Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Book Review, Gregg Bogosian's TREASURE CAVE


Entertaining and Useful New Telling of an Old Story

         Treasure Cave is a late addition to the "Seckatary Hawkins" series of boys' stories and books written by Robert F. Schulkers from 1918 to 1942, with Treasure Cave written by Gregg Bogosian and published by him in 2017. In  terms of Schulkers's time-line, Treasure Cave is additionally somewhat backdated, so to speak, being set mid-June to early July of that crucial year, 1914: i.e., climaxing around the time of the US Fourth of July celebration preceding the start of World War I on 28 July 1914. 
         Bogosian has produced an interesting and useful volume.
         Treasure Cave is first of all an entertaining original novel set in the tradition of "boys' adventure novels" such as "Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, Kidnapped and many others," as Bogosian's Preface indicates (p. xiv) and alluded to in the novel when we get the titles of some of the books on "a big shelf" in the bedroom of the co-hero, Sam Morgan (p. 5, quoted here).
         I liked the novel.
         One of my pleasant childhood memories is exploring the basement of the duplex we had started renting in and coming across a box of old boys' books, which included such classics of the form as Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon (1913) and stories of the derring-do of American volunteers in the RAF and later the US military during World War II. So Treasure Cave pushed hard on some of my nostalgia buttons.
         I also liked what I've called above the "volume," with a less innocent appreciation: as someone who was a working member of an English department in the late 20th and very early 21st centuries. For Treasure Cave as a volume, a book, contains a variation on an old-fashioned "boys' book" novel and other material that make it — with "it" hovering in its reference between "the novel" and "the volume" — that make it a serious look at boyhood in the river boundaries between Ohio and Kentucky in the between-war period (i.e., US Civil War and the Great War in Europe), a kind of metafiction, and a highly contemporary exercise in bringing into question a central binary opposition and taking a stab or two at some of polite America's sacred cows.
         Warning: SPOILER follows eventually, and more quickly a partial disclosure on my part (nobody can give full disclosure), and some mild pedantry.
         The disclosure can start with my noting that I don't know if the metafictional/deconstructive stuff was Bogosian's intention. I do believe that Gregg has a sound background in at least the basics of literary criticism and production since he took an English course from me early in my career in college teaching and near the beginning of his college-studenting; and he and I were two of three co-authors of an unpublished, highly allusive, Leftist novella set in — at the time of composition — the still fairly distant turn of the millennium (with a very elegant science-fictional premise suggested by Gregg). It is quite possible the postmodernist or postmodernish aspects of the Treasure Cave volume just follow from Bogosian's ethics and thoroughness as a scholar.
         The volume has four main parts: a 6.5-page preface by Bogosian informing his readers about the "Seckatary Hawkins" stories by Schulkers; then there's the Treasure Cave novel in 188 pages; and then over 45 pages of Endnotes, and a scholarly Bibliography of seven pages.
         One kind of metafiction might be said to remind us that we're reading fiction by laying bare some of figurative framework of the figurative architecture of the story. By the time he's finished with his scholarly apparatus, Bogosian has revealed the interior frame, plumbing, wiring, and construction schedule (and invited such an extended metaphor by featuring in the novel the hero's figuring out the details of the architecture of a house).
         Anyone teaching how to write historical fiction would do well to consider assigning Treasure Cave for a step-by-step walk-through of how an author uses historical materials.
         The volume is also useful for anyone looking at images of childhood and indirect evidence on actual childhood, especially of the boy variety in a period different from our own but relatively close in time.
         An adventure tale is going to be far more adventurous than real life, and this adventure story is undoubtedly far from the verity of kids' lives in southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky ca. 1914, even when school is out. Still, stories must be verisimilar: offering not verity —historical truth — but what can pass in literature: verisimilitude.
         As Bogosian points out in his Preface, Schulkers shows a pretty rough world, where pubescent boys form gangs (in the old, neutral sense of the word), own rifles, and have dogs for fighting as well as pets; and a boy shooting an enemy's dog attacking a friends is a serious event, but definitely a possible one (p. xix-xiv). Depending upon age and class, near-teens and teenagers might be employed in manual labor, go on camping trips on their own, swim in rivers, hunt small game, explore caves, and, generally, manage much of their affairs without adults.
         This is an important point about some continuity and also important changes in American childhood. My students barely believed that we had high school sororities and fraternities in late 1950s North-side Chicago, and year-clubs and other clubs as well; and those teen-run groups organized softball and touch-football leagues and dances and in one case ran a charity. I didn't own a rifle in Chicago, but I certainly fired 22's from an early age, and I owned knives and was pretty good at throwing them. And I'm talking here of a nice Jewish boy from a middle-class urban family.
         So I find it realistic that relatively rural kids such as those we see in Treasure Cave have access to small-caliber rifles and can own some pretty tough dogs — and spend a lot of time without adult supervision and working through largely on their own issues of race and class: there are still Civil War vets alive in 1914, and the War was still a conscious issue in border-state Kentucky and only mostly-Union Ohio. Since Bogosian was compiling his research, the US Civil War has again become a conscious issue, so that point readers should accept without difficulty.
         Kids' actually finding treasure is less realistic.
         All of Treasure Cave is divided into three parts, the first part narrated by and starring Sam Morgan, nicknamed "Scout": not Seckatary Hawkins, but a smart kid, and a good and brave one, if a little impatient with a younger sister and all "Frilly girl things" (p. 2). A standard enough boys book hero. Part II introduces Sam and other young Morgans to Hawkins and his club, and we learn that "Sam" is short for Samantha, who is a tomboy in the terminology of the time (and since at least the 16th century), if not in the book.
         And here let the argument begin.
         Sam "Scout" Morgan shows no solidarity with other girls, who are rare in this boys' book. But Sam lives in Kentucky in the time of the Kentucky Equal Rights (for women) Association (pp. 11, 192 n. 3), not in the time and places of the National Organization for Women, much less the 1969 and briefly following Redstockings of New York and San Francisco. And definitely female Samantha is a co-hero of a classic boys' book.
         Is this «Good for the women?» Segue here to arguments over Ellen Ripley in Alien (1969) and Aliens (1986), and thereafter, or Sarah Connor of Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2 (1991). Except in Treasure Cave — when the argument returns to Treasure Cave — such contentious issues are usefully complicated by the distance of time and culture, the esthetic decorum of having Sam a 1914 tomboy, and the whole issue of girls at any time who act in the world as they please and are willing to tell disapproving older sisters to cram it (although Sam would never, ever say such a crude thing).
         Bogosian is provoking an argument here, one basic to the book. And in smaller things he provokes some useful peripheral arguments.
         For example ….
         For example, a rather obnoxious young visitor to the Morgans, with the improbable name of "Mickey Maus," brings news about an explosion on a steamboat and is asked "Was anyone hurt?" and replies, "No'm. Killed a nigger." This raises some consternation from his small audience of women from the Kentucky Equal Rights Association, but he is confronted on his word choice and attitudes by Sam (p. 12). Bogosian doesn't endnote Maus's words, counting — possibly with too much optimism — on his readers to recognize his lifting some famous lines from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn: “Good gracious! anybody hurt?” / “No’m. Killed a nigger.” Followed by Aunt Sally's reaction, very different from that of the women in Treasure Cave, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt" — and on for a long, totally insensitive speech by Twain's character, Aunt Sally.
         Huck Finn was acculturated in a White racist society and has to overcome what respectable people in his society have told him was the respectable Christian way; Mickey Maus is just a young racist, and that's believable. Huck would say "nigger"; Mickey Maus would say "nigger"; it's crucial to the point of the scene and important for what follows that Maus say "nigger"; and Bogosian has him say it.
         Similarly, Bogosian kind of takes on the Commonwealth of Kentucky and a good deal of contemporary political culture in having a singing of "My Old Kentucky Home" with the word "darkies": which Seckatary Hawkins, as one of the "white fellas" stops, while the "colored boys" stop his stopping them and give the Whites, and most directly Hawkins, "A bit of a history lesson" (p. 158-59). Here and in an endnote (p. 230, n. 5), readers get "A bit of a history lesson" on Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" as "actually an anti-slavery ballad," with "the darkies" or similar phrase necessary to make the point. (The song opens with The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home. / 'Tis summer, the darkies are gay," but Bogosian passes on what to do with "gay" for an audience nowadays.)

         So: The plot of Treasure Cave is a serviceable boys' book adventure of boys' (and one girl's) squabbles and fights and cooperation and finding various treasures through what educated Medieval sorts would have called sapientia et fortitudo: the wisdom — or intelligence or cunning — of Romance heroes, and their strength and fortitude and courage: mostly Sam and Seckatary's intelligence, but with respect for all these virtues in many of the characters. And Treasure Cave has a happy and properly educational ending with, as the chapter title hath it, "The Best Treasure of All" (hint: it has to do with reuniting families, a major motif since, say, Joseph identified himself to his bothers in ancient Egypt [Genesis 45] through Tom Cruise reuniting with his ex-wife and kids in the most recent War of the Worlds [2005]).

                  It's not a book for everyone, but Treasure Cave should be read and used and argued about by a substantial audience.

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