Sugar and Syrup: Michael O’Halloran by Gene Stratton-Porter (1915)

I am greatly indebted to the wonderful Metallumai for my copy of this book. I can’t say I particularly liked it, although for very different reasons to the previous post. This is an American tale of a poor boy made good, and I nearly overdosed on treacly sentiment while reading it. I still feel slightly queasy. Unlike the novel in a previous post where most of the characters had no redeeming characteristics, here it’s the opposite; they’re all too good to be true. Characters that start out selfish, or delinquent, only have to have the errors of their ways gently pointed out to them (usually by an interfering busybody who masquerades as the heroine), for them to instantaneously change forever.

The story is set in a fictional city, presumably based on Indianapolis, called in the American tradition, Multiopolis. I have a problem with this convention as it renders the story that less believable for me – what is wrong with giving a fictional place a believable name? This city is plagued with apparently corrupt officials and a large immigrant population.

There is mention throughout of the war – characters can’t make their customary trips to Europe because of it, and it is used as a way of pointing to the reactionary social conditions of Europeans, fighting for their monarchs etc.

The hero of the title is an orphan of nauseating goodness, who when his mother dies, explicitly follows her instructions for survival in order that ‘they’ won’t ‘get’ him, and cart him off to an orphanage. When the story opens he has been doing this for some three years or so, and makes a living selling newspapers. His path crosses with that of a little crippled girl, just after her grandmother has died, and ‘they’ are on their way to ‘get’ her, of which she is terrified. Our hero, being a noble young chap, adopts her, taking her back to his apartment, where he begins to take care of her. It’s never quite clear why she can’t walk – a plot device I suspect.

His dialogue is interesting; there are the cadences of real speech there. However, it appears very infantile at times, and I’m not sure whether this was a feature of contemporary dialect or an idiosyncrasy the author has given this character. He never gives people their proper names, they are ‘the nice lady’, ‘the sunshine nurse lady’, ‘a flowersey girl’ and similar. Whatever the reason for its presence, it adds considerably to the treacle overload.

There is an extensive sub-plot involving the aforementioned nosy heroine and her stolid Scottish fiancée – I thought it was interesting that despite all the railing against immigrants that various characters do, no one seems to notice that he is one too. Or maybe it’s OK because he’s middle class. I found this pair very dull, and since their romance was already a fact, they don’t do very much apart from interfere and be good. They spend a lot of time talking about gender roles in a very didactic manner, with Mom and apple pie being the height of virtue. It’s interesting that the only character who is portrayed negatively is the fiancée’s boss’s wife – an independently wealthy socialite, completely given over to pleasure seeking and doing What She Wants – who’s selfishness is partially responsible for the death of their daughter and the virtual ruining of their sons. But don’t worry; she gets redeemed, fairly early on as well.

This family can be contrasted with the rural family our hero ends up with, a family of even more nauseating goodness and devotion, who are happy to adopt the hero and his crippled protégé.

In keeping with the tone of the book, our hero doesn’t end up rich (except in sugar), but has a comfortable home, a decent career in view, and people who care for him.

Oh and of course, the little girl walks.

I haven’t come across Stratton-Porter before, but going by her web presence she is fairly well known on the other side of the Atlantic.

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