In Defense of Regionalism
Unless you are an enormous fan of August Derleth, or a fan of Wisconsin authors; there is probably no good reason for you to have read his 1970 children’s novel The Three Straw Men. Although published in 1970, the novel is set much earlier; that vague nostalgic time in small towns when everyone knew everyone, boys would fish until midnight, and the town stopped working promptly at noon so everyone could go home to eat lunch (which was fixed by mom). Although classic popular series such as Hardy Boys and Bobsey Twins are also dated; they have been kept in print and relevant due to their enormous popularity and bland focus; of you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.
The Three Straw Men is different. Set in Derleth’s imagined “Sac Prairie” Wisconsin, the book focuses on a set of crime solvers whose relationship is very different from Frank and Joe Hardy. For one, the Hardy’s always work together. In Derleth’s series; Steve spends much of the book convincing Sim to help him investigate. What are they investigating? Arsonists? Terrorists? Spies? No, something much more exciting; the theft of sugar!
Umm, it is a large amount of sugar. . .
Not that excited? It is a bit dated; in this case literally since it’s set in 1925. Steve and Sim get their first jobs in the local cannery, and while on the job Steve notices a load of hundred pound sugar bags being taken from the store. Nothing illegal, but somewhat fishy; something Steve believes is worth investigating. So for the rest of the book the boys fish, they argue, and they investigate the shady doings of powerful in-town businessman.
Other books apparently feature more exciting plots; but The Three Straw Men is not abnormal. Through much of the ten book series the boys are off often off fishing or camping and stumble on “suspicious activity;” as is standard in juvenile mysteries the cases are pretty cut and dried, with satisfying conclusions in which the bad guy or guys are always caught. So should they be read or recommended to those who enjoyed the Hardy Boys or other kid detectives?
The Hardy Boys have a long history of loyal readers. Kids grew up with the and passed their love on to their kids who passed their love onto their kids…. the results being there is a lot of nostalgic love for the brothers (let’s not forget the beloved seventies series)
So for all the corny dialog and ludicrous plots, people have a lot of emotional investment in the series. The Mill Creek Books have no such history or investment, and without it come across as bizarre and archaic. Adults may enjoy it for the fun writing, but to young readers these would be a tough read. (Please feel free to disagree and let me know why!)
I finished The Three Straw Men disappointed. Because if one thing was clear in Derleth’s career was that he loved the Midwest, loved Wisconsin, loved his hometown of Sauk City. While today Derleth is best known for either Arkham, writing horror, or his excellent Sherlock Holmes pastiches, he actually focused much of his career on celebrating Sauk City and Wisconsin History. He intended an epic series of novels about the area which would be a Midwest version of Remembrance of Things Past.
I think we can unfortunately say he failed. In that while he was indeed prolific and at the time well-regarded, today almost all of this work is forgotten. So again, “disappointed”. Because Derleth’s love and commitment to his area have seldom been equaled. Oh we have regional writers still, in Minnesota we are remembered for Garrison Keillor and there are a slew of New York writers or L.A. Crime writers. But small or medium size towns deserve representation as well. In youth literature “regionalism” is even rarer, we have substituted fantasy for realistic settings; we don’t think of Harry Potter’s London much. Even before the current influx of fantasy authors would often simply invent their cities of make them generic enough so as not to matter. They of course are not unique, as much adult fiction has the same issue. So the exceptions stand out; I just wish there were more of them.
I could have called this post “longing for regionalism” or “why I wish there were more books about real cities” or just included a list of good regional authors (my favorite book about Minneapolis is not by Keillor, but this
But instead I discussed Derleth. Because he loved where he came from, he wrote about it, and now he is gone. Who will write about small town Wisconsin now?
This post in ridiculously late; hopefully we’re back on track! Next week ruminations on libraries. . .
For anyone interested in knowing more about the Mill Creek books, here is one great rundown: http://www.threeinvestigatorsbooks.com/Mill_Creek_Irregulars.pdf