Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship; or, The Naval Terror of the Seas by Victor Appleton (1915)
Every so often, I like to dip into the treasure trove of the original adventures of Tom Swift and enter a world where -- ostensibly, at least -- good and evil are clearly defined, fair play will win the day, and political correctness is nowhere to be found, a world of inadvertent campiness rules.
His Aerial Warship was the eighteenth book in the original series that would go on to include forty books before the series ended in 1941. Tom, who began the series as a boy who worked on mundane projects (a motorcycle and a motorboat) before moving on to larger and more imaginative projects that would take him all over the world, is now a young man and an equal partner with his father, the widower Barton Swift, in a large enterprise devoted to inventions. Several of Tom's inventions have been used by the government, which is also very interested in his latest creation, a giant dirigible (two football fields in length) that maneuvers well, can target ocean-going ships with ease, and can fire large cannons at enemy planes.
The United States (and Tom) have no intention on joining the war in Europe, but Tom's invention would put America supreme in air power and that's a good thing because...well, golly, just because. But somehow, the foreign powers have got wind of Tom's latest invention and are doing their best to steal the plans. Finally, some of these countries join forces in an effort to get the plans and , strangely, seem to forget who is fighting whom -- England, France, Russia, Germany, and other countries are all part of the plot.
In the meantime Tom has hit a sticking point with his invention. He can't figure out how to stablize the dirigible from the blowback when the giant cannons are fired. At this point in the series, the role of Tom's father is simple that of naysayer. It can't be done, Tom. You might as well give it up, Tom. Yadda yadda yadda. The old man is getting frail and may have forgotten that Tom Swift never gives up! And (surprise!) Tom does solve the problem, but not before facing several acts of sabotage.
To tell the truth, there's not much action in this book. There is a lot of interplay among the regular characters in the series.
Mrs. Baggart, housekeeper for Tom and his father, has very little to do here, as does Mary Nester, Tom's sweetheart. (Mary's role in the books is to look at Tom in wide-eyed wonder and to have ice cream with Tom at the local ice cream parlor -- a perfect foundation for their eventual marriage fourteen books later, in 1929; their marriage, by the way, spelled the eventual doom for the series -- the young male readership didn't like their heroes married.) Tom's best friend Ned Newton manages to take time off from his job at the bank to accompany Tom on his flights and gives Tom one idea on how he may solve the blowback problem. Wakefield Damon, Tom's elderly friend, spends the book blessing his shoelaces and everything else he can think of while he accompanies Tom on his flights.
Erasmus Sampson, the old former slave who works for the Swifts, is front and center as the comic foil, and so is his mule Boomerang. Koku, the eight-foot giant whom Tom acquired in one of his adventures, is one the scene to blindly follow Tom and to use his incredible strength. Of Tom's nemesis Andy Foger is nowhere to be seen; presumably the series has outgrown childish rivalries.
The author behind the "Victor Appleton" house name is Howard Garis, who wrote the first thirty-five books in the series. Garis is perhaps best known for his Uncle Wiggly series about an elderly rabbit. Garis wrote a story a day (taking Sundays off) about the character for more than thirty years. Seventy-nine Uncle Wiggly books were published under Garis' own name. Under various house names he wrote -- in addition to the Tom Swift books -- twenty-six books in the Bobbsey Twins series,fourteen books in the Baseball Joe series, and an unknown number of books in The Motor Boys series and The Campfire Girls series. Under his own name he wrote another 114 books (possibly more) in an additional sixteen series. One series (The Bedtime Series) consisted of eighteen books, each with thirty-one stories! In addition to all of the above, Garis also wrote at least seven standalone novels. Phew!
Back to Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship. The book is clunky, overwritten, and innocently racist. It's also great fun. It is somewhat difficult to conflate innocent and idealistic Tom Swift with the inventor of "The Naval Terror of the Seas," but Tom's hidden depth revealed here is just another reflection of the times.
The Tom Swift books will not be to everyone's liking, but I enjoy them.
In small doses.