Reading Diary: The Associate Hermits, by Frank R. Stockton (CC)

A while back I decided, because we have a shelf filled with it, to read to Complete Works of Frank R. Stockton. Sure, it’s not the same as sitting down (for a loooong time) to read the work formerly known in English as Remembrance of Things Past, but we do what we can.

I’m not reading them in order; I pick a volume with a title that moves me. Currently I’m reading Associate Hermits. It has a very simple plot: a newly-wed couple decide they don’t want to go on the wedding journey as is expected of them, and convince the bride’s parents, Mr. and Mr. Archibald, to go in their place. The older couple is a bit taken aback by this, but warm up to the idea, and embark on the journey with no fixed plan in mind. This little bit of flouting of social conventions makes the four of them feel as if they’re striking a blow for progress and helping to usher in a New Era (well, Mrs. Archibald is a bit dubious).

The Archibalds visit a friend, who gives them the idea to go camping, and so, along with the friend’s daughter Margery in tow, they end up at a big hotel in the country, from which guests are sent out on camping trips at various levels of difficulty. The usual variety of eccentric characters are introduced, including the opinionated hotel-keeper, a crabby “lady guide,” a crabbier male guide, a mysterious man known as the Bishop, a pair of adventurous young men, and a young man of good family and education who’s working as a guide to save up money to become a Naturalist.

About halfway through the book, the sister of one of the adventurous young men joins them. She talks incessantly about Causes, and Progressive Ideas; and she’s the one who talks the rest of the campers into becoming “associate hermits” — to do just as they please without regard to anyone else’s desires, and according to their True Natures.

It’s a fun read, mostly because Stockton writes even the most banal stories with an undercurrent of smart-alecky snarkiness that keeps you wondering what he’s going to poke at next. Stockton’s stories don’t necessarily go in a direction you expect; and he liked to gently undermine conventional themes. In this case, I wasn’t at all surprised that all three of the young men fall for Margery, but much more amused at the say she reacts — she has hilarious fits of indignant exasperation. She’s like a cat who goes from peaceable snoozing in your lap to hissing fury at the top of the drapes. If Margery were a contemporary character, she’d be telling the young men to “get OUT of my FACE.”

I haven’t finished the book yet; I have no idea how it will end. I mean, I’m sure the characters will give up being hermits and return to their normal routines (except that some of them won’t; Mrs. Perkenpine, the crabby lady guide, has apparently discovered she hates being a guide and cooking for others) and possibly Margery will choose one of the young men — but maybe not. Watch this space for the exciting conclusion!

To be honest, one of the reasons I love reading these novels is that compared to today’s fiction, nothing much really happens. I suppose the closest comparison would be to the kind of chick-lit novels in which office politics stands in for intrigue and the characters sort of muddle towards romances that are hardly for the ages. But here I am almost to the end of The Associate Hermits, and nobody’s been kidnapped or eaten by bears, the mysterious Bishop is not a serial killer, the hotel is still standing, the weather has been mostly mild with no wildfires, earthquakes, or typhoons, the only things to come out of the lake have been fish, there have been no high-speed chase scenes, explosions, train wrecks, or bombs going off, no children have been abused, no animals mutilated, nobody strangled in the night.

It’s very restful.

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The Associate Hermits has been reprinted in an ugly and expensive paperback edition by Kessinger ($27.95), but you can easily find used copies of either the first edition by Harper & Brothers (1989) or as Volume IX of The Novels and Stories of Frank R. Stockton published by Scribners (1900) for $5 to $10. Check Bookfinder. It’s not yet available on Project Gutenberg.


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