Today on Project Gutenberg #19

Hello again! I hope all my readers are still in good health. With this sudden new emphasis on “social distancing” due to coronavirus concerns, it may be a bit disheartening to see our most prominent sources of entertainment being delayed or shut down one by one. But fear not! If you’re desperately looking for something to read, you’ll surely find something to your liking over on PG. It’s going to be a good time for reading and binge-watching, I can tell you that much.

And so, today on Project Gutenberg we have…

Flood Tide by Sara Ware Bassett

Bassett was an American writer who was most active in the 1910s and 1920s. An author of both educational texts and novels, her focus was mostly on life in New England, specifically Cape Cod. A lot of her stories take place in two fictional towns of her own creation, Belleport and Wilton. I assume these are Arkham and Innsmouth’s significantly less interesting neighbors.

Flood Tide, published in 1921, is one of the Belleport/Wilton stories. It revolves around the misadventures of Willie Spence, an eccentric old tinkerer with a house full of homemade inventions: pulleys, doorbells, even a package delivery system. The Gromit to Spence’s Wallace is Celestina Morton (AKA “Tiny”), his grouchy housekeeper who has little patience for his antics but considers him a friend all the same.

The lives of Willie and Tiny and the rest of Wilton are shaken up by the sudden arrival of Robert Morton, Tiny’s nephew and the bridge between the two main plots of the book. Plot No. 1 is all about Willie’s fantastic “idee” for a new kind of motorboat propeller and the partnership that Willie and Robert form as they build the invention and protect it from the clutches of some greedy industrialists. Plot No. 2 is all about the love triangle that develops between Robert, local girl Delight Hathaway and Cynthia Galbraith, the daughter of one of the industrialists. Drama, misunderstandings and quirkiness ensue on both fronts, and all ends happily.

I will admit I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I actually found it rather cute. There’s a whimsical air to it throughout, something that’s established right away with the descriptions of Willie’s quaint cottage and the many inventions that lie within:

After ten years of residence in the gray cottage she had become too completely inured to hearing the muffled sound of saw and hammer during the wee small hours of the night to question the verity of the statement. Therefore she was quite ready to agree that there was no peace for Willie, or herself either, until the particular burst of genius that assailed him had been transformed from a mirage of the imagination to the more tangible form of tacks and strings.

For strings played a very vital part in Willie Spence’s inspirational world. Indeed, when Celestina had first come to the weathered cottage on the bluff to keep house for the lonely little bachelor and had discovered that cottage to be one gigantic spider’s web, her initial impression was that strings played far too important a part in the household. What a labyrinthine entanglement the dwelling was! Had a mammoth silkworm woven his airy filaments within its interior, the effect could scarcely have been more grotesque.

Strings stretched from the back door, across the kitchen and through the hallway, and disappeared up the stairs into Willie’s bedroom, where one pull of a cord lifted the iron latch to admit Oliver Goldsmith, the Maltese cat, whenever he rattled for entrance. There was a string that hoisted and lowered the coal hod from the cellar through a square hole in the kitchen floor, thereby saving one the fatigue of tugging it up the stairs.

“A coal hod is such an infernal tote to tote!” Willie would explain to his listeners.

Then there was a string which in like manner swung the wood box into place. Other strings opened and closed the kitchen windows, unfastened the front gate, rang a bell in Celestina’s room, and whisked Willie’s slippers forth from their hiding place beneath the stairs; not to mention myriad red, blue, green, yellow, and purple strings that had their goals in the ice chest, the pump, the letter box, and the storm door, and in connection with which objects they silently performed mystic benefactions.

Probably, however, the most significant string of all was that of stout twine that reached from Willie’s shop to the home of Janoah Eldridge, two fields beyond, just at the junction of the Belleport and Harbor roads. This string not only linked the two cottages but sustained upon its taut line a small wooden box that could be pulled back and forth at will and convey from one abode to the other not only written communications but also such diminutive articles as pipes, tobacco, spectacles, balls of string, boxes of tacks, and even tools of moderate weight. By means of this primitive special delivery service Jan Eldridge could be summoned posthaste whenever an especially luminous inspiration flashed upon Willie’s intellect and could assist in helping to make the dream a reality.

Chapter 1

The setup of Willie and Tiny’s situation and the back-and-forths they constantly share are great fun, and it’s a shame that they take a backseat to the younger, more conventional characters once the story gets going. The stuff with Robert and the women isn’t insufferable by any means, but it’s certainly not the most interesting thing going on here.

If you think you might like to read this book, one thing I will warn you about is the dialogue. Bassett writes out the characters’ New England accents phonetically, which can be awkward to read at times. There’s lots of stuff like “idee” for “idea,” “figger” for “figure” and dropping the last syllable of most words. You won’t have much trouble with it if you can read stuff like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn reasonably well, but not everybody can.

When it comes to regional comedy-dramas about small towns, I think this one isn’t too bad. The writing is fairly decent, and Bassett gives us an interesting plot and fun characters. If you read the first couple of chapters and like it, then you could probably knock it out in an afternoon or two.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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