Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Boyhood before the Xbox

Virtual adventures didn't begin with 3D graphics and computer games. Neither did parental anxiety
December 23, 2007 Peter MartynTORONTO STAR
The absence of modern paraphernalia would make the boy's world of a century ago seem more alien than deep space to the youngsters on a 2007 Christmas list: no video games or miniature music players, no cellphones, no television, video or movies.
And certainly no political correctness. The post-colonial ethos had not been invented, not by a long shot.
But parents were concerned, then as now, that the seductions of modern life were spoiling the young, particularly those living in the booming cities at the turn of the 19th century. Literacy rates were rising; books were the Xbox of the day. Popular authors joined the movement to instill "traditional values" in the boys of the late Victorian era – stoicism, independence and self-reliance, and a sense of imperial history.
Two historical artifacts still worth putting under the tree for any young teen or 'tween boy today (you can decide if girls might also be interested), are Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages and Daniel Carter Beard's The American Boy's Handy Book. A third, modern title is The Dangerous Book for Boys by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden. Published more than a century after the others, but written in a similar vein, the latter title has spent months on the New York Times bestseller list and was book of the year at the Galaxy British Book Awards.
My favourite remains Two Little Savages, inspired by Seton's own youthful adventures in Toronto's Don Valley. Today you can buy a photographically reproduced Dover edition with Seton's original illustrations.
Seton wrote Two Little Savages while a naturalist for the Manitoba government. He was already famous for Wild Animals I Have Known (1898), one in a wildly successful illustrated animal series.
From the illustrations reproduced here and the subtitle, Being The Adventures of Two Boys Who Lived as Indians and What They Learned, you'll realize this book is devoid of political correctness. It is a story of Victorian-era boys "playing Injun." Real Indians only appear in a couple of paragraphs near the end of the book. They are sketched respectfully but adhere to the stereotype of the aloof native. There is boyish "Indian talk" with "Ugh," "Heap good," and "wampum," etc. which some might find offensive – but the boys' frontier dialect is mimicked, as well.
The reader is transported to an imagined Canada in the mid-19th century. Shy, sickly Yan is fascinated by birds and pines for the woods; his home life is horrid – a lazy, abusive, domineering father dotes on introspective Yan's robust but unscrupulous brother; his mother is self-absorbed and unloving. After nearly succumbing to consumption (tuberculosis), 14-year-old Yan is sent to the fictional community of Sanger, "a settlement just emerging from the backwoods period."
Homesick, he makes friends with Sam Raften, the mischievous boy of the household where he boards, and they venture into the woods. Yan's "eddication" wins over Sam's hard but good-hearted father, who gives the boys three weeks off from farm chores – if they agree to really live like Indians.
They begin a blissful period learning woodcraft from Caleb Clark, who Sam says had been "a hunter and a trapper oncet.'' Two Little Savages is filled with lyrical descriptions of nature and drawings of birds and animals – a Seton trademark.
Read it all here.

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