October 31, 2012

For November’s book, I’m reaching back to my childhood for one of the books I loved most during my growing-up years. Coming in the midst of Hurricane Sandy devastation, I felt following up Mendenhall’s Cool Names with a book like Penrod might be an additional opportunity to stir in a few chuckles—well, more like a lot of them.

Another reason for choosing this book is that it graphically—by contrast—highlights how much childhood, family life, and community interaction has changed since Booth Tarkington launched his bad boy on an unsuspecting public. “Bad” is a poor choice of words, for Penrod can more aptly be described a tornado of mischief wrapped up in boys’ clothing.

In reading Penrod, our readers will rediscover this America that is no more. A world of picket fences, stay-at-home moms, two-parent families being the norm, fathers being the breadwinners, and children feeling free to roam in and out of neighbors’ homes at will, children living and playing out of doors, and boys having the opportunity to be boys.

The contrast is obvious: today, with pedophiles being a constant threat outside, porn criminals weaseling their way into home computers, and violent crimes becoming the norm in society, no one—least of all children—feels safe anymore.

I’m not claiming that world was utopian, for there were also dark sides to it: racial stereotyping and inequality, inadequate career opportunities for women, to name just two. But the beauty of reading Penrod is that you the reader have the unique opportunity to vicariously immerse yourself into that world, sort out for yourself the positive and negative aspects of it, and draw your own conclusions.

But, as a child, I read Penrod first not for its social commentary but because I laughed myself half to death over Penrod’s antics: getting in big trouble for his mischief only to get deeper into trouble the next day. There is a direct correlation between Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Tarkington’s Penrod. Given that today it is so hard to find a book that appeals to boys, here’s a heaven-sent opportunity to set a boy loose on Penrod, and just let him cackle as the town’s goody-goody boy, Georgie Bassett, gets his comeuppance. The “Little Gentleman”/“Tar” sequence by itself is one of America’s all time classics of humor.

Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) was born in Indianapolis, and remained there for much of his life. During his life, he won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Magnificent Ambersons in 1919 and the other for Alice Adams in 1922.

Donald Heiney declares that Tarkington was an expert satirist, one of the first to depict the urban middle class. Heiney also notes that Tarkington had a marvelous talent for creating unforgettable characters. His key fictional milieu has to do with the rise of a midwestern aristocracy, essentially Victorian and conservative, beginning in the 1890’s Gilded Age, its ascendancy, then gradual decline at the hands of a new industrial and mechanical generation.

Tarkington wrote three Penrod books: Penrod (1914), Penrod and Sam (1916), and Penrod Jashber (1929). In Seventeen, Tarkington depicts an older character than twelve-year-old Penrod. Interestingly enough, today’s teenagers are so much more sophisticated, jaded, and cynical about life that they’d have little in common with the protagonist of Seventeen.

So welcome to the three worlds of Penrod.