In a recent article about a trip to Lewes, I mentioned previous visits to the town. One of these I made on my own, when I paid what you might call a sentimental visit to the Fifteenth Century Bookshop there.
When I was a child, I was one day given a book called The Arkansas Bear. Where it came from, I do not know. It was possibly donated by a family friend or perhaps my mother bought it in a secondhand bookshop. I will never know.
The book may have once had a dust jacket but none was present on my copy. I loved the book and had my mother read me the story many times.
Briefly, it is about a runaway boy who meets a violin-playing bear. They team up and have some adventures together. While the boy, Bosephus, exercises some control over Horatio, the bear, and prevents major disasters, dramatic tension is maintained by the several episodes in which violence is only narrowly avoided. Horatio is not the cuddly animal hero of too many modern children’s books.
The book comes from the Victorian era (if one can refer to the Victorian era in the context of the United States), being published in 1898 by Albert Bigelow Paine, with illustrations by Harry Rountree. Paine wrote other children’s books but is best known as a biographer of Mark Twain. If you wish to know more about him and Harry Rountree, there are many references to be had by searching for their names on the Web.
The theme that underlies the story is the song, The Arkansas Traveler (composed by Colonel Sanford Faulkner in 1840), whose music Horatio the bear plays on the violin, and each chapter begins with the music and words for one of the verses. I like to imagine children reading the book and picking out the tune on the piano or other instrument.
My copy of the book disappeared into the mists of time but I remembered it and often thought of it and occasionally, on visits to bookshops, looked to see if they had a copy.
So it was that on a visit to Lewes, I looked in the window of the Fifteenth Century Bookshop and there, as a centrepiece, was a copy of The Arkansas Bear! I pointed it out to Tigger and told her about my memories of it.
“Are you going to buy it?” asked the ever practical Tigger.
I was in one of my if–you-don’t-need-it-don’t-waste-money-on-it moods and so we walked on. Over the next few days, though, I kept thinking about the book and even wondering whether, by some amazing coincidence, it was the one I had owned.
Eventually, I put in a phone call to the bookshop and enquired after the book.
“No, we don’t have it,” came the answer.
“But it was in your window.”
They went to look but asserted they didn’t have the book. In view of my insistence, though, they promised to let me know if it turned up.
They could have sold the book, I thought to myself, but then, surely, my call would have jogged their memory. It seemed an unlikely coincidence that someone had bought the book shortly after I had seen it.
So I took the train to Lewes. It seemed the most reasonable thing to do. And, of course, there was the book, still holding court in the middle of the window. So I bought it, obviously.
This particular edition was published by Harrap in 1919 and this fits with the dedication on the flyleaf, presumably written by a parent to his or her daughter Margaret in 1921.
This is not the identical copy that I owned (I would have remembered the dedication) but that would be too much to hope for. It is enough that a cherished memory has come to join me from my childhood in the form of a book now 91 years old.
You might imagine that I read the book immediately on returning home, but for some reason, I didn’t. It sat of the shelf for several weeks before I finally opened it. Why? I cannot say. Perhaps I was waiting for the right moment. The unlikely tale, made real by the author’s telling of it, is as fresh as ever. There is a sharpness to it, an edginess of danger, of life in a world where bears have a taste for human flesh and angry farmers fire guns at people who steal their melons, of vagabonds eking out a living by singing to the music of a violin and of the magic of a boy and a bear relaxing companionably in the moonlight, their bellies full of stolen melon.
I am not a collector of old books – or of anything else, for that matter – so this title will not be the start of a collection of antique volumes saved for my own enjoyment and the wonder of future generations. It’s a one-off, a splinter of memory from childhood, when my world was young and still infused with magic.
I hope Margaret enjoyed it as much as I did.