Sid Fleischman is another author I enjoyed as a kid, and I hope his stuff remains in print, though I doubt that this write up here will do much to that end. Sigh. My favorites growing up were By the Great Horn Spoon, Mr. Mysterious and Company, Jingo Django and The Ghost in the Noonday Sun.
The four books do follow a similar pattern: travel and making a loving family of what’s available to you combined with a soupcon of nineteenth century history. In By the Great Horn Spoon, Jack and the family butler, Praiseworthy, set out for the gold fields of California to make their fortune and save (Jack’s) Aunt Arabella’s fortune; they make a (small) fortune in gold as well as having some rough and ready adventures along the way, but lose the gold when their paddle wheeler blows its top crossing the bay to San Francisco. They redeem their fortune by using their wits: they collect the cats left to their own devices aboard the ship on which the two adventurers arrived in San Francisco, and which have, as a result of this abandonment, multiplied prodigiously on their diet of rats and dried fish. As they’re about to embark for home, Arabella alights from the ship they were planning to take home…and it ends happily for all. Mr. Mysterious and Company is, I think, a bit more typical of Fleischman’s personal interest in magic: a family is traveling by covered wagon from Texas to California where they hope to settle down and give the children a more conventional upbringing than they’ve had in the past. The father supports the family by putting on conjuring/magic lantern shows when there are enough people around to form an audience, and the kids and mother/wife all take part. Jingo Django involves a boy left at an orphanage after his mother dies, where he stays for seven years. His father returns for him just in time to rescue him from becoming a chimneysweep’s boy, but lets Jingo believe that he’s come to apprentice him. After the long separation, he prefers that they get to know one another better over the course of the prolonged journey from Boston to Mexico as they go in search of the gold for which Jingo has a scrimshaw map. The gold is real, but the relationship proves more durable. The Ghost in the Noonday Sun, unlike the others, isn’t set in the southwest United States but rather (largely) at sea in the Caribbean. Oliver Finch, born at the stroke of midnight, is idling at home on Nantucket awaiting his whaler father’s return when he is abducted by a crew of Properly Nefarious Pirates who believe that the time of his birth enables him to see ghosts–necessary when one is going to retrieve a treasure buried by men who lie uneasy in their graves. No good digging it up only to spend the rest of one’s life haunted, hmm? As with the other books, family and friendship prove more valuable than money.
I found out as an adult that Fleischman was interested in magic, sleight of hand and the supernatural, which puts Mr. Mysterious and Company (his first book?) in context. As for whether to take any of the books seriously? C’mon. This is the man who also wrote a series of tall-tale books for slightly younger kids about a farmer called McBroom, with eighty acres of farmland…all piled one atop another which resulted in soil so rich that plants grow at incredible rates: pea vines coil around your legs if you don’t step back as soon as you plant them and the corn grows so tall it reaches the sun and rains back to earth as popcorn. Don’t take these as gospel historical accuracy and you’ll enjoy them much more. Hopefully, they’ll spark an interest in kids who found history boring previously to go read REAL books about the time period.