Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle by Victor Appleton
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
I have been slowly adding to my collection of original Tom Swift books and the follow on Tom Swift. Jr. fictions and came across about 20 of them at an antique store. I wasn’t ready to drop almost $200, so I picked up two I had been wanting. (By the way, twenty-three of them are available on Project Gutenberg.)
This is a deplorable book. One reviewer on Goodreads was rather vulgar in accusing those of us who are outraged at what Edward Stratemeyer (or Howard Garis, one of the other original authors) as being self-righteous pr**ks…I’ll let you go find his drivel yourself. My review, so I’ll allow myself to wax a little didactic on cultural relativism. We certainly should consider the context of the writings when trying to understand why they are the way they are, but that does not mean we cannot pass judgement. Look at this bit, on page 6:
[Tom] “I’ll get Eradicate to help me. Rad! I say, Rad! Where are you?”
“Heah I is, Massa Tom! Heah I is!” called a colored man as he came around the corner of the small stable where he kept his mule Booomerang. “Was yo’-all callin’ me?”
“Yes Rad, I want you to help make a scarecrow.”
“A scarecrow, Massa Tom! Good land a’ massy! What fo’ yo’ want ob a scarecrow? Yo’-all ain;’t raisin’ no corn, am yo’?”
“No, but I want something to shoot at when Ned Newton comes over to-night.”
“Suffin t’ shoot at? Why Massa Tom! Good land a’ massy! Yo’-all ain’;t gwine t’ hab no duel, am yo’?”
Offensive to anyone not currently in the KKK. Context: “That was the way they were portrayed back then.” Context #2 – “back then” was 55 years after the United States defeated the subhumans who wanted to continue to own people. This book was written two years before Woodrow Wilson undid what little civil rights progress had been made and allowed his cabinet to segregate government offices. And it shows the superiority conveyed to the target audience. The blacks of Africa are primitive and then there are something called “red pygmies.” And that “Massa Tom”. Cringe.
Throughout this book there is a litany of outbursts from an annoying minor character that must have been the template for Burt Ward’s Robin (“Holy Graf Zeppelin, Batman!”), who instead of “holy” said “Bless my…” On ivory tusks: “Bless my piano keys!” Or (hold your bile): “Bless my shoe blacking!” on hearing the beating of drums and shouts of “the savages”.
Supremely offensive to me was the desire to kill as many elephants as possible, made even more possible with the fictional supertaser. And when one character saw some elephants swimming:
“Look! Elephants! They;’re swimming, and the natives are shooting them! Now’s our chance, Tom!”
Mr. Anderson and Mr. Durban, after a quick glance, drew back laughing.
“Those are hippopotami!” exclaimed the old elephant man. “Good hunting, if you don’t care what you shoot, but not much sport in it.”
Context: “big game” “hunters” think shooting into a herd of elephants with high powered rifles is “sporting”. And we’ll forgive the unscientific use of the incorrect plural suffix – cultural relativity and all, we need to be mindful that these were primitive writers.
I’ve not given many one-stars in recent years – call it a little seasoning and mellowing in my age, and ordinarily I might not give this just one, but it deserves it and needs it to call attention to the many, many problems. Will I continue to collect the racist first series? Yes. I’ve read some already and they aren’t as bad as this one – here’s hoping that they aren’t. Should they be censored? No, not at all. We need the historical context. This country has had a racism problem from its beginnings and books written 108 years ago can illustrate why it’s still here.
And to the reviewer decrying our outrage as self-righteousness, I say we need to apply that cultural relativism and understand the context of his misguided attacks. We can try to position ourselves to realize the contexts of stories, histories, but we must always feel outrage when it is warranted. It’s what we humans do. I’ll allow that that particular parahuman needs to look in a mirror for a depiction of self-righteous and keep his pseudo-moral superiority to himself.
A note on editions – none match the hardcover I have. It’s 212 pages and has a copyright 1911, though the after pages of publisher ads tells me it was reprinted a few years later.
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