The children’s novel The Great Quest by Charles Boardman Hawes (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921) has a nice beginning, with an adventurous tone similar to that in Treasure Island. But for the modern reader, that wholesome, adventurous spirit becomes much more sinister about a quarter of the way through the book, with a tone that feels reminiscent of Conrad’s the Heart of Darkness. Initially set in 1826 in Massachusetts, this historical fiction novel crosses the ocean in a slave-trading vessel. The book was selected as a runner-up (now called Newbery Honor) for the Newbery Medal in 1922.
Joe Woods is an orphaned young man under the tutelage of his uncle Seth, the town shopkeeper. When Uncle Seth’s friend Neal returns to town apparently wealthy, Seth is convinced to sell his shop and join him in buying a ship for a treasure-seeking adventure. Joe and Seth join Neal and they hire a crew to take them to Cuba. To their dismay, Neal has lied about his wealth, and intends not to seek treasure but to engage in an illegal slave trade. With a loyal ship captain, Joe and his friend from Massachusetts who joined him (Arnold Lamot) gain control of the ship and avoid capturing native Africans when they reach Africa.
It is in Africa that Joe and Arnold become the defacto leaders to the group, as they travel down the dark river past colonies of Natives. Uncle Seth descends into madness with the realization of his friend’s true colors. But, with the slave trading plan abandoned, Neal and his friends develop a new plan. They intend to rescue a friend who came years earlier and who now holds a wealth of jewels.
With very little regard for how Africa may have been (and with I’m sure no research), Hawes writes about an emerging battle between the whites and the natives, based on premises such as the now-deceased while man having built his house on the native’s chief’s grave, the savagery of the natives, and their vindictive desire for revenge. A terrifying siege in a small hut! A daring escape! Savages on every site! A young white girl (a missionaries’ daughter) in need of rescue! Hawes packs in a lot of action.
I mourned the fact that his action was portrayed in such a horrible setting and with such racist premises. Maybe Hawes’ later novel, The Dark Frigate, which was awarded the Newbery Medal 1926, has action without the stereotype and the African setting. In the beginning I felt eager to keep reading The Great Quest because of the preliminary adventurous feeling, but it just went downhill.
I feel like with the adventurous feeling, I should give a little bit of credit. But this dated and racist novel deserves no place on today’s bookshelves. Don’t bother.
I rate The Great Quest, Newbery Honor from 1922, as “blah/yuck” and say “don’t bother.”
Newbery rating scale: FANTASTIC | REALLY GOOD | PRETTY GOOD | OKAY | BLAH/YUCK
What to do with this Newbery: KEEP IT AND READ IT | MAYBE IF YOU HAVE TIME | DON’T BOTHER