I often think of the friends I grew up with: Homer Price, Henry Huggins, Kerby Maxwell, Danny Dunn, Jupiter Jones, Tom Fitzgerald, and Lewis Barnavelt, among others. I’ve done a poor job staying in touch with those guys, and some of them have done a poor job staying in touch with me (i.e., in print). Oh, well. When you do go back to those old friends, it’s kind of weird, like Harlan Ellison’s classic story, “Jeffty was Five.” You have grown up and the world has changed, but these kids and their worlds are unchanged.
And so it was with trepidation that I reacquainted myself with Alvin Fernald, hero of a series of books by Clifford Hicks, mostly written in the 1960s and 1970s. Hicks was the editor of Popular Mechanics, and Alvin Fernald began his literary escapades as an inventor, but in later books he tried his hand at different things.
As a child I read all of the Alvin Fernald books. My favorite was Alvin’s Secret Code, which deals extensively with codes and ciphers. I had a sudden urge to re-read it and acquired it from A Libris. It was at the library, and available as an e-book, but there’s something magical about reading books that look like (in fact, ARE) the same as the ones you read long ago.
One of the principle characters in that book is Mr. Link, a WWII vet and code expert who helps Alvin and his friends learn to break codes just in time to break a real-life code and find a lost treasure. Mr. Link has infectious enthusiasm for cryptography and probably taught a generation of kids how to break letter substitution ciphers based on letter frequency and figuring out words based on what you know about the person. I still remember the lessons Mr. Link taught me all those years ago. I’ve decoded simple substitution ciphers plenty of times… breaking a “secret language” a girl I knew in high school used to write a message on the board, doing the cryptoquip along with the crossword puzzle in the daily paper, deciphering a postcard from 1911 that I found in an antique shop, and translating the messages in the margins of the first Artemis Fowl book.
What I forgot was that Mr. Link was an “invalid,” compelled by war injuries to stay in bed, and here is where the book seemed dated, even for 1963 when it was released. They had wheelchairs in 1963, so there’s really no reason the guy should be house-bound. It was still fun to re-read the book, but that part had me scratching my head.
My Alvin experiment didn’t end there. The other book I most wanted to re-read was Superweasel, a 1974 book that has Alvin as a caped crusader against polluters, and might be one of the first environmentally-themed kid lit mysteries. (I wonder if Carl Hiaasen ever read it?) Heck, it even precedes Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, while featuring a similar theme of sabotage to protest environmental hazards. The problem of pollution and its solution are way over-simplified, but I’ll go ahead and call it visionary. I particularly like how Alvin’s sister Daphne emerges as a more complete character and an asset to his enterprise. I think one lesson that emerged from comparing the two books is that subversive books hold up better over time than pro-establishment books.
Lots of books have boy geniuses, but I like Alvin because he’s not overly sophisticated or precocious, like the Dilton Doilys that spout information straight from the author’s research (or worse, get it wrong). Alvin is a lousy speller and sometimes fakes his way through things with bravado more than knowledge, but he models the meta-attributes of intelligence: enterprise, drive, and curiosity. Superweasel has him applying those to an altruistic venture, and as a kid I felt like it was magical: a real life superhero, and evidence that one kid could make a difference.
In The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald, a 1981 collection of shorts that is for all practical purposes the end of the series. (There was one more issued in 1998 along with re-issues of the rest, and I’m kind of dubious of that one). It’s a mixed bag, but I like the first story where Alvin floats a lot of big ideas past his friend Shoie and his sister, and lays out his credo: what the mind can conceive, I can achieve. There are worse mottos a kid could live by.