The Suit: For 2016, ♣♣♣Clubs♣♣♣ is my suit for “legendary” Indiana authors”.
The Selection: “A Reward of Merit” contained in “The Collected Short Stories of Booth Tarkingon” which I own as a kindle version. I picked this story from that collection because I was intrigued by the title.
The Author: Booth Tarkington of Indianapolis – one of the standard bearers of the “Golden Age” of Indiana Literature.
What is Deal Me “IN” 2016? Before the start of each year, I come up with a list of 52 stories to read and assign each of them to a playing card in a standard deck. Each week, I draw a card and that is the story I read. By the end of the year (52 weeks), I’m done, and ready to start a fresh deck. (For a more detailed explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/story roster click here.) Since 2016 is my home state’s bicentennial, in this year’s edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection” of some kind. Deal Me “IN” is now also officially endorsed as a “Legacy Project” by The Indiana Bicentennial Commission.
A Reward of Merit
When I hear the name of author Booth Tarkington, the first thing that comes to mind is his, uh, magnificent, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which I’ve read more than once, not to mention watching the Orson Welles film adaptation multiple times as well. That wasn’t the only Pulitzer Prize for fiction he won, though. He also won for Alice Adams in 1922, making him one of only three authors to win the award more than once. Can you name the other two? I’ll save that answer for the end of this post…
I would describe this story as a tale of youthful hijinks, escapades, or monkey business. It amusingly explores how distorted the view of the world can sometimes be for those who are too young to have “put all the pieces together” in their understanding of how life really works. It has almost a Tom Sawyer-ish feel, focusing on two idle young boys, Penrod and Sam, and the adventures they run into one rainy afternoon.
***Spoilers Follow*** (If you’d like to read this story first, it’s available online at http://cozycoffeehouse.blogspot.com/2007/04/booth-tarkington-reward-of-merit.html )
Pernod and Sam encounter a “stray” horse in the alley. It is basically old and has sort of been “discarded” by its former owner. The boys don’t know this, and with their youthful logic surmise that a lost horse must worthy of a great reward to its finders. They are sharp enough to discern that it is nearly starving and end up feeding it nearly half the provisions in Penrod’s house.
Eventually, the risks involved in their little enterprise begin to become apparent and, after being “found out” by the family’s cook, Della, they figure they are in big trouble for trying to hide the horse in a carriage house and also for “stealing” food for it. This leads to the humorous declaration by Penrod when the boys are contemplating how they might be able to escape the trouble they’ve found themselves in:
“I don’t know where you’re goin’, but I’m goin’ to walk straight out in the country till I come to a farm-house and say my name’s George and live there!”
But what actually happens at the end of the story? It turns out the adults in Penrod and Sam’s circle view their acts in a wholly different way. To them they are acts of kindness toward an unfortunate animal, and for that the boys are presented with a “Reward of Merit” the value of which far outweighs their fanciful imaginings of what a monetary reward might have been – yes, a happy ending. I enjoyed the story a lot, and it brought back some funny memories of some of my own childhood antics where I was as clueless as poor Penrod and Sam.
I wasn’t aware of it before writing this post, but “Rewards of Merit” were once a real thing commonly given to children by encouraging teachers or other adults. Many were fanciful cards with beautiful illustrations. One website I found with examples and explanations is http://www.merrycoz.org/merit/MERIT.xhtml – also where the images above and below are found.
In preparation for writing this post, I also read an old essay from The Atlantic about Tarkington. Though curiously mean-spirited and acerbic, I did find much of interest in it, including the observation that the Penrod stories were written in “the precisely defined period when the stable was empty but not yet rebuilt into a garage”
Also from the article in the Atlantic:
“To be caught with Tarkington in one’s hands is to be suspected of nostalgia, a willingness to endure the second-rate for the sake of some moonlight on the Wabash, which must still be flowing somewhere through the heartland. But if that’s what one is looking for, disappointment will soon set in with the realization that Tarkington was himself in the throes of nostalgia, setting most of his work two or three decades before he wrote it. He was, in fact, a kind of historical novelist, whose books can now be read only through a double glazing of time.”
As promised – the answer to the trivia questions above – Other multiple Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners: John Updike and William Faulkner. Please tell me you know which is which…
(Ace of Clubs image above found at https://www.spicherandco.com/home.php?cat=1217)
Have you read anything by Booth Tarkington? What other short stories have YOU read lately?