The Selection: “Mr. Blake’s Walking Stick” from the story collection titled “Queer Stories for Boys and Girls” – read this story online at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/15165/
The Author: Edward Eggleston, born in 1837 in Vevay, in Southeastern Indiana. Eggleston (pictured above and, larger, below) spent some time as a circuit riding minister, but fragile health led him to take up a less strenuous vocation and he became quite a prolific writer. Likely his most famous book, “The Hoosier Schoolmaster” is the only title of his that I was familiar with before this project. He also wrote an intriguing-sounding book, “Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans” that I think I may explore at some point. More info on Eggleston may be found at http://landandlit.iweb.bsu.edu/literature/Authors/egglestone.htm
(For an explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/story roster see here. In the 2016 edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection” since this year is my home state’s bicentennial.)
“Mr. Blake’s Walking Stick”
Have you ever read and enjoyed a book or story, finding it “deep and meaningful” to you, only to suddenly remember it was “written for children?” I got a bit of this feeling reading this story. Does this mean I’m more childlike than I’d like to think, or does it mean that the story’s intended audience – children of a different era – was more sophisticated than we would expect today’s children to be? It’s an interesting question and one I don’t think I can answer.
Maybe my favorite thing about this story was how deftly the author (who I’d not read before) sets the stage in the first few pages – Mr. Blake is a minister. He has a cane he employs when he walks about town, calling on members of his congregation. To the reader, the cane seems at first an affectation, but it has also become part of Mr. Blake’s identity:
“It was a great black stick of solid ebony, with a box-wood head, and I think Mr. Blake carried it for company. And it had a face, like that of an old man, carved on one side of the box-wood head. Mr. Blake kept it ringing in a hearty way upon the pavement as he walked, and the boys would look up from their marbles when they heard it, and say: “There comes Mr. Blake, the minister!” And I think that nearly every invalid and poor person in Thornton knew the cheerful voice of the minister’s stout ebony stick.”
Mr. Blake also fancies that the walking stick “talks” to him via its clacking sounds on the pavement, and one day after visiting some of the particularly needy members of his flock, hears it echoing his thoughts, saying “Something must be done! Something MUST be done.” Yes, but what?
Enter Mr. Blake’s son, Willie – probably the type of offspring any clergyman earnestly hopes for. The elder Blake’s ideas have firmly taken root in the boy who, one night, when home alone as his folks have gone out on a carriage ride, hears someone “speaking” to him in the house. Turns out it’s the minister’s cane, resting in a corner. It’s also possible Willie has dozed off and is dreaming, but either way, young Willie is caught up in the “Something MUST be done” philosophy and organizes his friends and school into a veritable, charitable army, marching to the aid those less fortunate in the town whose struggles Willie and his father have come to know in detail.
Since this story was written roughly 150 years ago, I found it interesting while reading to look within it for things that remain true today and things that have passed out of modern understanding or parlance. Among the latter are Willie’s parents’ admonition on leaving him home alone to “be careful with fire.” They do this twice. Also, one of Willie’s friends advises a companion who is (unsuccessfully) plying a man for information to “Keep a-scratching, Fred; the old cow will give down after a while!” Apparently every boy and girl in the intended audience would have been familiar with the act of milking a cow when this story was written! Even in the passage above, the boys “look up from their marbles” – does anyone play marbles anymore?
Among the former were certain stereotypes among schoolchildren that are perhaps timeless and endure to this day. Like Tommy Puffer, the class glutton (treated quite unkindly by the author) and his indulgent mother. (I pictured him as Larry Mondello from the old sitcom, “Leave it to Beaver”). There’s also the hard and unsympathetic administrator of public charity in the town. Seems that, to him, the problems of the less fortunate are of their own making and any requests for aid are to be met with suspicion. Apparently people like this may be with us always, as his philosophy isn’t unheard of in today’s world either.
I also liked that Deal Me IN dealt up this card first, i.e. “right after the Christmas holiday” since the story is set during this time of year, and captures what would be referred to now as “The True Spirit” of Christmas, as one of the final lines of the story indicates: “It would be hard to tell who enjoyed the Christmas the most. But I think the givers found it more blessed than the receivers.”
What about you? Have YOU read anything by, or even heard of this author before? Let me know.
Book image found at https://mattsko.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/queer-stories-for-boys-and-girls/
This week’s Indiana playing card features the city of South Bend – one I’m quite familiar with from numerous childhood visits to “Grandma’s House” on 27th street (where my dad was born…)