appears to expect the reader to either not realize the coincidence, just dismiss it, or worse, to giggle along with Annie, who has planned some silly way of revealing to her new beloved that she and he were meant for each other all along.
This book is also very racist, which is, I suppose, to be expected given the year it was written. It was jarring to read so much racism, especially the “well-meant” pet names and that kind of thing. Annie’s black servant, who is also her dear, life-long friend (or so the author would lead you to believe), is treated more as a favorite mule than a human being.
All that said, there was so much that was excellent about this book! It was a very quick read, very fast-paced, and highly enlightening. I also enjoyed the written dialect, which, while sometimes ridiculous, was fun to read. I felt like I learned a lot about dime novels in reading this particular book, which was a best-seller in its time.
- DASHING DIAMOND DICK OR THE TIGERS OF TOMBSTONE, possibly written by Theodore Dreiser (first published in 1889; the version I read was found in a Penguin Classic anthology, entitled DASHING DIAMOND DICK AND OTHER CLASSIC DIME NOVELS, 2007).
(From the introduction) The plot is filled with melodrama and elements that are typical of many dime novels: a hero with a mysterious background and nearly superhuman powers, the eternal battle of good versus evil, a tragic love story with the loss of a loved one, and an ending that promises more to come as the hero sets out on a trail of vengeance.
This was my favorite of the dime novels I’ve read so far. It was gripping, I tell you. Gripping! Diamond Dick was the ultimate hero: handsome, brave, and raising his son all on his own. Ya gotta root for a guy like that, right? And Tornado Tom, the villain, was the ultimate villain: handsome, lecherous, and powerful. The first scene of the novel (well, apart from some serious stage-setting) showed Tornado Tom brandishing a whip and ordering an unfortunate German man to dance for Tom’s entertainment. Ooo…villain. Herr Schwauenflegle, whose accent is written into the text (a commonality in the dime novels I read), was saved from dancing by the very timely appearance of the stage coach, which had been set upon by bandits in ferocious feline costume. The single occupant of the stage was a young woman, and–oh, I just have to quote the description of her. It’s too fun:
And then a sudden, breathless hush fell upon that throng of rough humanity, for out from the semi-darkness in the coach came the bonniest face that mortal eyes had ever gazed upon.
It was like a vision, framed as it was by the door of the coach–a thing of unearthly beauty–such a face as some of the old masters saw in their dreams, and dimly pictured in their waking moments.
Purity sat enthroned on that low, polished brow, where the hair clustered and coiled back and fell in a cascade of reddish gold; and truth looked fearlessly out from the clear depths of the hazel eyes.
A brave face it was too albeit that hardly seventeen summers had blossomed there and left their buds in gleeful dimples on cheeks and chin.
A smile played like a sunbeam about the pretty mouth as the girl surveyed the uncouth beings struck dumb by her rare loveliness.
“What is it?” she said, her voice sweet as the music of the psalms. “Have we arrived at our destination?”
Isn’t that wonderful and over-the-top and ridiculous? I love it! And so did Tornado Tom, apparently, because he fell instantly in lust with her and vowed he’d have her for his bride. But before he could yank her from the carriage, Diamond Dick showed up with his sharpshooting ten-year-old son and engaged Tom in a duel–which was then thwarted by one of the tiger-costumed renegades who had attacked the stagecoach!
Anyhow, much excitement ensues…and then the girl gets shot and dies.
I read Louisa May Alcott’s thrilling novel, A LONG FATAL LOVE CHASE (written in 1868) several years ago, and don’t ask me why I was surprised when, at the end, one of the main characters died. You’d think the FATAL would’ve clued me in. But I digress.
Diamond Dick survived the battle in which his beloved (who shared the same first name as his first wife–go figure) died, not at the hand of Tornado Tom, but at the hand of Dick’s jilted lover, the ferocious feline bandit! Thankfully, Diamond Dick can ride again. And when he eventually dies, we don’t have to worry, because his son will be Dashing just like his pa.
Really, I loved it. I totally did. Gimme melodramatic stuff any day of the week, and I’ll laugh myself silly and take loads of notes.
- THE LIBERTY BOYS OF ’76 OR FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM, by “Harry Moore,” a pen name for both Cecil Burleigh and Stephen Angus Douglas Cox. Cox was the writer of this particular story (first published in 1901; the version I read came from the DASHING DIAMOND DICK anthology mentioned earlier).
(From the introduction) Besides working undercover, the boys are involved in nearly all the famous battles of the war and frequently fight American Indians and famous renegades along the frontier.
This book is…bizarre. Even more so than the previous two books I’ve reviewed in this post. It begins with the death of Dick Slater’s father, who was of patriotic sentiment, unlike his Tory neighbors. Dick vows to fight for the same cause in which his father so firmly believed, and ends up enlisting with his friends into the patriot army. He doesn’t leave, of course, without declaring his intention to marry a beautiful neighbor girl (who is also of patriotic mindset, though her father is a king’s man). Vows are made, the girl’s brother (who is Dick’s best friend) saves Dick’s life by apprising him that a bunch of Tory boys are going to kill him, a mini-battle is fought, then the Liberty Boys of ’76 take off to meet General Washington. In the middle of all this, however, we are assaulted by Chapter Two.
Chapter Two, which is entitled, “An Interesting Chapter of History” is not interesting at all. Oh, I suppose it’s mildly interesting, but there’s just too much of it. It’s basically an explanation of the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, overstuffed with lots of stuff like, “The colonists had become greatly worked up over this, and on every side could be heard the thrilling words of Patrick Henry: ‘Give me liberty or give me death!'”
Following this looooong, melodramatic (but not wonderful because it’s true, though sensationalized in its delivery) chapter, we catch up with Dick and the other Liberty Boys, who are brave and eager. Even General Washington thinks they are. He is so impressed by Dick, in particular, that he sends him to do a job that two grown men have failed at: to cross enemy lines as a spy and to find out what he can about when the enemy will attack.
Dick succeeds, of course, in spite of the villainous Moggsley–a bullying British soldier whom Dick taught a lesson to shortly after he arrived in the British camp. And Dick rescues the two spies, who were taken prisoner by the British. He is a Liberty Boy, after all!
The sneaky spy stuff and the fact that I wanted to know what happened between Dick and his betrothed pulled me through what could have felt like a total slog, and by the time I neared the end, things were really picking up. Then, out of the blue, the story ended. And the ending was so beyond blah:
“Ah!” [General Washington] said to Dick, “if I had ten thousand additional troops made up of ‘Liberty Boys’ such as are the members of your company, I would cross back over the East River and drive the British into the ocean!”
Dick repeated the commander-in-chief’s words to…the other members of the company, and they were as proud a lot of boys as ever the sun shone on.
The “Liberty Boys of ’76” were destined to do wonderful work for the great Cause of Liberty during the remaining years of the war.
Huh. After reading those words for the first time, I closed the first installment of the series, THE LIBERTY BOYS OF ’76, with a snap of disgust and went to sleep.
Still, the spy stuff was great, as was the bum-whipping Dick gave Moggsley.
Stay tuned for more reviews of dime novels! And now, a question: Are you reading anything for research? What are you reading, and what are you learning?