04 November 2004

A Member of the Family

This morning's Thursday Threesome asked a question about which children's book series was your favorite. My answer brought me back...

The first series books I ever read were the Bobbsey Twins. The twins (two sets of them), their names now taken in vain as symbols of white-bread goody-goody kids, go back a long way. The first Bobbsey Twins novel was published in 1904 by the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate (who also did Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, etc.) by Mershon. (This first Mershon edition is so rare that if you have one, you can count yourself in for a good deal of money right now.) More sequels were published by Grosset & Dunlap right through the 1930s and 1940s, and then in the 1960s the books were completely revised to bring them up to then-modern sensiblilities. (Some of these revisions were rewritten completely, as in the first book, and some remained with only part of the plot intact--in The Bobbsey Twins and Baby May, for instance, a baby is abandoned; in the revision, it's an elephant that's abandoned.)

I had only about eight or nine of the revised books as a kid, since their $1.25 price was prohibitive on our budget, and I liked those, but I really enjoyed the first three original stories, reprinted by Whitman books, The Bobbsey Twins: Merry Days Indoors and Out, The Bobbsey Twins in the Country, and The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore. The new novels had the Bobbseys solving mysteries, but the early ones were much more fascinating (if sedate): the Bobbseys rode around in a horse and carriage (horse and sleigh in the winter), and there were fantastic things in the books, like the kids watching the "town well" get cleaned out, or having an Independence Day parade or a boat pageant, and, most astonishing of all, the rescue of men from a sailing ship wreck with something called a "breeches buoy." I was wide-eyed in all the differences in this 1904 world from my own 1960s world. Some things I expected--the children were much more disciplined, especially in school, where boys had to wear ties, and they all stood up when the teacher asked them a question--and in other ways the kids seemed so much more adult and independent. Bert, for instance, at the tender age of nine, is allowed to use adult tools including saws, to build his own iceboat--which he and his pal Charley later sail on the lake without supervision! (In the early books, Bert and Nan, the dark haired older twins are eight to begin with and Freddie and Flossie, the blond younger twins are four; later, they become twelve and six respectively. Even in the early books, Nan, although she typically likes pretty clothes and baking, is described as a sturdy, athletic girl who participates in sports, not following the prissy girl predecessors in the serial book world.)

When I got older I sought out the older, original versions for my own. As the publication dates changed, so did the Bobbseys--Mr. Bobbsey, for instance, in the original books was called "Papa" by the children and "Mr. Bobbsey" in talking about him, but in the 1920s books became "Daddy Bobbsey" in the narration, which always struck me as silly. (Many books of that time also have mothers being addressed as "Momsy," which is really freaky.) Oddly, one of the things that changed, and not for the better, was Dinah.

If you've read any Bobbsey Twins books, you know that Dinah Johnson is the Bobbsey's faithful, nurturing "jolly colored housekeeper." Her husband Sam, who in the original books is the Bobbseys' handyman and gardener, is late the foreman at Mr. Bobbsey's lumberyard on Lake Metoka. As is common in all books written around this era, Dinah and Sam are the usual stereotypical African-American characters--they speak in "black dialect" and, God in heaven, in the country story Dinah even makes a joke about stealing watermelons. This is probably enough to get the early Bobbseys kicked off a modern reading list. However bad Dinah looks in the early books, however, her character actually degenerated during the 1930s stories, which is where I quit collecting.

If you look beyond the obvious racial props Dinah is burdened with in the early stories, she is actually a generous, admirable character. Mrs. Bobbsey, in her role of busy society wife, is a loving mother, but she's out a lot of the time doing charity work. Dinah isn't just a servant, she's a surrogate mother to the kids: she bakes them cakes and cookies, resolves their squabbles occasionally, cleans up after them and doesn't tell on them, and helps them with projects. She has even been heroic: in Merry Days Indoors and Out, when Freddie is buried in the snow while the twins are building a snow fort, she is the one who keeps her head, runs outside and digs him out of the pile of snow. The children in turn adore her; they can't imagine a home without Dinah and she even accompanies them on vacation.

You would have thought that over time Dinah's lot in life would have improved, but in the 1930s they started using her as comic relief. She became the mistress of malaprops, misunderstanding some word the children were using and having to be corrected by her younger educated white charges. It was depressing and embarrassing to read. Other obvious racial stereotypes started appearing more in the stories at that time as well.

Dinah and Sam survived the 1960s revisions--I think they were now referred to as "Negro" in the new editions--and thankfully had quit speaking in that "nebba had dis so good" manner of speech that was so degrading. The later "New" books removed Dinah from the action all together and the stories felt incomplete. Dinah, after all, really was part of the family.

Recently those 1960s revisions have made a comeback in new covers. They look, inside, very much like the editions I had, but I understand they have been changed in subtle ways. Freddie and Flossie, for instance, who were always described as being plump, have lost their nicknames of "fat fireman" and "fat fairy" (I'm not sure if it's because of the program to fight childhood obesity or because "fat" is now considered insulting). Also, Dinah's heritage is not referred to in the text at all. I can't decide whether I like this or not. Certainly it's a positive step forward--it no longer matters what color her skin is...and at the same time it's rather sad. Everyone one of us has an ethnic or racial heritage that should be celebrated. Dinah's race was so often denegrated, especially in the "comic relief" 1930s, that it seems sad that we cannot now turn around and show it in a positive manner. It is as if part of Dinah's identity has taken away. I would be a different person without my Italian roots; it seems crass and wrong to rob Dinah of her African-American heritage.

For more about the Bobbseys, visit Dr. Mike's site.

A description of the series from St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture.