Penrod by Booth Tarkington

Boyhood is the longest time in life for a boy.

from Penrod

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Several years ago, several summers in fact, my brother and I (he a teenager, me near to being one) happened to see the midday movie on WZTV Channel 17, the premier local syndicated station in Nashville.  The movie was On Moonlight Bay (1951).  One of the great things, I think, about us in those formative years was that, as obsessed with horror films as we were, we would watch anything as long we thought it was good (we are still like that).  

On Moonlight Bay, starring Doris Day and Gordon MacRae, was a musical set in a small town just before World War I.  Now, musicals really weren’t to our liking (still aren’t), but that movie was funny and we enjoyed it.  We even watched (and liked) the sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953).  They remain the only two movie musicals I remotely enjoy to this day. 

I mention those movies because they were my first experience with Booth Tarkington’s Penrod. The movies were inspired by Tarkington’s Penrod stories; he wrote three books: Penrod (1914), Penrod and Sam (1916), and Penrod Jashber (1925). I’ve only read the first two books, and the very first one is the better of them. They follow the adventures of Penrod Schofield, an eleven-year-old boy who is considered, by a good majority of people, to be the worst boy in town. He gets into trouble a lot. And he takes great pride in his reputation.

Penrod has a best friend, Sam, and a little dog, Duke, who’s even more of a best friend. His dad is a prominent businessman in the community, his mom does her best to keep Penrod and his older sister from killing each other. It takes them all to keep Penrod from completely destroying everything.

Penrod was the Tom Sawyer or Harry Potter of its day. It was the book given at birthdays and holidays, the book every boy, every child, should read. It is a good book older kids should read (considering the time in which it was written, it has some rather rough ethnic depictions, but there are newer editions available which edit the coarser material). I think it’s a great book for parents because mischief is not a trait solely particular to the male of the species.

“This is a boy’s lot: anything he does, anything whatever, may afterward turn out to have been a crime– he never knows.” That bit of wisdom doesn’t only apply to boys, it goes for all children and, I think, adults. I still get in trouble for things I didn’t know I shouldn’t do.

My favorite passages from the book are toward the end. When Penrod visits his father’s Aunt Sarah, she tells him: “It’s taken over nineteen hundred years of Christianity and some hundreds of thousands of years of other things to produce you, and there you sit…It’ll be your turn to struggle and muss things up for the betterment of posterity soon enough…” In other words, let a kid be a kid.

It’s Aunt Sarah who gives Penrod a slingshot for his twelfth birthday. The slingshot used to belong to his dad and Aunt Sarah took it from him thirty-five years prior when he killed her hen with it. When Penrod tries to shoot a sparrow with it, he misses it and breaks a window in the bathroom where his dad was shaving. His dad is, naturally, furious and demands to know where he got the darned slingshot. Penrod explains it was formerly his.

The hen, Aunt Sarah, all of it, sinks in with his dad and he responds with the only thing he could say: “Never mind, little boy. A broken window isn’t much harm.”

This book is hilarious, I’ve laughed every time I’ve read it, but it also gets me in the feels, if you know what I mean. I’ve tried to follow its age-old advice and have tried to remember that whatever mischief my son does, it’s nothing I didn’t do at his age or maybe even yesterday.