Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Stories by American Authors, Volume VI by C. H. White, et al.

Not bad for six 19th-century unknowns
Harold Frederic
This collection of short stories is the sixth volume in the Stories by American Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. Overall the series has been a bit disappointing, but this is one of the better volumes so far, along with Volume III. The stories represent the kind of literature one would be likely to encounter in the popular literary magazines of the late 19th century. The six authors included here have since faded into obscurity and are likely to be unknown to today’s readers, with the possible exception of Harold Frederic, author of the novel The Damnation of Theron Ware. Frederic’s entry is one of the three strong selections in the book, which are accompanied by three more mediocre offerings.

“The Denver Express” by A. A. Hayes is one of the winners in the collection. Uncharacteristic of the series, it has few literary pretensions. It’s just a good, old-fashioned Western adventure—not of the cowboys and Indians type, but the railroad and cavalry type. Major Sinclair, a railroad employee, is sent to frontier Colorado to manage a station. There he runs afoul of a gang of local ruffians and gamblers. Hayes’s storytelling can be a bit confusing at times, but otherwise it’s good fun.

The best story in the book is “The Heartbreak Cameo” by Lizzie W. Champney. A jewelry expert discovers a beautiful gemstone exquisitely carved into a unique cameo. The origin story of this remarkable stone takes the reader back to a 17th-century Native American village in Illinois, where an ambitious French missionary with a lust for precious stones meets a simple-minded Indian maiden who knows where to find them. This is a great piece of historical fiction that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Coming in a close second is Frederic’s tale, “Brother Sebastian’s Friendship.” This story, narrated by a French monk, is set in the 1870s. Brother Sebastian is a solitary and misanthropic sort who has lived an intentionally lonely life but for one meaningful friendship. Here he relates the story of that singular friendship, which culminates in a shocking revelation. Frederic delivers a beautifully crafted tale that’s constantly engaging and suspenseful. This is one case where the surprise ending is truly a surprise.

The other three stories included in this volume are run-of-the-mill fare of the period. In C. H. White’s “The Village Convict,” a young man, after serving prison time for burning down the barn of a man who angered him, returns to his hometown and works to forge a new life in small-town society. “The Misfortunes of Bro’ Thomas Wheatley” by Lina Redwood Fairfax, is a character study of an aged black man who works as an “office-boy and messenger” for a white business firm. Labor riots in Baltimore contribute to the story. Albert Webster’s story “Miss Eunice’s Glove” concerns an unmarried young woman who decides to make a charitable visit to a local prison and ends up getting in deeper than she planned.

Overall, for those who are into 19th-century American literature, this is a pretty good collection of short fiction. The Hayes, Champney, and Frederic stories alone are worth a download. As for the other three selections, you can take ‘em or leave ‘em.

Stories in this collection
The Village Convict by C. H. White
The Denver Express by A. A. Hayes 
The Misfortunes of Bro’ Thomas Wheatley by Lina Redwood Fairfax 
The Heartbreak Cameo by Lizzie W. Champney 
Miss Eunice’s Glove by Albert Webster 
Brother Sebastian’s Friendship by Harold Frederic

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