Wednesday, January 14, 2009
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Shortly after the turn of the last century, the American publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, brought out a series of classic adventure stories and novels of historical fiction, adorned with pictures by some of our greatest illustrators, including N.C. Wyeth and Peter Hurd. Although originally aimed at younger readers, the books appeal to people of any age who enjoy imaginative, well-written stories. I confess that I did not get around to reading many of these books until I was into well-advanced adulthood - Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, The Black Arrow - but I nonetheless enjoyed them immensely, and the experience was richly enhanced by the beautiful color plates (I have a dozen books in the series; a few are early editions, but most are high-quality reissues from the 1980’s and ‘90’s).
I have just completed one book in the Scribner’s series which had been sitting on the shelf, forgotten and unread, for years. Jules Verne is remembered as being one of the pioneers of science fiction, but he was also a writer of historical fiction. Michael Strogoff is the romantic tale of a captain in the courier service of Czar Alexander II, who is charged with the responsibility of carrying a letter to the Czar’s brother, the Grand Duke. The Grand Duke is governor of a distant Siberian province, and his life is threatened by a Russian traitor by the name of Ivan Ogareff. Strogoff sets out in a race against time, as a Tartar insurrection, which has been actively incited by Ogareff, sweeps across the steppes, leaving death and devastation in its wake. Strogoff is thrown together with a young woman who has set out for Siberia to take up residence with her father, an exile from the Baltic region, and they help each other along the way, combating the elements, enduring a brief captivity by the Tartars, and ultimately outwitting the treacherous Ogareff.
I have previously highlighted another fine book in the series (Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward), and would also recommend Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, a story set in the Wars of the Roses. The Black Arrow of the title is Ellis Duckworth, the leader of a band of men forced into outlawry by an adherent to the house of Lancaster, Sir Daniel Brackley; however, the real hero is Dick Shelton, the young ward of Sir Daniel, who winds up turning against his guardian when he discovers that he murdered his father. Sir Daniel kidnaps a beautiful young heiress, Joanna Sedley, whom he intends to marry off to Shelton. Joanna is, naturally, appalled by the prospect of a forced marriage, but, ironically, falls in love with Shelton (and vice versa). Once they break with Sir Daniel, they experience numerous adventures against the backdrop of the civil war, and Shelton eventually enters the service of Richard Crookback (later King Richard III). Justice against Sir Daniel is delayed, but finally executed by the Black Arrow, after the defeat of the Lancastrian faction in battle. Few authors of his generation exceeded Stevenson’s ability to recreate a sense of time and place and historical authenticity, and perhaps no one surpassed him in the ability to spin a lively and entertaining yarn.
The Scribner’s books are great additions to the permanent library: pleasing to the eye, stimulating to the imagination, and, in spite of the relatively high quality of their manufacture, easy on the pocketbook