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eBook available: The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept Seas

The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept SeasHot on the heels of The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders comes the release of another “Captain Wilbur Lawton” children’s adventure novel, The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept Seas. Like the Boy Aviators adventure that preceded this, War Swept Seas takes the heroes of an established line of books and faces them with the dangers of a brewing global conflict.

With this type of series book, it is often difficult to identify authors, since most titles were published pseudonymously, and some pseudonyms were shared. There was no real Captain Wilbur Lawton. It is known that at least some of the Lawton titles were actually the work of journalist John Henry Goldfrap, but it is possible that other authors contributed as well. If both Air Raiders and War Swept Seas are truly the product of the same pen, it shows significant growth between the two books, as War Swept Seas is a significantly more readable and interesting tale than its predecessor (and, for that matter, the previous Ocean Wireless Boys adventure, The Ocean Wireless Boys on the Pacific). You won’t find a whole lot of complex plot here, but the author throws in such a steady stream of action that it’s hardly missed.

War Swept Seas has much in common with Air Raiders: it is set at the very dawn of the war, and its American protagonists take a neutral posture in the conflict (in spite of having primarily German antagonists). Unlike the Boy Aviators, who sought to profit from the war, the Ocean Wireless Boys are simply innocent bystanders, first threatened by British war ships while passengers on a German vessel, and later endangered by all sides (and particularly a vengeful German professor) while on a peaceful mission in Europe. This allows the author to present a different perspective on war than is often found in similar but more hawkish series. Indeed, the book even goes so far as to give its protagonist, who is portrayed as faultlessly brave and heroic, an extended anti-war speech:

“Tell you what, Bill,” said Jack, as they returned to the hotel to breakfast, and found that the fire had been extinguished and the panic quieted down, “war is a pretty thing on paper, and uniforms, and bands, and fluttering flags, and all that to make a fellow feel martial and war-like, but it’s little realities like these that make you feel the world would be a heap better off without soldiers or sailors whose places could be taken by a few wise diplomats in black tail coats. It wouldn’t be so pretty but it would be a lot more like horse sense.”

A marked contrast to the more common message that war is hard but necessary, or even that war holds an unavoidable attraction to all boys. It would have been interesting to have seen if the message evolved in subsequent volumes after deeper U.S. involvement in the war, but sadly, Goldfrap died in 1917, and no further Captain Lawton adventures were published.

The entire book can now be read online or downloaded in a variety of popular eBook formats through Project Gutenberg.

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eBook available: The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders

The Boy Aviators with the Air RaidersToday, we have contributed a fourth World War I-themed children’s novel to Project Gutenberg. This title, The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders, was written in the early days of the war and published in 1915, and this gives it a significantly different tone from the other three titles we have released, all of which were produced later.

The books published after America’s entry in the war have a distinct flavor of propaganda about them, emphasizing patriotism and portraying Germans as distasteful stereotypes. This earlier title, produced at a time of America’s neutrality, has an entirely different tone, and indeed, neutrality features prominently in the plot.

As the book begins, the titular Boy Aviators are representing a company which has produced an advanced seaplane. A prototype was sent to France before the war broke out, and while American neutrality prevents further models from being shipped, it does allow royalties to be paid on French-built replicas of the prototype. The boys are tasked with demonstrating the plane to show its value to the French government and secure a contract. Of course, German spies are desperately trying to steal or destroy the plane before this can happen!

The centrality of German espionage to the plot is not surprising for the period; prior to the war, tales of German conspiracy and invasion were popular enough in the English-speaking world to nearly form a genre of their own. While this theme lends a certain air of paranoia to the book, the overall portrayal of the Germans is far more even-handed than what would come later. While the Germans are pitted against the book’s protagonists, the boys treat their adversaries with sympathy and admiration. In the words of young Frank, “while we may sympathize with the Allies in this struggle at the same time we do not hate the German people, but feel the warmest friendship for them.”

Of course, while the Germans get a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal, it would be hard to find a children’s series book of this period that didn’t feature some sort of character offensive to modern sensibilities, and in this instance, most of the cringe-inducing content arrives courtesy of Pudge, one of the heroes, but also a stereotypical “jolly fat boy,” clumsy, more cowardly than his peers, fixated on food, and prone to frequent alliterative exclamations such as “Sugar and sandwiches!” and “Tamales and terrapins!” It could be argued that even Pudge’s portrayal is, on the balance, positive, since he repeatedly performs heroic acts in defiance of his personal limitations, but his positioning as (unfunny) comic relief purely on the basis of a physical attribute is hard to ignore.

As with many of its peers, Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders is interesting as a study of its period, but weak as actual entertainment. While the book certainly delivers some action-packed flying sequences as the boys prove the worth of their plane in active war zones, it has little else to offer. Its prose is unengaging and filled with long, awkward sentences, and the theme of neutrality that runs through the story eventually brings the tale to a startlingly unsatisfying conclusion, perhaps the only ending possible given the many uncertainties of an ongoing conflict.

Since the entire book is available for online reading or download through Project Gutenberg, you are now free to read it and form your own conclusions. In spite of its low literary standards, it is a title worth studying as an example of an early, tentative attempt to use the novelty of an ongoing war to sell books to children.

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eBook available: The Wonder of War on Land

WonderOur third World War I-themed children’s novel (following The Liberty Girl and The Brighton Boys in the Trenches) is now available in eBook format thanks to our collaboration with the Distributed Proofreaders project.

This book, Francis Rolt-Wheeler’s The Wonder of War on Land, is quite an unusual creation. It is a novel about a young American boy who witnesses German attacks on Belgium early in the war and becomes increasingly involved in the unfolding conflict. In spite of its fictional nature, it looks like a work of non-fiction, illustrated throughout with photographs (often unrelated to the text) and making fairly heavy use of footnotes (sometimes to cite sources of anecdotes shared by characters, sometimes to indicate places where events have been presented out of historical order).

The actual text of the story is just as unusual as its formatting. After an introduction proclaiming the author’s desire “[t]o give the boys of the United States a fair viewpoint on this war,” the reader is presented with the novel itself, a strange mix of lengthy didactic monologues, pro-French/anti-German propaganda, bizarre incidents, surprisingly unrestrained violence, and periodic hints of the supernatural. By the time our hero is fleeing Belgium in the company of a friendly hunchback and a caged eagle which he captured in hand-to-wing combat as a symbol of victory, it is clear that this is not quite the typical war novel.

The book never quite seems to know what it wants to be — a textbook, an inspirational adventure novel, a document of the horrors of war — and so it never quite meshes into a satisfying whole. However, the fact that it is such an odd hodge-podge makes it an interesting study, and the unusual biography of the author may serve to shed some light on its eccentricities.

If you wish to see the whole thing for yourself, the book can be read online or downloaded in various popular eBook formats through Project Gutenberg.

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Now in proofreading: The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept Seas

The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept SeasLike our previous Distributed Proofreaders project, The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders, our latest title, The Ocean Wireless Boys on War Swept Seas, is a World War I adventure story aimed at young readers and written by Captain Wilbur Lawton (actually a pseudonym of journalist John Henry Goldfrap). While Air Raiders was released before U.S. involvement in the conflict, War Swept Seas came out in 1917, closer to the end of the war. This title also marks the final volume in the Ocean Wireless Boys series, immediately following The Ocean Wireless Boys in the Pacific, which was made available in eBook format as a result of one of our earlier projects.

If you are interested in helping this concluding adventure join its predecessor in the electronic age, you can read this earlier post about how the process works, and then visit the project page to begin preparing pages for Project Gutenberg.

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Now in proofreading: The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders

The Boy Aviators with the Air RaidersThe first World War entered American popular culture some time before America entered the war. This fact is evidenced by our latest title available as a Distributed Proofreaders project, The Boy Aviators with the Air Raiders. This book, part of an ongoing series of airplane-themed children’s adventure novels, plunges its youthful protagonists into the conflict as early as 1915.

If you are interested in helping produce a new eBook edition of this vintage title, you can read more about our proofreading efforts in this earlier post, then dive into the project page here.

 

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eBook available: The Liberty Girl

The Liberty GirlA few months ago, we helped produce an eBook of The Brighton Boys in the Trenches, an interesting example of the fiction marketed to boys during the first World War. Our latest release, The Liberty Girl by Rena I. Halsey, complements this as a specimen of Great War fiction intended for reading by girls.

Released in 1919, it seems likely that this was written during the war under the assumption that the conflict would still be raging upon its publication. The book continues the narrative of Nathalie Page, a character introduced in the non-war-themed Blue Robin, the Girl Pioneer. Nathalie begins the book with mixed feelings about the war, and several other characters are also critical of the conflict — offering slightly more moral shading than one might expect here — but the story is clearly designed to convince the reader of the justice of the cause, and everyone finds significant patriotic fervor by the end of the tale.

Obviously, a key distinction between Brighton Boys and Liberty Girl is that the boys were able to enlist and fight the battle directly, while Nathalie can only offer support from the home front. In spite of that limitation, the book is not solely about domestic activities; there are discussions of girls going overseas to support the troops, and some gruesome battlefield narratives are offered by way of a character returned from the front.

Of interest to dime novel readers is the fact that author Rena I. Halsey is the daughter Harlan P. Halsey, also known as “Old Sleuth,” a prolific dime novelist. The use of coincidence and disguise in the narrative here betrays at least traces of the Halsey family’s dime novel roots.

If you wish to read the book for yourself, it can be found at Project Gutenberg, where you can view the text online or download it in a variety of popular electronic formats.

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Now in proofreading: The Liberty Girl

The Liberty GirlOur latest proofreading project is Rena Halsey’s The Liberty Girl, a sequel to the earlier Blue Robin, the Girl Pioneer. This 1919 novel deals with, among other things, the Great War, making it an interesting feminine complement to the overtly masculine Brighton Boys in the Trenches. The project also ties in to our dime novel efforts, as Rena Halsey was the daughter of Harlan P. Halsey, better known as Old Sleuth, author of (among countless other titles), The Twin Ventriloquists. Truly, everything around here is connected in one way or another!

The book is now available at the Distributed Proofreaders site. To help us create a new electronic edition, you can read more about our proofreading efforts and then visit the project page.

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Now in proofreading: The Wonder of War on Land

WonderA few months ago, we released an eBook of The Brighton Boys in the Trenches, a children’s novel of World War I written at the time of the conflict. Our latest proofreading project is along similar lines. The Wonder of War on Land was released just after the close of the conflict, and it offered its young readers a tale of heroic young fighters, machine-gun dogs, and “the Battle of Demon Faces.”

As with the previous project, this one is likely to raise some eyebrows, but it should also provide another interesting look at the way war was portrayed in popular fiction during a very different era.

If you are interested in helping produce a modern eBook edition of this vintage text, you can join in our proofreading by visiting the Wonder of War on Land project page, and you can learn more about the proofreading project from our earlier blog post on the subject.

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Frank R. Steed in WWI Paris

We recently acquired a 2-volume set of scrapbooks created by Frank R. Steed, an Army Field Clerk in World War I. Both volumes have now been digitized and there are many interesting things to be found within the pages. The materials are not affixed to pages in chronological order, but dates noted range from May 1918 to November 1919. In addition, Steed was inconsistent with his labeling of materials, so there will be several pages with very detailed descriptions written in followed by a run of pages with no notes at all.

Steed's Certificate of Identity

Steed’s Certificate of Identity, issued in August 1918.

Frank R. Steed was discharged from the medical department at Camp Dix, New Jersey, and appointed as an Army Field Clerk in July 1918. A memo describes process for applying to become an Army field clerk: “A candidate to be eligible for appointment must … pass the required physical examination, be of good moral character and a citizen of the United States. Army field clerks have a military status, and as they are appointed to office by the Secretary of War, they are officers in the military service, although not commissioned officers.”

Steed was assigned to the Casualty Division of the American Expeditionary Forces in France. A letter from Steed’s superior, Lt. Col. Ernest G. Smith, details the work carried out by this division: “Our part in the Great Adventure concerned itself in large measure with the work of collecting and properly recording casualties of the A.E.F. This was one of the most trying as well as most important tasks of the war. How well it has been performed has been evinced from time to time by citations in orders as well as by favorable comment expressed by all who have investigated this work.” Smith goes on to thank Steed for his diligence and attitude: “Without these services so cheerfully, intelligently and dependably rendered, success would have been impossible.”

Steed posing as a statue

Steed posing as a statue on an empty pedestal in the Jardin des Tuileries.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the dismal nature of his job in the Casualties Division, Steed seems to have had a grand time in Paris and other French towns, as well as several other cities of Western Europe, including Brussels, London, and Dublin. The scrapbooks contain numerous photographs, postcards, programs, documents, menus, tickets, maps, tourist brochures, and even a few pen and pencil drawings. There is a lot to see and these bits of ephemera provide a fascinating glimpse back at Western European culture towards the end of and immediately after the Great War. There are also many postcards and notes from Steed’s friends and family and I am looking forward to looking at those more closely in the future.

Scrapbooks (and other types of hand-written/hand-made documents) are among the greatest pleasures of special collections and archives. Scrapbooks are especially challenging to digitize as there is no way to fully replicate the layers of paper and random objects (such as a bit of yarn or a toothpick) in digital form. Adding the metadata to these records was tedious, but I’m glad that we are able to share at least an approximation of these fascinating volumes. I hope that many more people will now have the pleasure of spending some time with Frank R. Steed in WWI Europe. It’s a bit like time travel, being able to share a personal perspective of life and events from almost 100 years ago.

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eBook available: The Brighton Boys in the Trenches

brightonThe latest of our proofreading projects to be completed is The Brighton Boys in the Trenches.

The Brighton Boys series is something that may be a bit hard for the modern reader to imagine: books for young boys glorifying the act of going to war, written during an ongoing conflict. Using the same basic hardcover series format as Tom Swift or the Bobbsey Twins, these books provide juvenile adventures in various World War I contexts. Unlike many similar series, though, the Brighton Boys books do not follow the same heroes from title to title; instead, each adventure features different students from the fictional Brighton Academy. Given the subject matter, there is a rather grim reason for this atypical format!

While the overall series concept is itself a bit shocking, The Brighton Boys in the Trenches goes a step further by dealing with what is probably the dirtiest and most horrific aspect of a dirty and horrific subject: trench warfare. The plot is simple enough: after encountering a boastful German, Herbert Whitcomb, a 17-year-old orphan with an eye for shooting, leaves school to enlist along with his Irish sidekick Roy Flynn. Before long, they are engaged in combat in France, facing gas attacks, trench foot and other dangers!

As a work of fiction, the book leaves much to be desired. Its main characters are two-dimensional at best, and the prose is littered with long, awkward, nearly-unreadable sentences. The author’s most ambitious attempt at achieving literary merit appears to be having one of his characters name a gun after a Dickens character. The plot is thin, just a series of action-filled incidents loosely strung together. However, despite its flaws, the book is quite interesting as a piece of social history.

The early portions of the book, set in America, have a decidedly paranoid tone. Germans and their agents are actively trying to turn the public against the war, and the book makes it very clear that acts of physical violence are perfectly acceptable to counter such dangerous speech. Once the action switches overseas, the book’s role as propaganda remains fairly clear. The Germans are generally referred to in dehumanizing terms, and while the conflict is unquestionably portrayed as dangerous, the text is designed to frequently imply American superiority and inevitable victory.

The book’s role as propaganda is not particularly surprising; more startling are its occasional deviations from predictability. There is a heroic depiction of an implicitly homosexual — or at least feminized — character (“He possessed a manner that some would have termed ‘sissy’”). There are occasional philosophical tangents about the madness of war (“In times of peace we regard the murder of one person as something over which to get up a vast deal of excitement and much indignation, but in warfare we plan for the killing of thousands as a business matter and read of it often with actual elation.”) and the pitfalls of stereotyping the enemy (“It is all wrong, unfair and a little small to consider all the people in any land unworthy; don’t you think so?”). And while the book at one point suggests that it is best “to draw the mantle of delicacy over those details of horror that follow a close conflict” it still offers some surprisingly disturbing details, as in this passage:

“They’re both gone! Wiped out! Shell! It hit right at Bill Neely’s feet! I couldn’t see anything but legs and arms and things.”

“Killed?”

“Done for.”

“Poor chaps! The only two boys in the family, too. Their poor old mother’ll miss them.”

“Know them, Pyle?”

“Sure; since we were kids. Just across the street.”

That about sums up the book: a strange mix of series fiction shallowness and gritty realism, an uncomfortable compromise between propaganda and protest, and a rather unengaging read that is nonetheless fascinating throughout.

If you are interested in experiencing the whole thing for yourself, you can read it online or download it in many popular eBook formats at Project Gutenberg.

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Last Modified: May 18, 2013