Tom Swift In The City of Gold
or, Marvelous Adventures Underground
By Victor Appleton Book #11 ©1912
Review by JP Karenko, June 2005
Image of a White Quad and Duotone dustjacket courtesy of Mark Snyder
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
Summary: No official summary was ever provided with any of the old Tom Swift books. However, without giving too much away, the plot can be summed up as follows:
The story opens with Tom receiving a letter from Africa, containing a crude map. The rest of the story can be summed up in a mere three words: Acute Gold Fever, or AGF. Jacob Illingway, the Protestant missionary Tom rescued from the Red Pygmies of central Africa, has sent word that an underground city exists in central Mexico. This city, built by ancients, (possibly Aztec Indians) contains riches untold for anyone who can find it, and get past the guardians, a tribe of head hunters.
The rest of the tale chronicles the hardships that were encountered while locating the city and attempting its' plunder. You can probably guess the outcome, but you'll have to read the story to be sure.
This book is available online. See: Tom Swift in the City of Gold
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Mr. Wilson - NFN or description given. Postal delivery person and admirer of Tom's adventurous lifestyle.
Tom Swift - Intrepid inventor & mechanic. Plucky, lively, resourceful, brave and clever. Home-schooled at a college level by his father, Barton Swift. Athlete and hunter. Familiar with how to stalk game and firearms. Loves all things mechanical. Is a decent cook, too.
Mrs. Baggert - Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family since the time Tom's mother died. She is short of stature and has to stand on a soap box to kiss Tom goodbye on one of his voyages. Excitable, she seems to expect fatalities after any mishap involving Tom's inventions.
Barton Swift - Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, apparently recovered from severe medical condition affecting his heart and circulation. Back at work on a new gyroscope.
Mr. Wakefield Damon - Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person.
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom, currently employed in Shopton 1st National Bank.
Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Illingway - No descriptions given. Protestant Missionaries to the Dark Continent, captured and imprisoned by the Red Pygmies. Mrs. Illingway's first name is never mentioned. See Attitudes.
Andy Foger - Red haired, squinty-eyed bully, who has made great trouble for Tom in the past. In this tome, has lost the spark of goodness and remorse for past transgressions that was kindled when Tom saved his life in Electric Rifle. Back to his old tricks, he overhears talk of treasure in Mexico and learns the general location of the gold.
Mr. Foger -- NFN given. Described as a large man with florid complexion and a heavy brown moustache. In this tome, he is near poverty, having lost his millions to shady dealings. Sells his Shopton house and furniture to go treasure hunting.
Eradicate Sampson, A.K.A. Eradicate or Rad - Rad's middle names, (Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln, ) are no longer used. Aged stereotypical Negro journeyman jack-of-all-trades. "Eradicates dirt." Now is in full-time residence on the Swift estate, and maintains his own chicken coop. Heavy deep-south accent and Uncle Remus attitude. Caretaker of Boomerang, a cantankerous, aged and now ailing, mule. Unwillingly takes a balloon ride in this volume, and goes along on the adventure for the first time in the series. Dislikes air travel, but overcomes fear of flying due to severe case of gold fever.
Miss Mary Nestor - Love interest of Our Hero. "Gold digger" (literally) in this episode. Extracts promise from Tom to bring back pair of matching gold bookends.
Mr. & Mrs. (Amos) Nestor - No names or descriptions given in this volume. Passing mention.
Mr. Wilson & Son - Mysterious reclusive passengers inhabiting Stateroom #27 on the voyage to Mexico. Later, we find out that they are the Fogers in mufti.
Mr. Sander -- Self styled expert on porpoises. NFN or description given. Passing mention.
Mate of the SS Maderia - No name or description given. Passing mention
Miguel DeLazes - Native straw boss / labor contractor hired to run Tom's expedition.
Josef - NLN or description given. Passing mention.
Cast of Mestizo Drovers -- No names or descriptions given. These folks wrangle the ox-cart transportation and provide Manuel Labore on the expedition.
Solitary Mexican Traveler -- No name or description given. Passing mention.
Mexican Family -- No names or descriptions given. Passing mention.
Headhunters - Not there to offer Tom a job...
Tom Swift does "invent" something in this book, a third generation, down-sized copy of a previous device. It is a ‡-scale version of the Blackhawk, which was an already shrunk-down version of Red Cloud. All are "airships" of a combined dirigible and bi-plane design. The wings are used for speed travel and the gas bag for hovering or VTOL. This unnamed mini-marvel is now small enough to be packed cross-country on 3 ox-carts, and hidden unnoticed inside a ruined Aztec temple. It maintains all the comforts of its' larger predecessors except being "smaller and lighter." With a lifting gas bag that is only one eighth the size of its next larger cousin, it would have to be lighter, indeed. Much lighter! (Half-size cubed isn't a very big gas bag, regardless of the "power" of the vaporous contents...)
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
It's amazing how much technology has changed in 95 years. Reading the old Tom Swift Sr. series has really given me an appreciation of all the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted, like modern transportation, communications, satellite mapping and air-conditioning!. It also gives me an appreciation as to how much society has both changed, and stayed the same too. Today, Gold fever still makes otherwise intelligent men do really stupid things, as was told in this tale of 1911. I wonder what people will be taking for granted 100 years from now, and what they will think of our times, mores and attitudes?
Attitudes, Prejudices and Circumstances - It was presumed that "Reverend" would apply to Jacob Illingway due to his church affiliation, but the honorific is never used. Late in the tale, the Illingways' Christian mission work is described as merely "humanitarian," rather than Evangelical. This is a major pullback from the "Protestant/Christian Missionary" description originally given them in Electric Rifle.
The envelope Tom receives from Africa is torn, frayed, and takes many weeks to get to Shopton. Looks like the Post Office was already gearing up for mistreating the mail (and then raising rates to compensate...) almost 100 years ago.
Aeroplane travel is quoted as "safer than street cars" with fewer collisions.
The mini-Blackhawk is collapsed and "packed into a small compass." It was found that the word usage described a construction method of interlocking tabs and slots similar to fold-up cardboard document storage boxes in use, today. Mr. Damon blesses his steamer rug, which is the blanket one uses to cover the extremities when sitting in a deck chair on board ship.
There is a very distinct and well-defined social pecking-order described in this book. My feeling is that the social aspects of this story outshine the rest of the plot by far, due to this insight, alone. Whites of any stripe, (even the Fogers,) are at the top of the food-chain. Next down are the black/negro races, as is represented by Rad. "Colored" folks are unabashedly segregated from whites, having separate accommodations for sleeping, eating and socializing on board ship. Next down are the pure Latino or part-Indian peoples, as represented by Senor Delazes, the "labor contractor." The most complimentary adjective used for him is "untrustworthy." At the bottom of the social heap are Los Indios. Ned is a typical "Ugly American," who can't tell refried beans from frijoles and complains loudly about it. Rad, who previously "couldn't be trusted with a gun," moves up a notch, and is given a large revolver for self protection. (against???) Arming any of the Mestizo or Indian help is out of the question, as "it is too dangerous." The Mexican help is also uniformly described as "ignorant, superstitious, sneaky, lazy, and untrustworthy." All things being relative, Rad, who was segregated from whites on board ship, eats and sleeps with Tom and Co, on land. The entire American party is completely segregated from the local Latino help, taking meals and having tents separately. Also, Tom rides roughshod over the traditional mid-day Siesta, which was developed to survive pre-air-conditioned tropical days. This proves that it isn't just 'Mad Dogs And Englishmen That Go Out In The Midday Sun,' but American inventors, too. The headhunters don't even rate denigrating descriptions. There were a few leftover skull-swipers in the interior of Mexico in 1911, but interestingly enough, they seemed to get along quite well with the Fogers, late in the story. No accounting for the taste of some folks--or maybe the Fogers just didn't taste good, either...
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy - Upside: Acetylene lamps for underground area lighting were constructed out of materials at hand, a resourceful move, if the chemicals were available. Hand held flash-lights were described in detail, and appear to now be unremarkable, except that batteries seem to last a very long timeóthe Pink Bunny must be older than we think... Tom uses an "automatic revolver" as a sidearm. No detail is given, but this device appears to be a 6-shot .455 cal Webley-Fosberry. The 5-inch WF was noted for a smooth trigger pull and great accuracy. It was a rare piece, originally patented in 1895, but soon to be supplanted by the more reliable and quicker-reloading Colt 1911 Automatic. With the exception of the smooth trigger, there was very little advantage to this weapon over a conventional revolver. Photos are courtesy The Gun Zone, http://www.thegunzone.com/webley-fosbery.html
Few of these ever made it to America, as they were not widely distributed. Most stayed attached to British Army dress uniforms via the lanyard loop. (This further confirms my suspicion that the ghost writers authoring this series were a bunch of Brits, but that's OK.) The most recent reference to the WF is in an obscure SciFi movie starring Sean Connery, called Zardoz. The movie didn't make much more sense than the mechanics of the pistol did...i.e. Not Much.
Downside: Early in the story, Andy Foger rigs the cables of Tom's Sky Racer to jam by wedging a bolt into the guides. How he did this quickly so it would happen at an inconvenient altitude, as opposed to immediately, was not explained. Turning a raging underground river on and off with a mere twist of a stone knob, sounds farfetched. Unsupported mile-wide roofed caverns have never been properly explained to my liking in any of these stories. Moving a stone slab or dropping a trap door could happen if properly counterbalanced, but I wonder about dry 500-year-old bearings and levers.
Geography & Environment - The author(s) really had to stretch coming up with African sounding names for places. Gumba Twamba is the (major) port in Africa mentioned. Why not just pick a coastal town out of an Atlas??? Mexican topography is reasonably accurate, even in the interior. The port of Tampico is located about 200mi north of Mexico City, nearly as described. From there, the cartography becomes more fictional, but the central plateau and the city/region of Zacatecas are real, and in about the right places.
Central Mexico, Map Courtesy of Microsoft MapPoint
The central plain in Mexico is NOT jungle, however. It is a dry and desolate area. Jungle does abound, further south, and I suppose, Tom & Co could have gotten sidetracked. The temple, (hidden in plain sight, as it were ) is described as round and domed, proving that the research done on the Aztecs was cursory at best. Aztec/Toltec architecture runs to stepped pyramids, not domes. While large, they would have to be hollow to be spacious enough to house even a "mini" airship. Since these temples were built on the ruins of previous structures, they certainly were not hollow. Also, as described, Tom & Co entered at ground level. Poor, overweight and elderly Mr. Damon would have had a coronary, climbing the set of stairs, shown below. Although in these later stories, he seems to be more spry and in better health.
Aztec Temple at Chichenitza
Picture courtesy of: http://www.crystalinks.com/mexico.html
Much of the imagery in this story smacks of the first 15 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Arkóheadhunters, golden idols, underground traps, betrayals...I'm certain some of the folks writing for Hollywood, nowadays, are ex-TS Sr. fans. Oh well, the stories are public domain, now...
JP Karenko 6/13/05
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