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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 9, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Helping Out, Golf, Nancy Drew, and Christian Videos

When a disaster like Katrina or the tsunami or 9/11 hits, there is a great outpouring of sympathy and help. Because there's so much news coverage, we become aware of the suffering and loss, and good people want to do something to help.

But in between major disasters, there are many smaller-scale tragedies, and suffering that will never make the news.

Those who have their eyes open -- and their hearts! -- see the smaller needs as well, and do what they can.

I recently heard a story about a woman in Eden who learned of a school on the Navaho reservation in Arizona that lacked even the most rudimentary of supplies. She wanted to help. But since she lives solely on Social Security, it's not as if she had a lot of extra money.

But she took this school into her heart and began to ask friends and acquaintances to donate this or that. Soon she had enough for a boxful, and took it all to the UPS Store in Eden to have them weigh it for her.

She explained what she was doing, and that she didn't actually have the money to ship the package yet. She needed to find out from them what the cost would be so she could go and ask her donors to contribute the cost of shipping.

Soon after she got home, they called her to tell her that the package was done -- and that the employees at the store, taking her cause to heart, had chipped in together to pay for the cost of shipping themselves.

She has since sent several more boxes of donated supplies, and now that she knows the approximate shipping costs, she makes sure to raise the money for shipping before she goes to the store -- she wouldn't want them to think she expected such generosity every time.

But it meant a lot to her -- and to me -- that strangers would join in with her project without even being asked. People who work at UPS Stores are not famous for being overpaid. But I've learned over the years that some of the most generous people are those who don't have a lot -- but they also understand about need, and therefore have all the more compassion.

*

I don't care about golf. So when there's a movie about golfing, I don't go.

(This is the same rule I follow about vampire stories. I think the whole idea of vampires is so mind-numbingly dull that if I know a story or novel or movie or videogame or conversation is about vampires, I get away so quickly my shoes smoke.)

I would provide you with a list of golf movies that I've stayed away from, but I blot them out of my memory.

There is a set of golf clubs in my garage, but they belong to my father-in-law. He keeps them here so he can go golfing with his golfing buddies whenever he's in Greensboro. All of his golfing buddies are friends of mine, but when they're in golf mode, I don't know them. They don't exist to me. Nor do the golf clubs in my garage. I know, abstractly, that they're there. But I never see them, except to avoid bumping into them.

I say all this so it's completely clear to you that I only went to see The Greatest Game Ever Played because I love my wife and daughter and they were going to see it. Also, I like the actor Shia LaBeouf, so I thought, Maybe, between naps, I'll enjoy watching him perform.

You know where this is going, don't you?

I still don't care about golf. But this movie made me care about the characters. It made me care about the outcome of a game -- a U.S. Open that was really played a few generations ago.

The movie begins with children who, for various reasons, have their lives changed by golf. Young Harry Vardon's peasant family is evicted from their home on the Isle of Jersey to make way for a golf course -- he grows up to be England's greatest professional golfer. And young Francis Ouimet (a name almost as hard to figure out from the spelling as Shia LaBeouf [SHY-uh luh-BUFF {"LaBeouf" is French for "the cow"}]) grows up caddying on a golf course that would never allow someone of his social class to be a member.

Francis is still a child when he meets the adult Vardon, who has come to America to give exhibitions of his golfing prowess. He reads Vardon's book on golf in order to perfect his game. And in this movie, because of a few men who believe in Francis's talent and because of his own skill and passion, Francis leaves the ranks of the caddies and gets to face Vardon and other champions in the titular game.

The screenplay is by Mark Frost, the author of the book -- a shocking precedent -- and directed by Bill Paxton -- you know, the actor who had to say the sappiest lines in Titanic (which is saying something). The script is simple and clear, the characters well written. And Paxton, as a director, not only knows how to get excellent performances out of every single actor, but also directed amazing camera work.

I loathe directors who do flashy things to make sure you know who's in charge and how arty and/or edgy they are. But in Greatest Game, while Paxton's shots are downright flamboyant, it is almost always in the service of making the golf sequences comprehensible and fast-moving.

Mostly, though, the camera work is about letting us get an idea of what the golf game feels like from the inside. Instead of thinking, "Cool shot!" about the camera work, we're thinking, "That's how it feels -- the whole world getting shut out while you concentrate," or "Yes -- it feels so close and then it looks so far."

On some shots we ride with the ball (undoubtedly inserted using computer graphics) and on others we watch the grass torn up. Sometimes we watch them contest a particular hole; other times we get a quick montage to carry us through the holes that don't mean anything to the outcome.

Through it all, though, it's not so much the game as the people we care about. What matters to us most are Francis's relationship with his mother and father, his growing friendship with his delightful young caddy, his hero worship of Vardon, his resentment of and intimidation by the rich people who consider him an upstart; and even Vardon's own feelings about what golf means to him as a fellow upstart from the lower classes.

It is, in fact, a movie about class warfare. Set in an era when the upper classes openly disdained the lower as if they were of different species, it's hard to believe that people could be so blindly cruel -- but they were. We know that they were only a couple of wars and an income tax away from the breakdown of those class barriers; but they didn't know. They thought people like Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet might be talented, but it didn't make them somebody.

Don't go see this as a sports movie. See it as a movie about people you can believe in and care about, movingly acted and beautifully filmed. It's getting murdered at the box office by the Wallace and Gromit movie, but let's just say there probably isn't that much overlap between the two audiences.

None of the characters is handicapped and it is neither anti-American, anti-middle-class, nor anti-religious, so it's not going to get any Oscar consideration. But it deserves to have a place in the memories of people who love beautiful things.

*

My first memory of reading was in the Nancy Drew book The Mystery of the Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene. My sister Janice was helping me; I remember running into the word "knew" and, not yet knowing about silent letters, I pronounced it "canoe," which of course made no sense in the sentence. Janice laughed and introduced me to one of the great mysteries of English spelling.

I continued reading Nancy Drew books for many years, raiding Janice's collection whenever I could. I liked the Nancy Drews better than my older brother's Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr., novels; the only books I liked better at that age were the Thornton W. Burgess talking-animal stories.

My parents explained to me that "Carolyn Keene" was a pseudonym, but they had no idea who actually wrote the books.

Now that mystery is completely solved by the excellent research and writing of Melanie Rehak -- her real name, I believe. Rehak is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her.

Actually, the originator of the Nancy Drew series was Edward Stratemeyer. I was stunned to realize that Stratemeyer was the originator of practically every children's book series I ever heard of. The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and Tom Swift, Jr., the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, Bomba of the Jungle -- and dozens of other series -- all came from Edward Stratemeyer.

At first he wrote all his books himself. But he soon realized that demand far outstripped the pace of his writing, and so he began hiring other authors to write books using his outlines.

Because the storylines were all his invention, he considered himself the source of all the books, and therefore he did not share royalties with the actual writers of the prose. Instead, they were paid a flat fee of several hundred dollars, which in pre-Depression America was not bad money.

In return, they produced books of the right number of pages, on time, and then agreed to keep their mouths shut about who was doing the writing. All the books were published with pseudonyms, so that if he needed to, Stratemeyer could change writers in mid-series and the readers would never know the difference.

Naturally, alarmists regarded these "fifty-cent novels" as a corrupting influence on children -- it seems that anything children actually like will cause some mean-spirited grownup to declare it a pernicious influence and try to ban it. The fact is that these books made readers out of a lot of children long before Harry Potter came along.

But Rehak's book is not really about Edward Stratemeyer, mostly because he died only a few books into the most famous and successful and enduring of all his series: Nancy Drew.

When he died, his daughters, Harriet and Edna, at first tried to find a buyer for the syndicate. But they soon realized that the Depression, which had just started, made it unlikely that they would get a serious buyer -- who had the capital right then? Besides, what was the syndicate except for their father's story outlines and their list of reliable co-authors?

So the sisters decided to keep the goose laying those golden eggs by writing the outlines themselves. A few were written during the interim by Edward's longtime secretary, also named Harriet; but as soon as his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer took over the running of the office, the secretary retired, and Harriet and Edna began writing those outlines.

It wasn't very long before Edna dropped out of the running of the business, though she continued to have strong opinions and to criticize her sister's running of the syndicate, which led to some hard feelings down the road. Still, it was Harriet who kept the whole thing alive, and most of the outlines were hers.

They struggled through the Depression, cutting the payments to writers as the publishers cut back on their payments. The Stratemeyer sisters themselves, because of Harriet's good management, never suffered any income loss; but lest we pity the writers they exploited, it's worth pointing out that Grosset & Dunlap, their publisher through all those early years, grossly underpaid the Stratemeyer Syndicate, too, giving them deeply substandard royalties and refusing to consider any renegotiation.

(A foolish decision, since Nancy Drew is what kept Grosset & Dunlap in business during the Depression and after; and eventually they lost that lucrative business to Simon & Schuster, which paid the Stratemeyers something closer to the value of their work.)

But who actually wrote the words we read in those old books? Through most of the early history of Nancy Drew, the writer was the redoubtable Mildred Wirt, who kept the books coming through childbirth, her husband's many strokes, and her fulltime job for a newspaper in Toledo.

A couple of volumes early on were written by a man, but his work required so much revision in the main office that the Stratemeyers came back to Mildred.

Then, as various series were dropped, Harriet realized that she might as well write the Nancy Drew books herself, and stopped farming them out at all. This enabled her to make Nancy's character exactly what she wanted it to be; for there had been inevitable creative differences as Mildred felt -- quite naturally -- that she had as much right to say what Nancy would or would not do as the Stratemeyers.

In the 1960s, though, Grosset & Dunlap began, without permission (but within their contractual rights) to drastically revise the Nancy Drew books in order to update them. The result was sad -- the flair that Mildred and Harriet had brought to the series was wiped out, and a sort of generic adventure-story prose took its place.

But few readers seemed to notice. And it did enable the publishers to eliminate the casual racism that permeated the books. They were, after all, creatures of their time, and racial stereotypes were simply taken for granted as they were in movies of the era. By the 1960s, though, American attitudes had changed, and the racism had to go.

There was no reason that the wit and verve needed to be removed along with it, but that was the unfortunate truth.

When Harriet died, there was a spate of news stories about the death of "Carolyn Keene," and because in her later years Harriet had taken to claiming sole credit for the series, that's all the most reporters knew.

But Mildred finally got her dander up, and with the help of a few reporters her story then replaced Harriet's version, so that when she died many years later, the news stories once again reported that the Carolyn Keene had died.

Rehak's achievement is to set the record straight. Both women wrote Nancy Drew books, and both of them contributed, directly or indirectly, to the other's work. So even though neither one liked to admit it, the whole series was a collaboration between them (though we mustn't forget that a couple of men played a part in creating the series, too).

Rehak is a good writer, and her history, though quite detailed in places, is always entertaining. She does a fine job of sketching the lives of both women, and places them into the context of their time. For those of us who loved Nancy Drew, this book makes everything clear.

It also makes me want to go back and reread the originals. Fortunately, enough people have regretted the poor quality of the "updates" that facsimile editions of many of the originals have been made available.

*

Frankly, I dislike most Christian television shows.

The gospel they teach to children is, to me at least, offensively simplistic and often just plain wrong. And the adult programming puts a monetary value on religion that seems to me the opposite of Christ's attitude toward money.

That's why we block out the Christian stations on our television. Our children learn Christianity from us, from scripture, and at church.

So I did not have high hopes for Junior's Giants. I was drawn, though, to the slogan under the title: "A modern David and Goliath ... kinda." So I checked out the website (www.juniorsgiants.com) and saw some highlights from the first episode. They were actually funny. There was wit and honesty in it.

I bought a copy.

In most ways the video lives up to the promos. Junior's family is quirky but believable. The father is obsessive about the fancy new overflow-proof toilet he has installed in the house, and the mother and sister and baby are eccentric and funny as well.

The writing in the sections about domestic life is often hilarious -- my 11-year-old and I laughed out loud many times, though both of us were older than the target audience.

But ... it's still a Christian video, and my daughter knew what was coming. "The 'lesson song' is boring," she said. True enough -- in fact, the whole religious part of the video is the normal mind-numbing trivialization of religion.

The concept is that whenever Junior starts to lose his temper (episode one is entitled "Anger's Everywhere"), he is suddenly taken out of reality to an arena where fake newscasters show him fighting with that episode's giant. There's some humor in this -- mostly satire on sportscasters, but also some cleverness about the giant.

But the fact is, I wanted to see what Junior actually did in the real world to control his temper, not some unrelated struggle with a giant that merely represented his anger. They skipped over reality in order to show us the concept, and it's a poor tradeoff.

Still, what bothered me most was the shallowness of the religious teaching. It trivialized prayer by putting it within the ridiculous unreality of the imaginary giant.

Wouldn't it be better to teach children that prayer is real?

Stopping to say a prayer might distract a child from his anger long enough to let him get control of his temper, but "saying a prayer" is not enough to solve truly vexing moral problems. God doesn't just hear a prayer and fix everything that's wrong in your life. If it were that simple, everybody would be religious, since the effects would be obvious.

Instead there's effort -- no, struggle -- involved, and I wonder whether it really helps children to be given lollipop answers to life's problems.

Come to think of it, though, adults like lollipops, too. The title of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff -- and It's All Small Stuff was so offensively shallow it made me angry every time I saw it (ooooh ... got to go fight my giant), so it's not as if purveyors of children's Christian videos have a monopoly on puerile treatment of deep issues.

The children's videos that I wrote many years ago were closely tied to scripture, and I played it as straight as the producers would let me, sticking to the meat of the scriptural story and relying on drama rather than gimmicks to make my point.

But we have no evidence that the greater realism of the videos I wrote has made much difference in the marketplace. I wonder if most parents even think about the quality of the religious programming they provide for their children. Come to think of it, how many parents monitor any of the television and videos their children watch?

The children's Christian video market exists, and many people like it, and so within the expectations of that genre, I have to say that Junior's Giants is extraordinarily good in the comedy and family-life portions. And during the moral lesson bits, I never actually had to grind my teeth.

So go to the website and check it out. What's good is very good; what's bad is average. And that's as close to a four-star review as you're likely to see from me in this particular genre.

The video is not sold through Amazon. Netflix has it; Blockbuster Online doesn't. WalMart does. When I first visited the Junior's Giants website, it provided no information about where to buy it, but apparently they recently noticed their oversight and now display a prominent link to the WalMart website.


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