13 August 2020

Looking Back on Return to Oz after 35 Years

When Return to Oz came out in 1985, I was just the wrong age for it.

I was at the end of my teens, busy with college and summer jobs. Even though I still considered myself an Oz fan, I didn’t find time to spare for an Oz movie that lots of early reviews called a dark disappointment.

If I’d been five years younger—and maybe even if I’d been five years older—I’d have gone to Return to Oz that first year. But I was at a crest of being intellectually serious, and was among the many who stayed away.

Return to Oz wasn’t a success at the box office or with most critics, but some of its first viewers loved it. And more fans developed through the VHS releases and repeated showings on the Disney Channel. Now, thirty-five years after the movie’s release, it’s considered a cult favorite. Furthermore, the intervening years have brought more Oz adaptations to make it look good.

This year the International Wizard of Oz Club was due to hold its national convention this upcoming weekend. Then came the pandemic. The in-person gathering had to be canceled, and organizers turned their energy into creating a virtual convention titled “To Oz? To Oz!” It will run from the afternoon of Friday, 14 August, through Sunday, 16 August, and registration is free.

As part of OzCon International’s contribution to that Oz Club online event, I just finished chatting with three people who were just the right age to appreciate Return to Oz in the 1980s and to view it with new eyes today.

First I hosted an online panel with Sarah Crotzer, professor of English and Film and editor-in-chief of The Baum Bugle, and Eliza Wren, a filmmaker and musician who composed her own rock score to Return to Oz. Our topic was “Return to Oz at 35.”

Then I chatted with Freddy Fogarty about how Return to Oz made him an Oz fan and about some of his favorite movie memorabilia. Freddy’s collection was one of the bases for the El Segundo Museum of Art’s terrific Oz display last year.

The recording of those conversations is scheduled to premiere in the “To Oz? To Oz!” lineup on Saturday afternoon. As at any good fan convention, there are plenty of other things happening, too. To view the videos and live events this weekend, one has to be registered in advance, but I believe that eventually all this 2020 content will be available online.

06 August 2020

Hondo from Story to Screenplay to Novel

In a collection of Louis L’Amour stories, I came across this passage in Jon Tuska’s introduction, explaining how L’Amour’s first sale in the western genre eventually produced his first bestseller:
L’Amour sold his first Western short story to a slick magazine a year later, “The Gift of Cochise” in Collier’s (7/5/52). Robert Fellows and John Wayne purchased screen rights to this story from L’Amour for $4,000 and James Edward Grant, one of Wayne’s favorite screenwriters, developed a script from it, changing L’Amour’s Ches Lane to Hondo Lane. L’Amour retained the right to novelize Grant’s screenplay, which differs substantially from his short story, and he was able to get an endorsement from Wayne to be used as a blurb, stating that Hondo was the finest Western Wayne had ever read. Hondo (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1953) by Louis L’Amour was released on the same day as the film, Hondo (Warner, 1953), with a first printing of 320,000 copies.
Making the Hollywood connection was clearly important to L’Amour’s career path, which at this critical point hardly followed the model of a lone author sticking to his creative vision, unswayed by money and celebrity.

The movie Hondo couldn’t match up to George Stevens’s Shane, a masterpiece released a few months earlier. Jack Schaefer’s novel Shane is quite good as well. As with L’Amour, it was Schaefer’s first successful foray into the western genre, and it defined his career.

25 July 2020

The Mystery of Baum’s Final Book

This year I reread L. Frank Baum’s final Oz book: Glinda of Oz, published one hundred years ago.

Unlike the preceding book, The Magic of Oz, it has a single, focused plot. Ozma and Dorothy venture to the northern edge of Gillikin Country to intervene in a war between two small communities. They get trapped there. Glinda leads an expedition to save them. With the help of local magic-workers, the rescuers succeed. Glinda repairs the war damage, and Ozma installs new rulers in the two communities.

And there the book ends. There’s no detailed return journey to the Emerald City, no celebration in Ozma’s palace, no concluding discussion among Ozma, Dorothy, and Glinda. Ozma says to no one in particular, “it is always wise to do one’s duty, however unpleasant that duty may seem to be.” Done. Baum had filled his requisite number of pages, composing 40,000 words.

The manuscript for Glinda of Oz survives at the Library of Congress. The only parts that have been digitized appear in this online exhibit, and they say contradictory things about who Baum wrote it.

The title page has a note in Baum’s own handwriting that says: “MS. Completed Feb 17th / 1917 by L. Frank Baum.” But the first manuscript page also has a note in his handwriting: “L. Frank Baum / Feb. 1918.” A note added to the manuscript by Baum’s family says, “Written January & February 1917. finished the night before L F entered hospital,” but we know Baum went in for surgery on his gall bladder on 18 Feb 1918. He had alerted his publisher, Reilly and Lee, to the new book just four days before.

Those contradictory clues convinced Baum’s biographer Katharine M. Rogers to theorize that he finished a first draft of Glinda in February 1917 and a second version a year later. Exactly a year later, which seems like a mighty coincidence.

I think Baum simply wrote down the wrong year on his title page. February was still early in the new calendar year, and he had a lot weighing on his mind as he prepared for surgery. That title page in turn confused the relative who knew he finished just before the operation. All the other clues about how Baum wrote his last three Oz books fall into place. He drafted them in the order they were later published over the eighteen months between August 1916 and February 1918, finishing just before he went into the hospital.

Mostly bedridden after that surgery, Baum spent his last year working with his family to polish those texts and prepare typescripts to send to his publisher. Baum died on 6 May 1919. The Magic of Oz was published a month later, and Glinda of Oz eleven months after that.

Someday, after this pandemic is over, I hope to visit the Library of Congress and examine the full manuscript of Glinda of Oz in the same way that I looked at The Magic of Oz. Does it match the book’s final text as closely? Rogers reported one scene revised to be less scary and a few other small changes. I’m curious about a passage describing the famous residents of the Emerald City that strikes me as stylistically distinct from the surrounding prose. Does that appear in Baum’s handwriting?

Still, even if someone else—a relative or an editor—filled out Glinda of Oz for Baum, they didn’t tack on a more detailed ending.

23 July 2020

Making the Most of the Magic of Oz Manuscript

Back in 2005 I examined L. Frank Baum’s handwritten manuscript of The Magic of Oz at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, comparing it to the finished book. I published my findings and analysis in an article for the Oz Club’s Baum Bugle called “The Magic Manuscript.” Since then, the Ransom Center has digitized the manuscript pages, letting everyone see how Baum worked.

My article noted how when Baum sat down to write his first draft for The Magic of Oz (or maybe The Magic of the Wizard of Oz), he hadn’t decided on important details, such as the name of a major character and the exact spelling of the crucial magic word. Those vary from one page to the next, and sometimes even on the same page.

Paradoxically, that study also showed how little revising Baum did on his way to publication. As he wrote, Baum wrestled with some small details, such as how to describe Ozma’s age. He later polished his phrasing in little ways, usually by hand and sometimes at the missing typescript stage. But that was fussing over small stuff.

Baum inserted one short episode while still writing in hand and later added another to tie off a loose end at the request of his publisher, Frank Reilly. A couple of times he deleted sentences from the first draft that opened plot possibilities which he had never followed up on. But the manuscript shows no other major rewriting—no shuffling scenes, no big cuts or reworking. At least at this late stage of his career, Baum stuck to the structure of his first draft.

Another question about Baum’s writing process that I addressed in that article was the sequence in which he drafted his last three Oz books. The most recent Baum biographies posited that he didn’t compose those books in the order they were published: The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918), The Magic of Oz (1919), and Glinda of Oz (1920).

In L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz, Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley suggested the sequence was Magic, Glinda, Tin Woodman. The first two were “a kind of insurance” for his family if he took sick, this book said, and he completed the third after gall bladder surgery in 1918.

The Magic of Oz manuscript makes that sequence untenable, however. The handwritten manuscript includes a mention of the Tin Soldier, a character introduced in The Tin Woodman of Oz. Baum therefore must have written Tin Woodman before Magic.

Baum’s Magic manuscript offers two more clues about the timing of his last books. He wrote two pages of his story on the back of an accounting of money raised at a local D.A.R. war relief event in June 1917. And on the first page a relative wrote, “This was next to the last book Father ever wrote. It was written in the fall of 1917.” Since Tin Woodman could not have come after Magic, Baum must have moved on to Glinda of Oz. In sum, he wrote the books in the order they were published.

COMING UP: Glinda of Oz and the end.

21 July 2020

Plotting Magic

The Magic of Oz remains one of my most favorite Oz books by L. Frank Baum because of how its plot works so well.

The book has three narrative threads:
  • A sulky Munchkin adolescent and the exiled Nome King plot to take over Oz using a secret word that can transform anything or anyone into something else.
  • Dorothy leads the Wizard, the Cowardly Lion, and the Hungry Tiger to the Gillikin Forest to recruit monkeys as part of a birthday present for Ozma.
  • Trot and Cap’n Bill follow the Glass Cat to another wild part of the Gillikin Country to retrieve a magic flower for Ozma.
Ultimately, each of these plots intersects and helps to resolve the other two. Dorothy and the Wizard’s unexpected arrival in the forest disrupts the villains’ plans. After Trot and Cap’n Bill are trapped and dwindling away, the Glass Cat rushes to fetch help and ends up both finding the Wizard’s bag of magic and bringing him back. And the only way the Wizard can rescue Trot and Cap’n Bill, it turns out, is using the secret word of transformation.

And then…there’s a bit more book. The Magic of Oz was running short, under 40,000 words. The average of the previous six Oz books, since Baum resumed the series in 1913, was over 50,000 words. He thus still had pages to fill.

Baum therefore wrote a bit more action as the adventurers return to the Emerald City, and then as they celebrate Ozma’s birthday, and finally as they deal with the villains. That’s a long denouement that I must admit borders on the anticlimactic.

Along with how slipshod some of Baum’s other plots were, it reminds me that he probably just lucked into the cleverly intersecting plot lines I described above rather than building The Magic of Oz around them.

18 July 2020

OzCon Preview: “Glinda the Good and Powerful” Panel


Tonight I’ll be moderating a panel discussion for OzCon 2020, which because of the pandemic will be online instead of in California.

Our topic is “Glinda the Good and Powerful.” The panelists are Mari Ness, Caroline Spector, and Atticus Gannaway, all of whom are practiced fiction writers as well as knowledgeable critics and scholars of fantasy literature.

We’ve recorded the first half of our discussion, and the video above is a one-minute preview of snippets. After playing that, we’ll shift to real-time live discussion with questions from the audience. Part of my job will be vacuuming up those questions from various forums.

Though the magic of YouTube has made Billie Burke the face of Glinda in the image above, most of our conversation will be about the Oz books, and particularly L. Frank Baum’s books since that’s where Glinda looms the largest.

The discussion will take place on Zoom starting at 8:00 Eastern time. We’ll post a recording on the OzConnection channel on YouTube.

11 July 2020

Interpreting Incident at Hawk’s Hill through the Autism Lens

How are we to make sense of the 1971 novel Incident at Hawk’s Hill and the actual 1873 event at its root?

In 2004, Prof. Kenneth Kidd wrote about Allan W. Eckert’s novel for the children’s literature journal The Looking Glass. In that paper, titled “Leave It to Badger,” Kidd reported that he’d found no corroboration of Eckert’s claim that he had based the book on a real incident.

At the time, digital book and newspaper archives were in their infancy, so it wasn’t as easy to find the period sources I quoted back here, or the intervening secondary sources I analyzed here. Not only did Eckert have reason to believe he was working off a report of a real incident, but it’s clear that a lost little boy was indeed found in a badger hole in 1873 Manitoba. Would that knowledge have changed Kidd’s analysis?

Kidd made sense of the novel by applying the thinking in his book Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. He discussed the story through the lens of folklore. Many cultures have stories about children being raised by animals, including such famous western examples as Romulus and Remus, Mowgli, and Tarzan. Viewed entirely as fiction, Eckert’s novel fits into that paradigm. Kidd saw an Oedipal dimension to such stories in general and Eckert’s novel in particular.

Of course, when the event at the core of Incident at Hawk’s Hill—a little boy lost on the prairie who survives by finding shelter in a badger’s hole—is real, then the ways people tell that story aren’t new examples of old folklore but attempts to understand what really happened. (Or, in the case of Eckert’s acknowledged fiction, to present what might have happened.)

Bruno Bettelheim’s paper “Feral Children and Autistic Children,” published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1959, was an attempt to explain similar events. Bettelheim posited that the root of many of those stories of children raised by animals is autism, a psychological condition he was groping to understand. Throughout history, he wrote, people had seen “severe cases of infantile autism with seemingly animal-like traits and habits” and explained that behavior by believing the children had been raised by animals.

Bettelheim’s own theory of autism was deeply flawed. In that same paper he posited that it was largely or entirely due to “extreme emotional isolation combined with experiences which they interpreted as threatening them with utter destruction.” As for the source of the emotional isolation, Bettelheim mostly blamed mothers (of course), saying they were the real “feral” ones.

While Bettelheim’s theories about autism and how to respond to it have fallen by the wayside, his suggestion that autism explains many examples of “feral children” has caught on. Uta Frith analyzed some historic cases of "feral children” in Autism: Explaining the Enigma (1989) and elsewhere. She suggested, “an unduly high proportion of feral children suffered from autism before they were abandoned. Indeed autism, with its often severe conduct problems, may be the cause for the abandonment in the first place.”

Frith’s book and others have helped to make our culture much more aware of autism since Incident at Hawk’s Hill appeared in 1971. We now recognize a spectrum of related conditions under the autism label. Not only do we better distinguish autism from other cognitive conditions, but we acknowledge autistic ways of thinking and viewing the world in high-functioning individuals.

That knowledge allows us a new perspective on how authors from earlier generations discussed the story of the little boy lost on the Manitoba prairie. The initial reports said almost nothing about the boy himself, only that he was scared when men came by. It’s not clear how much detail in the oral traditions is based on fact and how much was added by people seeking to comprehend the mystery. Nonetheless, the more detailed recounting by Ernest Seton Thompson and the fictionalized story of Allan W. Eckert lend themselves to interpretation through the lens of autism.

Seton was quite clear about little Harry Service not being normal:
He was a strange child, very small for his age, and shy without being cowardly. He had an odd habit of following dogs, chickens, pigs, and birds, imitating their voices and actions, with an exactness that onlookers sometimes declared to be uncanny.
For Seton, this affinity with animals was a strength. He linked kindness to animals with general goodness, and equated cruelty to animals with cruelty to people. Seton’s tale contained an explanation for how this boy survived in the badger’s hole—because the badger, having lost her own young, showed maternal kindness to this unusual newcomer. And he concluded with an optimistic suggestion that Harry’s experience with the wild badger cured him of his most obvious strangeness.

In Incident at Hawk’s Hill Eckert picked up on those details and made a major subplot of the boy’s parents wrestling with what we’d now call their youngest son’s special needs. Early in the novel, Bill MacDonald tells his wife:
“Oh, what’s the use of trying to fool ourselves? He isn’t normal, Esther, and we both know it, whether or not you’re willing to admit it. He not only isn’t normal physically, he’s not normal mentally, either. Look how he acts toward animals.”
When Eckert finally shifts his narration into the little boy’s own perspective, it states:
Ben had no idea why he was so afraid of people. He was not, as his father seemed to think, retarded in his mental processes. He was, in his way, quite intelligent. He could think things through very well for his age and he retained a surprising percentage of what was taught him by his mother and the others. It was just that he kept what he learned to himself. He didn’t like to talk to people.
Was this Eckert’s attempt to depict an autistic child? Someone he knew, something he felt? Or was he picking up imaginatively on the hints in Seton’s story? I have no idea. In the end, Eckert followed Seton’s line and portrayed the experience out on the prairie as making Ben open up more than ever, especially to his father.

Reflecting the greater awareness of autism today, many recent readers of Incident at Hawk’s Hill interpret Ben forthrightly as on the autism spectrum. Monado at Book Crossing describes him as “a boy, whom these days we’d describe as autistic,” while Lori Steinbach at enotes says he probably has “a condition something like autism.” The Home School Book Review said, “Ben would probably be considered somewhat autistic today.” At Goodreads, the Shayne-Train wrote, “now that I [re]read it with adult eyes, it may be the first novel I’d ever read that had an autistic protagonist.” And the study guide for the novel at Bookrags includes a whole section on autism.

Such a diagnosis is of course only a partial explanation for the character, or the history deep behind it. Did the little Service boy who got lost on the Manitoba prairie have some form of autism? How did that affect his lost time, or his family’s and neighbors’ interpretations of it? What experiences with autism, a condition not yet isolated and named in the early 1900s, did Seton have? What about Eckert, writing in 1971? Is it just coincidence that this modern example of a “feral child” story fits so easily with an autism reading, or are we still seeking an explanation with the partial knowledge we have?

10 July 2020

How a Real Story Became Incident at Hawk’s Hill

In 1873, a young boy went missing from his family’s farm in Manitoba. After more than a week, a man of Native and European ancestry found him hiding in a badger hole. That much we can read in nineteenth-century sources from Winnipeg.

In the early 1900s the nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton picked up that story from some Manitobans. He published a version that went into much more detail about how the little boy had actually shared that hole for days with a mother badger that had recently lost its young. Seton or his informants turned the mysterious event into a morality tale, which he published in at least three books.

This 1960 article from the Manitoba Historical Society’s Manitoba Pageant magazine mentions some other local recountings: by Archbishop Samuel Matheson in 1936, in Country Guide in 1951 by Margaret Arnett MacLeod, by the Manitoba Free Press in 1953. I haven’t seen those versions, so I don’t know what new details they provide and what evidence they were based on.

At some point the American writer Allan W. Eckert (1931-2011) came across Seton’s version of the story. Eckert had made himself a specialist in ecological writing, penning most of the scripts for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. He also found a niche writing on Native Americans, including outdoor dramas about Tecumseh and Blue Jacket. (That pairing of nature and Native Americans probably reflects a bias within our culture.)

Eckert’s nonfiction tended toward the imaginative. One of his early magazine sales was an article for the American Legion magazine in 1962 about the disappearance of the US Navy air training mission Flight 19 off the coast of Florida. Eckert appears to have added details not in the documentary record, and that event later became a keystone of the “Bermuda Triangle” legend.

Likewise, Kirkus said of Eckert’s 1992 biography of Tecumseh, A Sorrow in Our Heart, “in its interpretative zeal it strays from, or at least embellishes, the historical record to the point of being suspect.” Even Kirkus’s good review of That Dark and Bloody River noted Eckert’s method of “'reconstituting' credible dialogue among people in briefly reported events.”

On the other hand, Eckert’s fiction was often based closely on historical fact. His first novel was about the extinction of the great auk. Another was based on an event in the life of Daniel Boone. In the late 1960s Eckert started a series of historical sagas about the “Winning of America.”

Eckert saw the skeleton of a novel in Seton’s tale of the lost boy and the badger. The tale offered a chance to write about both the frontier past and the natural world. And it came with the gloss of nonfiction. When Eckert published his novel Incident at Hawk’s Hill in 1971, he stated up front in a short author’s note, “The story which follows is a slightly fictionalized version of an incident which actually occurred at the time and place noted.” Toward the end of the book, Eckert introduced characters who shared the names of two of Seton’s informants.

Eckert changed some details of the story, starting with calling the little boy not Harry (or Willie) Service but Benjy MacDonald. Seton had written that the event took place near “Bird’s Hill,” and Eckert turned that into “Hawk’s Hill,” named after a hawk the MacDonalds see. (The original Manitoba landmark was named after a settler named Bird, not an actual bird.)

Many other details and the plot of Eckert’s story came directly from Seton’s narrative. From the outset, the little boy shows more affinity for animals than for people. Seton’s villain—a nasty neighbor named Grogan—appears under the name of George Burton. He’s not a “half-breed,” however; in fact, he’s cruel to Natives as well as animals. As in Seton’s story, Benjy wanders away after a prairie chicken and needs to take shelter from a storm. A mother badger has been injured in the villain’s trap and lost her babies, leaving her with unfulfilled maternal instincts.

The real boy was lost for about ten days, but Incident at Hawk’s Hill draws that time out to two months. Eventually, Benjy is rescued by a relative rather than (as with the real boy) a stranger; where Seton wrote that that relative was a cousin, Eckert found more drama in making the rescuer a brother.

When Benjy returns, he initially behaves like a badger, but eventually returns to human behavior, stronger for his experience in the wild. Finally, just as in Seton’s telling, the villain shoots the badger, not realizing it has become a family companion, and the family unites to drive him away. The experience brings the MacDonalds closer, particularly father and son. But the family has also decided, with a visiting archbishop’s help, to keep the full story secret so as not to make Benjy appear stranger than people already think of him.

Eckert didn’t write Incident at Hawk’s Hill for children. The point of view skips around among many characters—adults, children, badger, and omniscient narrator. Though six-year-old Benjy is a central character, for many pages Eckert describes him entirely from the outside, and not in appealing terms—he’s small for his age, developmentally odd. It takes several chapters before readers are privy to Benjy’s thoughts, and then only when he’s the only human in the scene. Much of the book follows the drama of the MacDonald family searching for him or reacting to his return.

The early reviews treated Incident at Hawk’s Hill as an adult novel. Critics focused on Eckert’s reputation as a nature writer, with the New York Times calling the book a “folk fable” written “without recourse to undue anthropomorphism.” Kirkus’s reviewer, who could barely stand the story, concluded, “Were it not for Mr. Eckert’s natural history credentials one might think he had been sniffing too much meadow grass.”

Soon, however, people began to view Incident at Hawk’s Hill as a book for children. It was, after all, about a young boy and an animal making friends. It was on the short side, well under 200 pages. And it had pictures. Little, Brown commissioned scratchboard art from John Schoenherr, who had illustrated Sterling North’s Rascal (1963) and Walt Morey’s Gentle Ben (1965)—two novels about boys and animals written for children. (Schoenherr had an earlier career as a science-fiction illustrator. He would go on to win the Caldecott Medal for Owl Moon.)

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books deemed Incident at Hawk’s Hill “An adult novel that should appeal to many young readers.” And in 1972 the novel was named a Newbery Honor Book. That year the judging committee appears to have been unusually generous, naming five Honor Books, more than in any other year in the 1960s and 1970s. From then on, Eckert’s novel was treated as a children’s book.

Disney adapted Incident at Hawk’s Hill into a 1975 television movie called The Boy Who Talked to Badgers. This treatment made Benjy, played by ten-year-old Christian Juttner, more of a likable hero. It switched some episodes around, but the basics of Seton’s and Eckert’s story remained. One notable addition was Denver Pyle as narrator, revealed at the end to be Benjy grown up.

Almost two decades later, in 1998, Eckert published Return to Hawk’s Hill, starting at the end of the first novel and then going over much the same ground. Benjy, a little older, wanders off again. Even the villain returns, despite having been run off before. But the new story had one major difference. This time, instead of a badger Benjy falls in with a community of mixed Cree and French descent who look after him, and his father learns to apologize for his prejudice against these Métis.

Return to Hawk’s Hill thus restored the helpful role of Métis in the real story of the lost boy in Manitoba. As specified in the nineteenth-century sources, a man of Cree and European ancestry rescued the boy from the badger hole. Seton’s early-1900s version had not only erased that rescuer from the story but made the villain a “half-breed.”

I have no idea whether Eckert had learned of those original sources by the time he wrote Return to Hawk’s Hill and set out to fill a deficit in his earlier novel. He may simply have wanted to create a sequel to one of his most successful books and looked to his interest in indigenous North Americans for inspiration. Either way, he added yet more significance in the mysterious story of a lost boy in the badger hole.

TOMORROW: Further meaning for 21st-century readers.

09 July 2020

How a Lost Boy Met a “Kindly Badger”

Yesterday I quoted two period sources about a Manitoba boy who was missing for over a week on the prairie before being discovered in a badger’s hole.

One of those items was a newspaper article from 1873, days after the boy’s return, the other a longer account from a local journalist about the search and discovery published in 1881. Those sources establish the basic veracity of the story of the missing boy.

Those sources also leave a lot of mystery. They have little to say about what the boy experienced. They say nothing about the badger that dug the hole where the child hid. It’s not even clear that there was a badger present—that hole might have been abandoned.

Decades later, in 1909, the nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) included a version of the same story in his two-volume Life-Histories of Northern Animals. This account was independent of the sources published in the nineteenth century, which Seton probably never saw.

Instead, in 1909 Seton stated: “This was related to me by George Fraser, a native of Manitoba, and corroborated by his mother, Mrs. Fraser, of Kildonan, and Archbishop Matheson.” In publishing a longer version of the tale in 1913, Seton said skeptics could speak to “Archbishop Matheson, Dr. R. M. Simpson, or Mrs. George A. Frazer of Kildonan.” As I noted yesterday, people heard Archbishop Samuel Matheson retelling the story of the boy in the badger hole (including a detail contradicting the earliest accounts) as late as 1936.

Seton presented his version as based on what the little boy told his family after his return, which neighbors then passed down to him. Some of that information might have been garbled, smoothed, or augmented in transmission over the decades. Seton’s date for the event was off by two years, for instance. He called the boy “Harry” while the 1881 account used the name “Willie,” though I haven’t found confirmation of either. Most important, while the earliest sources were about the search for the boy, Seton wrote in confident detail about how the little boy survived outdoors for more than a week.

The 1909 version from Seton stated:
In 1871, a little seven-year-old boy, named Harry Service, wandering from his father’s house at Bird’s Hill, near Winnipeg, was lost for two weeks. When found, he was living in a den with a Badger. His clothes were torn so that he was nearly naked, and his face was all scratched. He told his parents that he had taken shelter in the hole during a rain-storm, and that the Badger came later and scratched his face. At first they fought, but the child was plucky and would not give up the hole. Later the Badger brought some food and, after another quarrel, allowed the child to eat some of it. In the days that followed the Badger brought him food several times. The beast always entered the den by one of the entrances not used by the child.

When found they were on terms of friendship, and the child cried bitterly when taken from his savage friend. The boy’s story, however, was not clear. He said at one time that he lived on mud. His face, mouth, and tongue were black with mud and much swollen. Nevertheless, his description of the Badger was beyond question. He even said it had five toes on one foot and four on the other.
Four years later, Seton published a longer version of the same story in his book Wild Animals at Home and in Boys’ Life. (In 1932 that version reappeared in Seton’s Famous Animal Stories.) In the book the tale was titled “The Story of the Kindly Badger.” In the magazine it became “The Badger Who Was Brother to a Boy,” though Seton was clear that the badger was acting as a mother.

This longer version left little room for what “was not clear” about the incident. It even explained why the number of toes on the animal’s feet mattered.

“The Story of the Kindly Badger” stated at the outset that Harry Service “was a strange child, very small for his age, and shy without being cowardly.” He followed animals, imitating their noises and behavior. Indeed, following a prairie chicken was how Harry got lost.

Another addition to the established tale was a neighbor Seton named as Grogan and labeled “The Evil One” and “The Human Brute.” A week before Harry wandered off, Grogan had killed a father badger and trapped a mother badger until she “chewed off one of her toes” to escape, but by the time she returned to her burrow her children were dead.

Lost on the prairie, Seton said, young Harry took shelter from a thunder storm in a badger hole. Then that mother badger with the missing toe came back. The two refugees fought over the space. Seton quoted Harry as saying, “I scratched the badger’s face and she scratched mine.” But then they accepted one another.

The badger brought in a prairie chicken, an egg, and other food for her dinner, and Harry was able to take some. Seton explained, “The child could not know, but the parents discovered later that this was a mother badger which had lost her brood and her heart was yearning for something to love.” Harry could only drink from mud, and “Possibly the mother badger wondered why he did not accept her motherly offerings,” which is as explicit as Boys’ Life could get about breast-feeding in 1913.

In this telling, Harry saw Grogan ride by and hid from him, as well as from other men. He developed the habit of running on all fours. Finally Harry’s “Cousin Jack” spotted him and dug him out of the hole, bringing him home by force with the mother badger following for a while.

At home, Harry behaved like a wild animal for a while until his mother’s “magic touch on his brow” calmed him and he began to speak. Then the badger appeared in the doorway. “My Badgie, my Badgie,” Harry cried while hugging her. The boy made a pet of the badger for a while, feeding her, sleeping with her, and playing with her on a dirt pile outdoors.

According to Seton, Harry Service said he hated his father because “he passed me every day and would not look at me.” That might be a remnant of the detail from the very first newspaper account, which reported that the little boy had once seen his father ride by and couldn’t get his attention.

But the real villain of this tale was Grogan, who reentered for the final act. Playing off the stereotypes of his time, Seton labeled Grogan a “hulking half-breed.” In fact, according to the nineteenth-century accounts, a “Half breed,” possibly Peter Fidler, Jr., was the hero who found the little boy and brought him back to his parents. Seton’s telling erased that figure from the story and credited one of the boy’s cousins with rescuing him instead.

As Seton recounted it, Grogan spotted the badger in the Services’ yard, assumed it was a wild pest, and shot it. Harry’s father ordered the man away. It took three weeks for Harry to recover from the loss. This tale concluded:
He grew up to be a fine young man, but he took no pleasure in the killing that was such sport to his neighbors’ sons, and to his dying day he could not look on the skin of a badger without feelings of love, tenderness and regret.
The 1913 version of the story was thus invested with much more meaning than all the earlier accounts. It’s impossible to know how much of that meaning came from what the boy actually told people, how much from the intervening informants, and how much from Seton’s recounting. The published tale certainly fit in with his approach to nature writing, which imbued animals with moral motivations. Seton got into debates with other naturalists about this attitude. He even wrote a book called The Natural History of the Ten Commandments (1907), later retitled The Ten Commandments in the Animal World (1925).

Fitting into that pattern, Seton’s 1913 tale had a moral about the importance of kindness to animals, and animals’ capacity to be kind to little humans in return. The Service boy’s survival was an utter mystery in the nineteenth-century stories, but Seton offered answers. The boy was unusually attuned to animals. The badger, missing her young, was “kindly” and “maternal.” Therefore, they got along fine (after a little scratching). Seton’s telling also provided a clear villain, a man who trapped and killed animals cruelly instead of recognizing their worth, and was non-white besides.

In sum, regardless of how much Seton deliberately fictionalized the mysterious 1873 incident of the boy in the badger hole, he assembled an intellectually and emotionally meaningful narrative, which is what we seek in fiction.

TOMORROW: The fully fictionalized version.

08 July 2020

The Boy in the Badger Hole

In June 1873, a young boy living on a farm in Springfield, Manitoba, outside Winnipeg, went missing. His family and neighbors searched the prairie. After a week, people despaired of finding the boy alive.

On 19 July, however, the Manitoba Free Press reported this news:
FOUND.—The little lost boy of Springfield has turned up alive and well, after a ten days subsistence on swamp water and what few strawberries the grasshoppers left for him. A Half-breed who resides in St. Paul’s, whose name we did not learn, discovered the little fellow at Little Lake, some eight miles from his father’s house. On seeing the man coming the little fellow became alarmed and concealed himself in a badger hole which for some time he had made his dormitory. On the day previous to his recovery, and [sic] boy had seen his father (who had been constantly searching for him since he had been lost) passing near, and ran shouting after him, but failed to attract his attention. We don’t know when we heard anything that surprised and pleased us so much as the above piece of news.
In 1881 a reporter for that newspaper, J. F. Galbraith, published a roundup of stories about life in the province under the pseudonym Jeff. Gee. That book, A Sketch of Both Sides of Manitoba, offered more detail about the case of the lost boy, starting:
There is, I have observed, in all very new countries, or sections of country, a bond of sympathy, that unites each man to his neighbor. So, when, one morning in June, a messenger arrived from Springfield with the announcement that a little four-year-old son of Mr. Wm. Service had strayed away from his home two days before, and all efforts to find him had been fruitless, there swelled through the Winnipeg pulse a great throb of sympathy. . . . Would Winnipeg supply fresh search parties? I should say so. Every man, woman and child wanted to turn out: the entire community would respond en masse, if need be.
Six days of searching didn’t turn up Willie Service, as Galbraith called him. The authorities offered a $200 reward. On the tenth day, however, the boy was found.

Galbraith then wrote more than two pages in the voice of the man who found the boy, whom he called a “French half-breed.” According to this account, the man saw cranes fly from a particular spot and decided that something around there must have disturbed them. He persisted in searching that area (with breaks for tea) even after his son and son-in-law gave up. And then he heard a strange noise.
“I get my gun ready and go on e-easy. Hear queer noise again, eight, ten yards off. I look: see dirt like badger hole. I stop. Then I put out my gun and walk close, slow. I point my gun, and look down. Hole dark; can't see nothing. I bend my head and look down, close. See hand—black, black; four fingers, no thumb. I draw back. I not afraid; but queer noise and black hand without thumb—don’t like it. I look again; hand move, and thumb come out from under. Then I make little noise, and two big eyes look up—wild wild. I see face. I drop gun, put out my hands and say,

“‘Oh, my poor little boy, come out, come out. Your father and mother look all over prairie and can’t find you. Come out and I take you to your mother.’

“He say nothing, but look—big eyes, scared. I ask him again come out, but he not move. Then I kneel down, and say,

“‘My poor little boy, come out, and I take you to your mother, I give you plenty bread, plenty tea, you poor little boy, you must be hungry. Come with me—I feed you, I warm you, I bring you home.’

“I reaching down all the time, and then I catch him by the hand, and say,

“‘Now, my little boy, I got you, I bring you to my wife. Don’t be afraid; I not hurt you.’

“He draw back, but I take him out, and put my arms around him, and hold him up tight, and pat him on the head, and he never say nothing. Then I take him to my wife, and my wife, and my daughter, and my son’s wife, hurry up, and make broth, and give him some in cup. My, but he hungry. Want to drink it all; but my wife say,

“‘No, not too much; I give you more after awhile.’

“Then he go to sleep, and my wife wake him soon and give him more broth. Then he sleep again, and my son go and tell his mother, and his mother come and take him away.”
Galbraith didn’t name the man who found the little boy.

According to a 1960 article in the Manitoba Pageant, transcribed here, that rescuer was Peter Fidler, Jr. (1820-1881). I don’t know the basis of that identification and thus how reliable it is. Fidler’s mother Mary was Cree; his father was not French but English by birth.

The same Manitoba Pageant article showed another way the story changed over time as people sought meaning in it:
When Archbishop [Samuel] Matheson told the story of Billy Service in 1936, he stated that Mrs. Fidler was said to have had a dream in which it was revealed to her that the boy could be found in a badger hole and that she induced her husband to go out and look for him.
In the 1880 account, the man who found the boy said nothing about a dream. He noticed unusual bird behavior, meaning he relied on experience in the world, not supernatural guidance.

TOMORROW: Another version of the same story, based on oral traditions.