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Back in high school, decades ago, Howard Pease was one of my must-read favorite authors. I’ve read a few of his books again in the last few years, and have been pleasantly surprised. He holds up very well. In some ways he may be better than I realized back then, when I thought of him as a real page-turner: when I came to the end of a chapter I couldn’t wait to get into the next. I probably had no concept of the depth of his social commentary.
The anti-racism of Shipwreck; the labor struggles in Fog Horns; the pathos of Heart of Danger (in which a young Jewish violinist, with a great career ahead, abandons all, although he doesn't want to, to become a spy in wartime Germany) were all surprises for me when I began to reread Pease as an adult.
Howard Pease was a native Californian, from Stockton on the east edge of the San Francisco Bay area (up a long channel in the delta). He attended Stanford, interrupted for two years with an army unit in Europe, graduated and taught high school. (In the mid-40's he was principal at Los Altos Elementary - see letter below). He had intended to become a writer since sixth grade (see Bound for Singapore). During two summers he shipped out as a wiper in the engine room of a freighter - one of the few ship jobs an inexperienced youth could get. Soon after he began teaching he wrote the first of his Tod Moran series, The Tattooed Man, using new experiences from two such voyages and a walking trip from Marseilles along the coast to Italy.
The Tattooed Man New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1926. Strange adventures befall Tod Moran, mess boy of the tramp steamer "Araby," upon his first voyage from San Francisco to Genoa, via the Panama Canal. He is searching for his older brother, who disappeared on a voyage. Based in part on a real-life episode in which a company shipped fake cargo and sank the ship in mid-ocean to collect the insurance money. The Tattooed Man is (sometimes Captain) Jarvis, who appears to be an unreliable roughneck; a vividly realistic portrayal of life aboard tramp freighters before WWII. Also a look at drug addiction in the days when it was perhaps less common.
Pease had his first short story published in 1921, in American Boy, and 22 book titles published between 1926 and 1959. Most of them have to do with the adventures of young Tod Moran, beginning as the most junior member of the crew on a series of tramp steamers, working his way up to First Mate. Looking out for him on the early adventures were two linguistically stereotyped “black gang” characters, Toppy the Cockney (also referred to as the Limey) and Sven the Squarehead. Despite his loose characterizations of the two, which might be easily interpreted as racist, they were his guideposts and safety net. There is usually an honest if distant father figure, Captain Jarvis. Many of Tod’s adventures are motivated by a search for a lost father or older brother. Might make one wonder... but the first chapter of "Singapore" gives a clue, when the protagonist by chance selects the story of young Blondel searching the desert for Richard the Lion-Hearted as the transplanted plot of his first succesful story.
By the late 30's Pease had written eight Tod Moran novels, after his first book Gypsy Caravan (published fourth), and was wanting to write other subjects. His new editor at Doubleday Doran insisted he write only Tod Morans, so he offered his next two, the whimsical Captain Binnacle and Long Wharf, about a youth living aboard an abandoned ship in Gold Rush San Francisco, to Dodd, Mead. The editor soon realized her mistake, and they made an agreement that he could write alternate novels on other topics. Some of his best, including Long Wharf and Thunderbolt House, fall into this alternate category.
Skipping ahead 31 years ...
Shipwreck: The Strange Adventures of Renny Mitchum, Mess Boy of the Trading Schooner 'Samarang.' Doubleday, 1957. 237 pp. In this later book the protagonist is like a younger Tod Moran, shipping out with no allies in a probably vain attempt to discover what has happened to his father, apparently shipwrecked and lost on a vague island in the least known part of the South Pacific. Pease deals with racism in his usual manner, head-on, when Renny has to take instruction from a Filipino cook: At first young Renny shows disdain for the "brown-skinned messman", certain that he could not amount to much. Yet as the plot unfolds, it is the Filipino messman who not only says Renny's life, but gives him direction: the brown-skinned cook turns out to be both a skilled psychologist and the wisest person aboard. Later, when we are among illiterate savages, one of whom is a sinister menace, we learn that among all groups there are both good and bad. Without revealing the plot, there are some interesting twists, especially after the second shipwreck.
Back to the 1930’s, a book set among labor problems:
Fog Horns. Doubleday, 1937. A mystery set on the docks and waterfront streets of San Francisco; a young man buys a seaman's certificate to work on the Araby and is plunged into intrigue, with a strong working-man's point of view. For one thing, I learned why the longshoremen had antipathy toward "college boys." During the dock strike the year before, the companies had sent busses over to UC Berkeley where students were recruited part-time at top wages to take the jobs of the workers during the strike. I wonder if this is where I got my early radicalism, subliminally from reading Howard Pease? Well, it is no wonder that it was kicked it out of the libraries! A nice book.
Bibliography, books (repeated descriptions in parentheses):
The Tattooed Man (same description as above: Strange adventures befall Tod Moran, mess boy of the tramp steamer "Araby," upon his first voyage from San Francisco to Genoa, via the Panama Canal. He is searching for his older brother, who disappeared on a voyage. Based in part on a real-life episode in which a company shipped fake cargo and sank the ship in mid-ocean to collect the insurance money. The Tattooed Man is (sometimes Captain) Jarvis, who appears to be an unreliable roughneck; a vividly realistic portrayal of life aboard tramp freighters before WWII.
1926 New York: Doubleday, Doran &Co.
Early copies of Tattooed Man and Jinx Ship, illustrated by the quirky but gifted artist Mahlon Blaine, are hard to find. Here are the front endpapers of a Jinx Ship first edition:
The Jinx Ship
Tod Moran, stranded and jobless, signs onto the "Congo", a ship with a bad rep, and bang! - he's in the middle of several mysteries. The plot jumps right to it. He and his college-type chum get a bit of a scare when captured by Caribbean ex-slaves bent on a mysterious voodoo ritual, but they're of course rescued by the black messman from their ship. There's much more - read it. (The 60's cover on the right has more to do with the story than the 30's cover, shown on the left.) 1927, Doubleday, Doran
Shanghai Passage - Being a tale of mystery, adventure and mutiny on the high seas in which Stuart Ormsby is shanghaied aboard the tramp steamer "Nanking" bound for ports on the China coast. 1929, Doubleday, Doran.
The Gypsy Caravan
A change of pace for Pease, this is a time-slip novel, in which Betty and Joe travel with the gypsies and meet Robin Hood, Richard the Lionhearted, Roland and other hero figures from European history. Not among the more successful of his books, in my opinion. This was actually the first book he wrote, but the fourth published. 1930, Doubleday, Doran.
The story of Larry Matthews and his dog Sambo, forecastle mates on the tramp steamer "Creole Trader", from New Orleans to the South Seas. What was that strange chest buried in the coal scuttle? What's being smuggled? Or who? .... nice twists at the end.
1931, Doubleday, Doran.
The Ship Without a Crew
a ship found drifting (like the Mary Celeste, a real ship). Why? Tod and his Captain are the detectives... another mystery.
1934, Doubleday, Doran
Wind in the Rigging
Tod Moran on the tramp steamer "Sumatra," New York to North Africa. Story based in part on a discusssion in the 1930s about whether munitions makers were a cause of war. 1935, NY Doubleday, Doran
Things happen to Tod. Who would think a simple vacation visit and short cruise with an old friend in the South Pacific would involve pirates, cannibals, a devastating cyclone? ... thank goodness for kind natives! 1936 Doubleday, Doran.
Fog Horns (A mystery set on the docks and waterfront streets of San Francisco; a young man buys a seaman's certificate to work on the Araby and is plunged into intrigue, with a strong working-man's point of view. For one thing, I learned why the longshoremen had antipathy toward "college boys." During the dock strike the year before, the companies had sent busses over to UC Berkeley where students were recruited part-time at top wages to take the jobs of the workers during the strike. I wonder if this is where I got my early radicalism, subliminally from reading Howard Pease? Well, it is no wonder that it was kicked it out of the libraries! A nice book.) 1937, Doubleday, Doran.
Captain Binnacle Captain Binnacle sails his ancient river boat on dry land, stuck in a field near Stockton; repelling pirates and savages with the help of three children who found the right words: "we're shipwrecked, captain, been drifting for days - take us aboard!". For younger children - and grownups. Very scarce. 1938, Dodd, Mead & Co.
Highroad to Adventure. Tod Moran dwants to use his two-week vacation exploring the interior of his own country, buys a used car - but within two hours is off to Mexico on a secret mission, dogged by spies determined to keep him from reaching the goal, on a background of corruption and Reform, and fortunately aided by a retired couple from Iowa with an airstream trailer. 1939, Doubleday, Doran.
Jungle River. The American youth searches for his lost geologist father in the New Guinea jungle: schooners and dugouts, spears from nowhere, crocs, stone age witch doctors, and even more sinister forces. Oil companies? Nice Armstrong Sperry cover of a native longhouse. 1938, Doubleday Doran.
Long Wharf: A Story of Young San Francisco. I recently read this for the first time, and am not disappointed! Story of a cabin boy abandoned in a derelict ship in SF Bay in 1849: his father the Captain has left him "in charge" while he follows his crew to the gold fields... and vanishes; the young teen deals with packs of thieves, crooked vigilantes, crooked politicians; hunger and want; and finds and rescues his father... Illustrated by Manning de V. Lee. 1939, Dodd, Mead & Co.
The Black Tanker. Written just before we got into WWII. A Stanford student gets word that his father, a doctor visiting China, has been seriously injured in a Japanese bombing raid. Desperate, Ranse takes leave from college and works his way across in the black gang of a tanker carrying fuel -- to the same Japanese air base in China from which the vicious bombing raids are launched; soon a murder mystery mixes with the difficult passage and intense political feelings. 1941, Doubleday, Doran and Co.
Night Boat and other Tod Moran mysteries. Seven short stories and a novella, from all around the world, based on accounts of their adventures, "as told to Pease by Tod Moran and Captain Jarvis during their rest stops in San Francisco." 1942, Doubleday, Doran and Co.
Thunderbolt House. One of Pease's finest novels, a mystery involving three young people on their own in San Francisco during the 1907 Earthquake and Fire; with a mystery. Winner of the California Commonwealth Book Award. How any library could dump this novel is beyond me!! Nice endpaper spread showing families fleeing the fire. 1944, Doubleday. In stock.
Heart of Danger. A spy story: The chief figure is a brilliant young Jewish violinist, with a great career ahead, who gives it all up to become a spy in wartime Germany. Tod Moran, third mate of the tramp steamer ‘Araby"” is involved in helping smuggle the young spy into the continent, and somewhat in the difficulties of his decision -- An excellent story with unexpected twists; Pease again blends pulp cliche, concern for justice, and occasional flashes of literary genius. Incidentally, much of the action is around the town of Royen in France, where Pease had been stationed at an army hospital for a year and where he played first violin in a 40-piece orchestra that played locally. 1946, Doubleday.
Bound for Singapore. “Being a True and Faithful Account of the Making of an Adventurer.“ This adventure includes an autobiographical glimpse of Pease's beginnings, decades later. he first chapter, "Prelude", is a detailed account of how young "Chet" (Howard himself) first became a writer, how he and friends selected his first stories, and why he first shipped out, bound for "Singapore" (Anywhere), to gain experience. In this one the mystery is not about exotic dangers, only a stowaway prize-winning dachshund (Pease also raised prize-winning dachshunds) on a trip from San Francisco to a show in New York - but still with plenty of mystery and danger. While less exotic than most, it is well-written and straight-forward; a hard-to-find and interesting Pease title. 1948, Doubleday.
The Dark Adventure (reprinted as Road Kid).. Somewhat of a change of pace, a youth (and the author) asea on the roads of America. A hitchhiking boy suffers amnesia, is robbed by vicious hobos, finds himself among children peddling single sticks of reefer cigarettes in high school parking lots, which of course leads to hot-rodders deliberately ramming honest drivers on the highways... everything works out fine, of course. 1950, Doubleday.
Captain of the Araby, Captain Jarvis, the tattooed captain with whom Tod Moran has sailed most often. The voyage from SF to Tahiti starts with a few mysterious delays, but soon enough Tod Moran and the Captain are involved in exotic mysteries, begining with: Why have all three aboardship copies of Somerset Maugham's life of Gaugain, The Moon and Sixpence, disappeared? 1953, Doubleday.
Shipwreck: The Strange Adventures of Renny Mitchum, Mess Boy of the Trading Schooner 'Samarang.'"
(The protagonist is like a younger Tod Moran, shipping out with no allies in a probably vain attempt to discover what has happened to his father, apparently shipwrecked and lost on a vague island in the least known part of the South Pacific. Pease deals with racism in his usual manner, head-on, when Renny has to take instruction from a Filipino cook: At first young Renny shows disdain for the "brown-skinned messman", certain that he could not amount to much. Yet as the plot unfolds, it is the Filipino messman who not only says Renny's life, but gives him direction: the brown-skinned cook turns out to be both a skilled psychologist and the wisest person aboard. Later, when we are among illiterate savages, one of whom is a sinister menace, we learn that among all groups there are both good and bad. Without revealing the plot, there are some interesting twists, especially after the second shipwreck.) Doubleday, 1957.
Mystery on Telegraph Hill. Tod Moran's last mystery, set in San Francisco. Told from several points-of-vew; Tod's, the Captain's, Toppy's... I forget what happened after that! Doubleday, 1961.
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In 1939 Pease gave a rather blistering speech to 400 female youth services librarians at a conference sponsored by the ALA in Berkeley and later known as the "Sayers Institute" - chaired by Dorothy Sayers. His main theme was the feminization of children's literature: "wholly and solely a woman’s world -- a completely feminine world," which was producing disinterest by young males - “we attempt to draw over their heads a beautiful curtain of silk... but the children go on.... Let’s catch up with our children, catch up with our schools, catch up with this world around us. Let’s be leaders, not followers, and let’s be leaders with courage." His speech was met by “a barrage of vehement defense" from the audience, according to reporters. Dorothy Sayers stressed his positive aspects; she made it clear that she agreed with Pease about the need for more realistic books for children.
The next week the Newbery Medal was awarded to Thimble Summer. During the next year the debate continued, including a series of signed editorials by C. C. Certain in the Elementary English Review. In “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” he described Thimble Summer as possessing the “faded prettiness” of a “gossamer summer bouquet” but no appeal to “the average tousle- headed American boy.”... the next year the Newbery committee over-compensated, in my opinion, by giving the award to an over-the-top aggressively American tough-boy rendition of Daniel Boone, by James Daugherty. Not a book I ever had much interest in as a boy. Howard Pease won only two awards in his career, the California Commonwealth Book Award in 1944 for Thunderbolt House and the Child Study Children’s Book Award of Bank Street College in 1946, “for a book that deals realistically with problems in the child’s world”, for Heart of Danger.
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Howard Pease's papers are at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, and are available for research. We usually have a few Howard Pease novels in stock, other than my personal collection - I'm always looking for them. I set what I think is a fair price on them, and away they go! ... so clearly there are others besides myself who still like his writing.
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We keep as many of Pease's novels in stock as we possibly can - usually around 20 or 30, in various grades. I just found a dozen more copies that have not been processed yet. Inquire for a list, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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