Oliver Optic, Charlotte Yonge

--Outward Bound, or Young America Afloat

Just finished reading this in electronic form--thanks to Project Gutenberg for making the text available for free. The UIUC catalog says it was first published in 1867. This old book is the first one I've read entirely on screen, 300+ pages. I found that by narrowing the browser window my eyes could begin to actually move as fast as they do over print pages, and I was, after many chapters, able to get "lost in the book" on this Thanksgiving day. It was a pleasure to tap the space bar rather that turn pages.

I picked it out because of the title, thinking that it may lead me to greater understanding of the youth nature program by the same name. I'm sure this was the inspiration for those programs, since the gist of the story is that a principal decides to have a school on a ship, relying on the necessities of maritime life to provide needed discipline for unruly but rich boys.

I do see why 19th century librarians found it objectionable. Most of the story consists of following the bad-to-the-bone antics of one Bob Shuffles. His sudden teary-eyed reformation at the end is ludicrous, and reading about him plotting mutiny and nearly killing a shipmate is much more fun.

"Impossible, Implausible, Not Realistic!" So my dear 19th century public library colleagues shouted, and they were not wrong. And yet the book is entirely chock full of moral lessons, with Optic pointing out which boys are bad, which are good, and which are amenable to either kind of influence throughout.

An aside--it was near impossible to not hear David Bowie's song Young Americans in my head ever single time I read the subtitle or read the name of the ship in the book. This was chronologically jarring, as I am trying to immerse myself in 19th century juvenile literature at the moment, and I felt very 1970s every time it happened.

--Countess Kate by Charlotte Yonge

I'm still in the middle of this one, but so far I'm trying to figure out why this was considered "good" while Optic was "bad." It starts off with a very unrealistic premise: an orphan girl living with a poor but kind clergyman's family discovers that she is, after all, a Countess. Implausible!! And yet they liked Yonge, so perhaps things go very badly for her with her rich aunts. There has been heavy foreshadowing to this effect... we shall see...


Both of these books make Little Women by Alcott look very well written indeed by comparison.

To really compare with the Optic, I need to read a Rollo book by Abbott. To compare with Yonge, it should be Elsie Dinsmore by Finley. Piece by piece, I'll get there.