Dotty Dimple and the Fiction Award

Novelist and poet who was formerly a member of the ATLANTIC staff, MARTHA BACON, like her father, Leonard Bacon, the poet, is most at home in Peace Dale, Rhode Island. Her new novel, A MASQUE OF EXILE,has recently been published by Clarkson Potter.


THE idea of books written for children has always been annoying to me. Even when I was a child I preferred to think of my books as just books, not children’s books. I was highly privileged in childhood, and I had every imaginable book — Pilgrim’s Progress, Peter Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, The Ingoldsby Legends (nobody seems to have The Ingoldsby Legends anymore), and books by E. Nesbit, Dickens, Scott, and Louisa May Alcott. I disliked Miss Alcott. How can you write a book about children and then populate it with watchful loving parents like Marmee? I compared Marmee unfavorably with Henry the Eighth in The Prince and the Pauper and the wolves in the Jungle Books and left Little Women out in the rain. Besides the above-mentioned volumes I had a shelfful of historical novels, illustrated with macabre steel engravings and dealing loosely with the names and reputations of Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine the Great, Goethe, Schiller, and Sans Souci, to name only a few. They were the work of a woman named Maria Louisa Mühlbach, an expert in the field of prolonged horror. Every chapter began with a conspiracy and ended with a supernatural visitation. Purveyors of this kind of thing could learn much from Maria Louisa.

It occurred to me after I had children of my own that I might contribute to their pleasure and support by writing a book for children. The book I wrote took a hero and two heroines through a zoo full of mythological animals, a haunted abbey, and a circus; dealt exhaustively with dwarfs, royalty, the Spanish inquisition, merry-go-rounds, an apostate nun, thunderstorms, and cowboys. I solved the problem of the parents by sending them around the world on a second honeymoon. The children liked it, but no publisher would touch it. They said that unicorns and griffins were out of style, that children couldn’t identify with royal personages, and that much of it would give their readers nightmares. As one, they advised me to cut out the apostate nun.

But there was one publisher, more constructive than the rest, who sent along with the rejection slip a list of the standards by which a children’s book should be judged.

“If you really want to write for the juvenile trade,” his letter said in part, “here are some of the criteria which our editors apply to manuscripts submitted to us. Emotional appeal, values for today’s living, humor, stimulation for the imagination, sense of security, inspiration, significant and lasting appeal.” The publisher concluded by offering an award for a book that should contain all this and a plot and characters too.

The letter interested me chiefly for negative reasons. I could not think of any book, classic or contemporary, which could be measured successfully by these standards. At least, not any good book. Alice in Wonderland has significant and lasting appeal, but I defy anyone to find a sense of security in it. You may find stimulation for the imagination in The Princess and the Goblin, but the “values for today’s living” are as far from George MacDonald’s mind as from Prince Harelip’s. The Ingoldsby Legends has humor, but it is a gallows humor.

I began amusing myself by reading to the children, trying to find a possible award winner among the fireside favorites, but nothing that we really enjoyed came close.

By a coincidence, one rainy day while springcleaning the attic I came upon three moldy little volumes which I put aside to look into at a convenient time. In the meanwhile, my ten-year-old daughter took them away and read them in three evenings. She said they were marvelous. Stimulated by this recommendation, I looked into the first volume, which was published by Lee and Shepard in 1868. A yellowing shard from the ragged dust jacket proclaimed for the series in essence all that my award-giving publisher was offering three thousand dollars for in advance royalties in 1960. These books by Miss Sophie May were guaranteed to please and edify all readers of both sexes between the ages of nine and thirteen. Further, they would broaden the literary horizons, assist the parent in establishing sound moral views by giving examples of the rewards accruing to right behavior and the disasters ensuing upon the contrary course, and all these benefits were produced in an immaculate style of writing from which no child could fail to profit were he to take it for a model. The books were half of a series of six called the Dotty Dimple Stories. We have Dotty Dimple at Play, Dotty Dimple at Her Grandmother’s, and Dotty Dimple’s Flyaway. I wish we had the other three. And I’m sorry not to have the Little Prudy series by the same author.

WHO was — or, rather, is — Dotty Dimple? For surely she has sufficient significant and lasting appeal to justify the use of the present tense. Dotty is a girl named Alice Parlin. Her home is in Portland, Maine, and she spends her holidays variously with her cousins, the Cliffords, in Indiana or at her Grandmother Parlin’s house, Willowbrook, near Augusta, Maine. She is the youngest of three sisters. There is Susy, who is a pert thirteen, Prudy, an amiable ten-year-old, and last comes Dotty, six. Dotty is blessed with numerous relatives and a wide circle of acquaintances. She has her three-year-old cousin, Katie (Flyaway) Clifford, and Percy, Florence, and Johnny Eastman. Maids and hired men wait on Dotty, Lina Rosenberg preys on her, and Dotty in turn preys on Jennie Vance.

Dotty makes splendid reading. She is a holy terror, a torment to her virtuous parents, who maintain toward her a degree of objectivity almost incomprehensible in this child-centered age. Their queenly Dotty is an ardent practitioner of all the deadly sins. Sloth, gluttony, pride, malice, anger, envy, and hypocrisy all but crowd her off the page. If she triumphs over Satan in one chapter, she falls victim to spiritual pride in the next. Inspiration of a biblical order inflates Miss May’s pages as air does a bicycle tire. What do you suppose a small child does when she finds a roll of new dollar bills in the ragbag? Does she put them in her pocket? Dotty does not. But Jennie Vance does. Dotty badly covets Jennie’s superior wealth and envies her smart frocks, lockets, and feathers to the point where she has proved to Jennie beyond a doubt that her father, Judge Vance, will never get into heaven. And now her hour of triumph strikes. The two little girls are spending the night together.

“Dotty, feeling more than ever how much better she was than her little friend, knelt beside a chair and prayed in a loud voice. First she repeated the Lord’s Prayer, the ‘Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild’ and ‘Now I lay me down to sleep.’ She was not talking to her Heavenly Father but to Jennie and ended her petitions thus: —

“ ‘Oh God forgive me if I have done anything naughty today and please forgive Jennie Vance, the wickedest girl in this town.’ Then,” concludes Miss May, “the little pharisee got into bed.”

For delineation of character, Miss May gets full marks, assuming the total depravity of human nature, a popular doctrine in her day. Dotty Dimple never ceases to be a recognizable if incorrigible human being. Repentance, wrung from her by the ceaseless exhortations of both grandparents, her aunts, uncles, and her papa and mamma, is garish and short-lived as the Fourth of July. She returns to her old vicious ways at the end of every episode with unabashed fervor. “There are depths of foolishness in children’s hearts,” observes Miss May as her heroine once again careens out of control, “that even parents do not comprehend.”

But we needn’t always be serious. There is plenty of room for laughter in this wicked world. Funny people clown for us. There is humor in the cosmos, good hearty humor at the expense of some one else’s naïveté. Dotty Dimple has its comic side. Its comic side is a tribute to the psychic stamina of the Victorian child. Katie (Flyaway) Clifford and Dotty are left with a baby-sitter named Polly Whiting, a dreary, snuff-sniffing hanger-on of the Parlin family, while the rest of the family go off to some gaiety in Augusta. Polly, incidentally, works without pay, taking her wages in fresh eggs and incidental tarts. She is given to windy recollections of her days as “bound girl” without kind loving parents. Dotty said of Flyaway:

“She’s going to sleep in my bed to-night.”

“Very well,” said Polly, “but you will sleep with me.”

“Why, Miss Polly ! what if Katie should wake up?”

“She won’t be likely to; but I can’t help it if she does. I may have the nightmare in the night.”

“What is the nightmare?”

“It is something perfectly dreadful, child! I sincerely hope you’ll never know by sad experience. It’s the most like dying of any feeling I ever had in my life. I can’t move a finger, but if I don’t move it’s sure death; and somebody has to shake me to bring me out of it.”

Dotty turned pale.

“Miss Polly, O, please, I’d rather sleep with Katie !”

“But how would you feel to have me die in the night?”

“O, dear, dear, dear,” cried Dotty; “let me go for the doctor this minute!”

“Why, child, I haven’t got it now, and perhaps I shan’t have it at all; but if I do, I shall groan, and that’s the way you will know.”

The reality turned out more dreadfully than Dotty’s worst apprehensions. To begin with, Katie was sick in the night from eating strawberries. Polly, once wakened, refused to return to bed, but went out to milk the cows. Darkness reigned. Dotty, trailing after her, asked:

“Do you s’pose, Miss Polly, that some morning the sun won’t rise any more?”

“O, yes,” replied Miss Polly, who was always ready with a hymn: —

“God reigns above, — he reigns alone;
Systems burn out, and leave His throne.’

Why, yes, dear; the world will certainly come to an end one of these days; and then the sun won’t rise, of course; there won’t be any sun.”

And Miss Polly began to hum one of her sorrowful tunes, beating time with the two streams of milk which dripped mournfully into the pail.

“She is afraid this is the end of the world,” thought Dotty, with a throbbing heart, and a stifling sensation at the throat; “she don’t believe the sun is ever going to rise any more.”

The story goes on in this manner for some pages. The sky remains dark, the cows refuse to let down their milk. The best silver teapot is found to be nothing but a shapeless pool of shining liquid spilling over the hot range where Polly left it. And then: there was a loud report as of a pistol. It seemed to come from the cellar.

Miss Polly clapped both hands to her ears. Dotty shrieked, and hid her face in her lap, and shrieked again.

“It has come! It has come!” cried she, — meaning the end of the world, — and stopped her ears. . . .

Polly took three pinches of snuff, one after the other, as fast as she could. . . . She took the nearly frantic Dotty into the china closet, dragging her like a sack of meal, and turned the key.

“Stay there, child, if you know when you’re well off,” whispered she through the keyhole. “The house is blowing up. I’m going to call Abner.”

In her consternation Polly had not reflected that Dotty was as likely to be blown up in the closet as anywhere else. The unfortunate little girl screamed and struggled in her prison in vain. There was no way of escape. Night of horrors! As far as she was concerned, there were two ends to the world, and they were coming right together. Her agony is not to be described.

Comically enough, it was neither burglars nor Judgment Day but merely the beer blowing up in the cellar. Dotty received as a reward for having suffered so acutely a beautiful doll.

BUT if there is room for laughter in the world, there is also room for stimulation of the imagination. Nothing could be more stimulating in my opinion than Dotty’s trip to the Blind Asylum. Flyaway went along, too, and had a lovely time. Dotty not only derived a sound moral lesson from the blind school, but she also formed a friendship with Emily, an inmate of the institution.

“I’m glad I had my eyes put out [Emily speaking! for if they hadn’t been put out I shouldn’t have come here. . . .”

“Where should you have gone then?”

“I shouldn’t have gone anywhere; I should have just staid at home.”

“Don’t you like to stay at home?”

Emily shrugged her shoulders.

“My paw killed a man . . . Maw died and then there was another one and she scolded and shook me. . . . My paw had fits. I knew when they were coming for I could smell them in the bottle.”

“Fits in a bottle!”

“It was something he drank out of a bottle that made him have the fits. . . . And then he was cross. And once he killed a man; but he didn’t go to.”

“Then he was guilty,” said Dotty in a solemn tone. “Did they take him to the court-house and hang him?”

“No, of course they wouldn’t hang him. They said it was the third degree and they sent him to State’s Prison. . . .”

The little girl was rather proud of being the daughter of such a wicked man. She had been pitied so much for her misfortunes that she had come to regard herself as quite a remarkable person. . . .

“There isn’t any other little girl in this school that has had so much trouble as I have. A lady told me it was because God wanted to make a good woman of me and that was why it was. . . . My paw writes me letters. . . . ‘Your unhappy and unfortunate paw.’ That is what he always says at the end of all his letters and he wants me to go to prison to see him. ... I couldn’t see him. The superintendent wouldn’t let me go. He says it’s no place for little girls.”

Dotty’s imagination was stimulated to the point where she sincerely regretted her eyesight. She had a comforting fantasy that if she were very good a chicken might peck her eyes out and she would have the satisfaction of growing up a good woman.

Sense of security is so new an idea that I was about to give up the thought of finding any in Dotty Dimple until it occurred to me that in 1869 the substitute for this was a sense of sin. It is here that Mr. and Mrs. Parlin assume stature as parents and function meaningfully within the framework of the plot. In spite of my reluctance to admit parents to children’s books, I should not like to dispense with the Parlins.

One of Dotty’s most sinful escapades is to run away to the Jews. On her way to do an errand for her mamma she meets Lina Rosenberg, a girl who because of her exotic beauty, her artistic gifts and hectoring ways has always cast a kind of spell over Dotty. Lina, using bribery and coercion, lures Dotty to her home above the grocery store where her shrewish and overworked mother pounds her many recalcitrant children with a brass thimble and shuffles about in a smock that barely covers the tops of her calfskin boots. Dotty’s curiosity about the mysterious Rosenbergs is quickly slaked. She wants to go home. But Papa has other views. Dotty shall be cured of running away. He comes to the shop and, disregarding her frantic pleas for recognition, he bribes Mrs. Rosenberg to keep her “until she has finished her visit,” as he puts it. Dotty screams and implores forgiveness to no avail, weeps and clasps his knees only to be ignored and shoved aside. And on the following day, who should Dotty see driving past the shop but Mr. and Mrs. Parlin in their carriage?

“Mamma, Mamma, I say!”

Her mother never even looked at her but turned her gaze to the blackened trees and the heaps of ruin along the pavement.

“Oh Papa! O stop Papa! It’s me! It’s Dotty!”

Mr. Parlin bent on his runaway daughter a glance of indifference and called out in passing, —

“What strange little girl is this who seems to know us so well? It looks like my daughter, Alice. If it is she needn’t come to my house today; she may go and finish her visit at Mrs. Rosenberg’s.”

Then the horse trotted on — indeed he had never paused a moment . . . [Dotty] understood but too well what her father and mother meant. They knew her but had not chosen to recognize her because they were displeased..

Dotty gets home at last, and there is a heartwarming scene of reconciliation. Her parents congratulate themselves on their handling of the situation. Dotty’s sense of sin, for which a more enlightened generation has substituted a sense of security, seems firmly established, and high time, too, with the girl going on seven years old.

Values for today’s living? Miss May is very long on these. I could find you one on nearly every page. However, I’m only going to let you have my favorite one. What would you do if your little boy threw acid in a little girl’s face? Picture the horrified articles about the collapse of the American home, the dredging up of the eomicbook-TV scapegoat, the worried conferences with pediatricians, insurance companies, teachers, and psychiatrists. It was all much easier in 1869, when Johnny Eastman, nettled beyond endurance by Dotty’s unquenchable phariseeism and petulance, drenches her handkerchief with acid and rubs it in her eyes. This act of violence takes place just before a party in honor of the Parlins’ fifteenth wedding anniversary, and with Dotty’s agonized shrieks all preparations come to a temporary halt. Dotty, mad with pain and blind, is held down while her parents attempt to treat her burning eyes, and the party is postponed for a full hour. It begins to look as though she will attain her goal of virtuous womanhood after all. And Johnny’s mother dispenses justice to him. She won’t let him go to the party.

“If you have really blinded your little cousin for life,” says Mrs. Eastman severely, “I hope it will be a lesson to you.”

The award goes to Dotty Dimple. Where Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame fail, she succeeds magnificently. There are three more chronicles of misdeeds yet to come, and total reform must wait until the author has run out of ideas.

Farewell, Dotty Dimple. You deserve an award, you with your curls and blue eyes “not as pretty as Lina Rosenberg’s,” your snobbism and vanities, your terrible papa with his whiskers and his top hat, his carriage and his cane. “Dark is his path on the wings of the storm,” to say nothing of your alarming mamma rustling into church in taffeta, gently admonishing you for two hours or more when you have done wrong. Gone are the mammas and papas of other days. They are all bent on values for today’s living. What I’m really afraid of is that if you have to have those, you’ve got no book. This was one reason why I was so reluctant to give up that apostate nun.