Admittedly, a “boys’ book” written in 1917 might seem an odd choice for a Road Works trip to Honduras, but as I teach a course in adolescent literature and begin by reviewing the juvenile literature that was available in the days before Paul Zindel, Judy Blume, and Robert Cormier, it was an opportunity to try out the series, said to be second only to The Bible in popularity. (Although one wonders if those responses were really truthful. Really? An adventure series or the Bible? Which one will truly win out for the adolescent male in the early 20th century?)
Thus, it was that I downloaded Tom Swift in the Land of Wonders or the Underground Search for the Idol of Gold (1917) to my Kindle Fire—for free. (It is also available through Project Gutenberg.) The Tom Swift series is one of several published by the Edward Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate, which is also the origin of the Nancy Drew series. As with Carolyn Keene, the “author” of the girl sleuth stories, Victor Appleton–the author of the Swift novels–is actually a composite name for a group of writers who came together to pen the popular series, which grew to 100 volumes in multiple series even up to the late 20th century. Another convention of such series is that the adolescent is often shy one parent or two; as with Nancy Drew, whose trusted housekeeper Hannah Gruen stands in for Nancy’s mother, Mrs. Baggert is the housekeeper who fills the void for Tom’s mother.
Tom Swift is a young man—a teen in the first of the series—who has native intelligence and a knack for inventions. In fact, his creations are thought to have inspired real applications and also inspired science fiction as a genre. Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle—which figures prominently in the Land of Wonders (and which is set largely in Honduras although it begins in his hometown in Shopton, New York), is thought to be the origin of the modern-day TASER. One other cultural artifact: “Swifties” are a kind of language play that features an often comic commentary on the content of dialogue. For instance, Tom says to his chum Ned, his financial manager, “To sum, it up for you—notice that I use the word ‘sum,’ which is very appropriate for a bank—the professor has got on the track f another lost or hidden city.”
As is in common in a series such as this, the author reviews the titles that have come before in a summary section of the novel, setting up the next adventure for Tom and his companions. Professor Bumper appears in this novel, as he did in the previous one in which Tom journeyed to Peru to help in a “Big Tunnel” dig. In the Honduras-bound plot, Professor Bumper wants Tom’s assistance on a trip to Copan, Honduras to uncover a lost city—and an idol made of gold. (We’ll overlook the fact that a Mayan idol in this area would more likely have been made of jade, as gold was located in Andean civilizations.) Initially enthusiastic although reluctant to travel as he is helping the World War I effort by developing a stabilizer for airplanes, Tom changes his tune when he learns that Professor Bumper’s rival, Professor Beecher, is wooing his girlfriend Mary Nestor.
The archaeological team hops a freighter bound for Honduras, hoping to beat the Beecher party to the site. Once in Honduras, the Bumper-Swift party fall prey to an agent—Val Jacinto–who gets them in country via canoe but leaves them stranded in the wild, apparently as part of Beecher’s counterplot to arrive at the site first. In the jungle, the guys battle wild beasts—including vampire bats, swarms of mosquitoes, bear, jaguar—but are generally successful, often as they have behaved nicely to the natives. Eventually, they arrive at their “dig” site and pitch camp. The Beecher party is not far behind, and the two rival groups have a standoff, deciding to leave one another to their own devices. Fortunately, true excavation of the site is limited as a convenient cave is located. An earthquake helps advance the plot and reveal the lost city. Who gets to the golden idol first? And who wins the hand of Mary Nestor?
Frankly, this novel was about as fantastical as the contemporary title, The Mayan Mask of Death that I reviewed earlier, and Tom Swift gave me some good chuckles, particularly with the comments of Wakefield Damon who does kind of a Batman and Robin shtick of “holy whatever” comments only in this format: “Bless my hat band” or Bless Bless my galvanic battery.” Ned is wont to say “for the love of rice-pudding, would you get down to brass tacks” or “Copan sounds like some new floor varnish.” There are anachronistic moments, particularly in the treatment of Tom’s black companion Eradicate “Rad” Sampson and Kuko, a “giant” who returned to the USA with Tom from Peru. While these scenes mar the story, they do give witness to the racist nature of popular literature of the time.
Tom Swift also has an educational feature as the novel includes facts, history, and geography about where the boys travel, revealing quite a bit about Honduras, much as Selma Lagerlof did in the Wonderful Adventures of Nils during about the same time period, which helped Swedish children understand geography through a charming story. I’m not sorry that I took an adventure back in time with Tom Swift for this journey to Honduras.