I have here in my hand a little book, Archie’s Fourth of July, which was printed sometime in the nineteenth century by the Sunday School Union. It’s about three inches by four and a half inches,* 58 pages,* and has an embossed fabric cover and engraved interior illustrations. I can find no online references to it, but its author, Rena Ray, also wrote Grace and Her Money-Box and Old Granny Tift for the Sunday School Union.
It’s the awfullest piece of twaddle, I swear.
It’s about a boy, Archie, one of those perky 19th C. infants who’d make Shirley Temple look like Lou Reed. He has two smirking minxes for sisters, a dog named Fido whose only role is to pad out the story with tepid displays of affection, and a friend next door, Orsie, who is Disobedient.
Here’s the setup: Archie’s always been at his grandmother’s house over the Fourth of July. This year he’s at home, and he discovers that his little village celebrates it in bang-up fashion. Cannon start firing salutes at daybreak, a military parade passes his house on their way to the festivities in the village center, and there are obviously going to be all kinds of exciting to-do and fro-do.
Naturally, Archie’s wild to go see it. Then he’s told he can’t. Note: finding out he can’t go is the first actual story-type event—you know, development, conflict, decisive action, that sort of thing—in the entire book. It occurs 80% of the way through the story. The previous pages are taken up with pointless diffuse blather, mostly Archie figuring out that it’s the Fourth of July.
And why can’t he go? Because he’s too little, his sisters smugly inform him. He might get hurt in the crowds. He’d have be looked after, and they can’t do it—though why not, is something I’d like to know. Archie points out that it’s not exactly suitable for them to be going by themselves, either. They reply that Cousin Joe is taking them. Why Cousin Joe can’t look after Archie as well as the girls is also not covered.
Archie runs to ask his mother for permission to accompany them. It is a measure of the degree to which this story is padded that the book has him search all through the house, then the cellar, and then wonder whether she might not be in the cistern, before he locates her in the garden. His mother says no. Archie’s crushed. He says he wishes he were Orsie Alden next door, “and then I could go just where I was a mind to.”
“Would my little boy want to be Orson Alden and go and disobey his mother, as he does?” his mother asks gravely.
Well, of course he has to say no, he wouldn’t; and he turns away, just in time to see his sisters triumphantly driving away in Cousin Joe’s carriage. In a moment of intrusive realism, he goes inside and cries his head off. Then he wanders back outside, runs into Orsie Alden, is told in more detail about all the swell things that will be happening in the village, and very nearly succumbs to temptation! But then he doesn’t. Orsie, no doubt observing that the story’s almost reached its wordcount, runs off in the direction of the festivities.
This crisis is marked with a footnote referring you back to the frontispiece, which illustrates the decisive moment, and thus protects the reader from the least little bit of suspense about how the story’s going to turn out.
Worse, it’s at this point that the Sunday School Exemplary Story Effect kicks in: a violation of moral and general causality that used to drive me crazy, back when I was still young enough to be obliged to go to Sunday School and sit still to listen to the things. Basically, in a Sunday School story, if you give up something you want, you will immediately and inevitably be rewarded, either by having that thing come to you in some other way, or by being randomly given some other good thing. A body could be excused for getting the idea that there are only two deadly sins, Desire and Volition, and that virtuous self-denial is guaranteed to make you happy and fulfill all those desires that you’ve renounced.
Sunday School twaddle is a long-established tradition.
Since Archie has now given up what he wants, the effect kicks in and normal causality is suspended. He goes back into the house and discovers that while he’s been having his brief conversation with Orsie, his mother has somehow roped in a half-dozen neighborhood tots to spend the day with him. Or perhaps that was the plan all along, in which case his mother’s failure to tell him about it earlier was as inexplicably unkind as his sisters’ taunts. (Nasty family. No wonder he wants to go hang out with the other boys.)Here’s the entire denouement:
So there. The end. And don’t you forget it.
Archie was pleased. The day was passed in various sports under the shady trees in the pleasant yard. The table was spread with many dainties, in a beautiful arbor which was covered with blossoms. And when the sun set, and the children returned to their homes, Archie felt that his Fourth of July had been the happiest day of his life. And shortly after, when he saw Orsie Alden carried by insensible, for he had been run over by a fractious horse, he thanked the good Lord who had put it into his heart to mind his mother.
Jim Macdonald promptly set the record straight on the actual events of that day:
That story about Orson Alden being run over by a horse? Don’t believe it. He was besotted by the punch that the Ladies’ Cavalry Auxiliary were serving at their Eat All You Want Cake and Ice Cream and Fried Sausage Picnic. I’m told that the Ladies themselves became quite giddy after drinking that punch. (Earlier during the soiree a hearty Sergeant of Cavalry (who had been in the parade) had tasted the punch and declared it “fit.”)
Wicked Dan, a villain, who also attended the festivities accompanied by a Ruined Woman known as Little Nell (who supposedly had Given Her All to save the Old Homestead), opined, “The ladies never fail to surprise me.” Little Nell (who was wearing a perky bonnet), fetched him another cup of punch.
Later Dan declared the fireworks to be “capital.” He and Nell gave young Orson (who was quite jolly, no doubt from all the excitement) a ride home, and whispered to him with a wink, “Don’t worry, lad, I’ll tell ‘em all you were run over by a horse.”Nell giggled prettily, but, well-brought-up as she was (for all that her status now is Fallen), she covered her lips with her fan.