Friday, February 26, 2016

Adventure classics – 2 boys, 2 dogs & the war on death

A Dog of Flanders, by Louise de la Ramée (Ouida)
Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson
Last Friday, Adventure classics left young orphan Nello and his milk cart-pulling dog Patrasche alone two days before Christmas in Louise de la Ramée’s 1872 classic, A Dog of Flanders. Following a false accusation by the wealthy local miller, and the death of Nello’s grandfather, boy and dog left friendless and evicted from their tiny cottage. However, Nello still had hopes of winning an arts’ competition whose winner was to be declared on Christmas Eve. Together, Nello and the aging dog Patrasche sets out for the neighboring city of Antwerp to learn whether he has won the prize that will secure his hope of becoming an artist like his idol, Peter Paul Rubens.

His dream is not to be. Hopes dashed, Nello retraces his footsteps, although no home awaits him. On the way, Patrasche finds a satchel dropped in the snow. It bears the name of the miller and inside it are notes for two thousand francs. At this point, I’m cheering for Nello to use what appears to be a divine Christmas gift to buy food and shelter for himself and his dog. Instead, finding the miller out searching for his lost money, the boy returns the money to the miller’s wife, asking only for her to take care of his dog.

I won’t harrow your sensibilities – or your good sense, dear readers -- by writing anymore, except to point out that the entire story is available online here.

Although I would like to trample Ramée to death for writing this story, she’s already been dead for the past century. And however emotionally manipulative her story now seems, it wasn’t out of keeping with the way of death in her era. As last Friday’s post noted, between epidemics that swept newly-industrialized cities and the lack of economic safety nets, the 19th century’s high mortality rates made mourning a way of life.

But the scientific revolution fostered by the very industrialization that made cities septic, and the social revolution fostered by just such as writers as Ramée, were making their effects felt. By the end of the century, many age-old killers were being tamed by sanitation and nutrition. Others, although still fearful, had names and known histories, and in some cases even preventative inoculations.

I found an example of this change in attitude toward death and disease in a second story about a boy and his dog this month, Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller. Texas author Gipson’s 1956 classic is the, again sob-inducing story about a boy and his faithful dog. But although Old Yeller is set shortly after the deadliest war in U.S. history, our Civil War of 1861-1865, and published little more than a decade after the end of the still more horrific Second World War, the agency that claims the life of the dog at the heart of the story is not inhumanity, not injustice, not human violence. It’s the disease of rabies.

And the boy in Old Yeller doesn’t die. Maybe Gipson didn’t want to inflict that horror on a child. But in truth, readers in the United States at the time of Old Yeller’s writing would have been disgusted by the sheer implausibility of a human stricken by rabies.

I don’t mean to downplay the impact of rabies. Even in a world aware of such animal-transmitted diseases as avian flu and Ebola, rabies has unique overtones of terror. But in the U.S. at least, no more than one or two people die from rabies yearly, most often because they fail to seek treatment, not realizing they had been exposed. One disease on the wane, one less source of child mortality to make readers mourn.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a March of thrillers and suspense with H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines.)

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