I’m not normally one to write book reviews, but I’m also usually not in the strange position of having read a book that nobody on the Internet seems to have ever reviewed before. Even with my eclectic tastes in books, there’s almost always someone out there who’s read pretty much anything I’ve come across.
Not so with Daughter of the Coast Guard, a novel by Betty Baxter that was published by Goldsmith Publishing in 1938. Since it’s a fairly decent book that nobody’s ever heard of, I thought, eh, might as well review it, for posterity, or something.
Warnin’: Here be spoilers.
From around 1920 to the mid-1950s there were a huge number of novels published for teenage girls. Most are long-forgotten today, and the very few that are still remembered – Nancy Drew being perhaps the best example – were heavily rewritten and edited in later decades for… one reason or another. Most are pretty fun, because they were very very straightforward responses to the pulpy adventure novels of the day targeted at boys, featuring the same sorts of intrigues and adventures, just featuring young women as the protagonists. (Literally the same sort of novels; for every boy-oriented book, there was almost invariably a girl-oriented response. Young inventor? Check. Pilot? Check. Sailboat captain? Check. Amateur detective? Check check check check check…)
A word needs to be said here about how these books are viewed. Nowadays, a lot of these books are seen as extremely feminist, because of their self-reliant women who spare not a thought for love or romance, and who tend, more often than not, to engage in behavior and activities we like to think are or were more traditionally male. I think this interpretation is probably somewhat optimistic, personally. I don’t think most of these books were meant to be, you know, inspirational examples, or anything like that. They shouldn’t be seen as any sort of “feminist propaganda”, I don’t think. They were really just escapist literature, exactly like their boy-oriented counterparts, and and more often than not nothing more than that.
(During and after WWII, there was a fad for “occupational” novels for a while, which showed – supposedly – the joys of this-or-that occupation or career. Really they were just the same old pre-war adventure stories tarted up with somewhat socially-acceptable protagonists, or at least occupations. The most popular of these occupational series featured, wait for it… a nurse and an airline stewardess. Make of that what you will. Betty Baxter’s publication history actually documents this fairly well – between 1941 and 1947, she wrote and published seven “A Career Story” novels for young women whose careers grew increasingly tame with each successive year. Their occupations were reporter and copywriter in 1941 and 1942, occupations which Baxter had personal experience with. Another 1941 book featured an airline stewardess, which might have been trendy or might have just provided a convenient excuse to have a traveling protagonist. Then in 1942 she published a book about a nurse, in ’43 a book a book about a WAAC volunteer, in ’44 a book about, I believe, radio announcing, and in 1947, a book about… an interior designer.)
Anyway, that brings us, in a roundabout way, to Daughter of the Coast Guard. It’s set in a rural part of the southern peninsula of Michigan, on the shore of Lake Michigan, at an unspecified time right around the time it was published – 1938. The heroine is Cherry Hudson, youngest member and only daughter of the family that runs the local newspaper. She dreams of being a reporter, of writing feature articles and getting a “scoop” big enough to be sent to the wire services. Her best friend is Winnifred Lott, the almost comically tomboy daughter of the local Coast Guard station commander, who drives a convertible nicknamed the Gas Gull. Half the book “Win” spends driving Cherry around; the other half she’s pursuing the nautical half of the plot. The two girls’ families account for most of the rest of the named characters; add in a couple of classmates, and the cast is complete. Cherry’s brothers are kind of comically useless, with her eldest, Bill, being a particularly horrible example of a sibling, including relentless skirt-chasing. (He gets a sort of redeeming moment at the end, however.) I assume this – and a few other things, like her occasional complaints about her hair – are supposed to help teenage girls reading the book identify with her.
The plot is your typical not terribly inspired 1930s YA adventure thing, albeit done rather better than most. The girls become aware, through their families, of evidence of what seems to be a sinister smuggling ring operating in the area, and through various misadventures chance upon the culprits. Winifred gets to be a brave and dashing tomboy and save the day (she disables the engine of a speedboat, sabotages a machine gun, and swims in Lake Michigan at night in November with no ill effect), Cherry finally gets her big wire-service scoop, Bill turns out to be not quite the enormous jerkwad he seemed, and the horribly, clumsily obvious villains (the mysterious new family in town, surprise surprise, whose daughter and fellow classmate of Win and Cherry is just ludicrously annoying and mean) get caught red-handed. Everyone’s family is proud of their respective daughter, et cetera, et cetera.
All in all, it’s a pretty fun book that’s well-written, and very much worth reading if you should ever chance upon a copy (there are a fair few on the used market, for less than ten dollars), or someone for some reason reprints it. (According to a quick check, the copyright is expired and it’s now in the public domain.) There are a lot of fun details about nautical matters and the newspaper business of the era that are pretty exotic and interesting to the reader of today, including some lengthy bits about Coast Guard operations back in the day. There are, however, two very slightly awkward notes that need to be mentioned. One is the “colored” housekeeper/cook, who speaks (a mercifully brief few lines) in a probably fairly accurate patois that today would be considered deeply offensive. The other is that Denny, one of Cherry’s other brothers, at a family meal, drops a bit of just unbelievably painful casual racism into conversation on pages 89-90. It’s a bit of a reminder of the time the book is set, but, seriously… it’s still pretty bad, and nobody chides him about it or seems even the slightest bit bothered by it. (The line is “However, may I point out that the last one ready to take off in the family equipage for our Sunday worship is a niggah baby?”)
Compared to some books of the 1930s, this would have taken very, very little effort to make acceptable for the more sensitive audiences of the ’50s or early ’60s – or the audience of today, for that matter. Change a half-dozen lines of inconsequential dialogue, really, and you’d be good to go. So why was it never republished? Betty Baxter (as Betty Baxter Anderson) continued writing and publishing YA novels as late as 1962, and you’d think someone would have republished this somewhere along the way. But it wasn’t; it exists only as a pre-war hardcover, albeit in two printings with different binding colors and DJ illustrations. My guess is partially because the characters weren’t acceptable to the neo-Victorian prudes of the 1950s, and partially because the publisher’s history is… complicated. Daughter of the Coast Guard was one of the last books Goldsmith published. What exactly happened to them in 1938 isn’t clear; they were owned at one time by the M.A. Donohue company, a large publishing firm in Chicago, who themselves ceased to exist through some means or another around 1960. So it’s possible that prior to 1966 the book was stuck with the copyright (assigned to Goldsmith) in limbo. When the copyright finally expired in ’66 (1938 + 28 years, as was the case back then), not only was the market for pulpy YA novels, particularly for girls, pretty well dead, but the publisher was thoroughly kaput, and author Betty Baxter not only hadn’t published a book for six years, but had in fact passed away two years earlier, rendering the subject pretty much moot. With no postwar reprints, no cheap paperback editions, and a publisher who went out of business shortly after publication, it’s not too hard to see why nobody else on the Internet has ever reviewed this novel, despite its charms.