After completing the 20 year quest for adulthood in Of Human Bondage, I noticed two small paperback books on my bookshelf. These were books with titles which I remembered from my childhood. Those should be good once-more-read selections, though being 200 page paperbacks from the mid-1960’s they would not free up space on my bookshelf. Thus, I began reading The Greyhound, by Helen Griffith, and Gentle Ben, by Walt Morey. My childhood must be a bit foggy, for other than recognizing the covers, I could not recall either story-line. Maybe these were from my brother’s childhood.
Both stories are set in post-WW II time periods. The Greyhound is about a boy, Jamie, growing up in London among industrial looking schools and bombed out neighborhoods. Gentle Ben is also about a boy, Mark, growing up in pre-statehood Alaska in a salmon fishing/cannery village. The common theme of both books is the loneliness the boys experience and the companionship which they find in an animal. Jamie lives in a high density city in which anonymity is safer than the gangs of kids who cheat and threatening each other. Mark lives in a sparsely populated village, which swells to thousands of migrant fishermen and cannery workers for a few weeks each year during the salmon run. Most of the time, he is alone.
Both have caring parents who are preoccupied with the business of managing homes and work. Jamie’s mother is rearing the three children and often busy with his younger sisters. His father often does not return from his delivery job until late at night. Mark’s mother teaches in the local school and tends to the home when Mark’s father is off for days or weeks at a time on the fishing boat that he has just finished paying for.
Jamie finds his companionship and obsessions with a greyhound dog which an elderly man owns. Eventually, Jamie became the dog’s owner and had to figure out how to house and feed him. Mark finds his companionship is a brown (grizzly) bear, which one of the villagers captured as a cub and has kept in a shed for five years.
Both stories are about learning to creatively take on adult responsibilities and family cohesion. The boys’ secret pets lead to conflicts within their neighborhoods and the families, for which the parents are struggling already to keep in house-and-home. Both have resolutions which require moving from the city/fishing village to a different situation (I will leave those for you to read about), which tell something about the time frame in which the books were written. The Greyhound is about escaping the bombed out city. Gentle Ben is about escaping our obsession with controlling nature.
What shall I do with these books now? Neither will appeal to boys today, in a world in which we obsess with children solving problems with magic spells, or super-hero strengths, or jihadist vigilantism, or no- or too-many gender identity options. I think I’ll take The Greyhound to the used bookstore, as it might have some historical interest for someone researching the history of children’s books. Gentle Ben I need not worry about… the glue to the binding fatigued and half the pages fell out as I read them.