Tom Swift and His House on Wheels
or, A Trip to the Mountain of Mystery
By Victor Appleton ฉ1929 Book #32
Review by JP Karenko, October 2005
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
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:
Bells are chiming in the distance. Can't tell exactly what kind, but since Mary Nestor has got Tom looking at furniture, one has a pretty good idea. One also wonders about the future, as Swift Construction is not doing all that well. The AirLine Express hasn't been the money-maker that it was hoped for, and the Talking Picture box has still yet to reach its' stride, income-wise. Tom is offered a lucrative, but suspicious contract to build equipment for a man who is known to have a less than honest reputation. When Tom refuses the deal, this guy goes psychotic and starts threatening mayhem and murder. But, when in doubt, "put on a happy face," as they say. Tom designs and builds an RV motor home that can be used to "get away from it all," (including the psycho, above.) It can also be used for more mundane tasks, such as...honeymoon trips?
To add to Tom's troubles, Jealousy rears its' ugly green-eyed head. Once again, Tom is called to do battle with another male suitor who takes 'way too much interest in Mary Nestor. The fur is on end, the ears are laid back, and teeth & claws are bared. As almost an aside, there is a local landmark, Dismal Mountain, that is rumored to be the hangout of "highwaymen, train robbers and bootleggers." What better place to try out the new road machine, than by driving it through a nest of vipers, so to speak? The test trip turns even more eventful, when Tom & Ned get carjacked, not once, but twice.
Nefarious activities abound and gunfire erupts. Tom survives, but how these problems are resolved, you will have to locate a hard cover copy of the book to find out.
I have been unable to find this story on line. Sorry.
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
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
Basil Cunningham-Angry, blustery and obnoxious Englishman. Suspected of engaging in patent infringements, he becomes psychotically angry when Tom refuses a business deal. The machinery he wants built could be used to make contraband merchandise.
Barton "Bart" Swift- On the dust jacket of Chest of Secrets, his appearance is remarkably like that of Robert E. Lee, but with glasses. Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, he is back to an active part "in certain matters" at Swift Construction Co. (SCC).
Mr. Swift, has once again declined in his health, and is now being attended almost full-time by Eradicate Sampson.
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited cognitive facilities. Described as "savage and only half-tame," he is antagonist and rival of Eradicate. In this episode, he picks up a 200lb table "with one finger." He continues as watchman & guard at SCC and his other chore of antagonizing Rad.
Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro manservant. He is now going deaf and is described as "aged, decrepit, wizened and shuffling.." He remains faithful to Tom and helps out where he can. Constant rival and antagonist of giant Koku. In this tale, he is personal attendant to Barton Swift and said to have cared for race horses in Virginia, in an earlier time.
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom. His description is never given. He continues in his position as Swifts' financial advisor and CFO (Treasurer) of Swift Construction Company. In this tale, he continues residing at the Swift manse.
Garrett Jackson-No description given, but is spry and fit for his age. (Volumes written 15 years previously, described him as an "aged Engineer.") He is now Swift Construction Shop Manager/Superintendent.
The Ricky Rat Club-Two co-conspirators, allied with Basil Cunningham, who engage in sabotage and mayhem. One is only described as "rat-faced." The other is not described. Neither is ever identified or named.
Miss Mary Nestor-Betrothed love interest of Tom who lives on the east side of Shopton. Described as a "very pretty young woman with flashing brown eyes, and a sweet trilling laugh." Blushes easily, especially around Tom. In this tale, she goes to the big city to visit rich relatives, the Winthrop family. Tom is concerned she won't want to stay "down on the farm" in Shopton after sampling the delights of "The Great White Way."
Mrs. (Amos) Nestor-Mary's mother. In spite of roles in several of these adventures, her description is never given, and her first name is never mentioned, even in passing. Walk-on part in this tale.
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. Never fully described, in previous tales he was "portly" with a moustache and "tortoise-shell glasses." Appears to be quite wealthy. He has an ongoing problem with travel conveyance trouble. In this tome, he ends up on foot after his automobile breaks down on a lonely road.
Unnamed SCC Mechanic-Cleans up Tom's auto after he "rides it hard and puts it away wet."
Grace Winthrop-Cousin of Mary Nestor. Not old fashioned & conservative, like her relatives, who "date back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony." Social butterfly and bad influence on Mary.
Floyd Barton-Playboy drone. Representative of the New Money In Town. Known to be a "good dancer" and a 1920's style party animal. Takes an unhealthy (for him) interest in Mary Nestor.
Tim, The Traveling Tramp-Faceless, dirty, smelly, disheveled and hungry. Brings a warning to Tom & Ned to stay away from Dismal Mountain.
Gary The Guard Guy and Bruce The Bat-Boy-Faceless & nameless local urchins who guard the House on Wheels (HoW) when Tom and Ned go grab a meal in a local beanery.
Village Vic and His Country Cronies-Local residents of a small unnamed village. Warn Tom & Ned not to go up Mt. Dismal, but give directions anyway, when pressed.
Crowd of Cranky Carnappers-These guys put the "dismal" in Dismal Mountain. Never completely described, named or enumerated. Their total numbers are from "two" to "many." All go armed and are a mixture of thugs, burglars, highwaymen, train robbers, and bootleggers.
Boss-Later identified as Basil Cunningham (above.)
Big-Part of a Mutt 'n Jeff combo, he is the brains of the duo. No name given.
Small-Short squat, ugly, and not too bright, but has "street smarts." Named Gorro.
Jerkin-No description, but carries a rifle and has a propensity to shoot people.
D&D Dan-Generic thug. Principal characteristic is that he spends a lot of time drunk. His incompetence allows Tom & Ned to make an escape. I suspect his current resting place is a shallow grave in the deep woods...
Eyes and Ears-Floyd Barton (see above) acts as finance and liaison with the business world. He is the gang's "front man."
Sergeant Sleepy Sam-Local constable who wakes up fast when Tom & Ned come to the station with their tale of stirring the hornets' nest on Dismal Mountain.
Handyman Hank-Winthrop Estate gardener. Greets Tom & Ned after the great escape. No name or description. Bit part.
Gay Gus-In this case 'gay' is defined as "happy and dressed in a 'violently colored' sweater," rather than the current reference to sexual orientation, but y'never know.... No name or other description. One of a bunch of sycophant party-goers on Floyd Barton's houseboat.
Aunt Mary Winthrop-Dowager chaperone at the houseboat party. Bit part.
Dock Man Dave-Burley deckhand, who turns out to be a "special officer" with arrest powers. Puts the arm (and cuffs) on Floyd Barton, when he resists apprehension.
Helen Morton-No description. Love interest of Ned Newton first introduced 3 volumes ago. She is engaged to Ned.. (Well, they have been dating for over a year, now.) She is already making noises about her own wedding plans, much to Ned's dismay.
Mrs. Baggert-Majordomo & housekeeper of the Swift Manse. In charge of "several" maids. Mother figure, she loves Tom like a son. Sheds the obligatory tears at Tom & Mary's wedding ceremony.
Parson Pete and the Wonderful Wedding Witnesses-Not specifically mentioned, but this was a church wedding and everybody who was anybody must have been there. (Can you imagine Koku in a tuxedo???)
As is usual lately, many of these characters (especially the ones introduced late in the story) do not rate any development or even a description. They are brought forth and discarded after they do their bits to make the story flow. The (hopefully humorous) alliterative names are my "inventions" to make reading these reviews a bit more fun.
The House on Wheels (HoW) is a precursor to the classic Winnebago.๔ Variously described as "similar to a circus wagon" or a "canal boat," it is a large, self-powered mobile home/recreational vehicle. It is of wood construction and "gaily painted" with shutters on the windows. It sports a clerestory roof, if the illustrations on the dust jacket and frontispiece are to be believed. The "house" part is mounted on a heavy-duty truck chassis, with "grooved, non-skid tires." Power is provided by a V12 engine, presumably to the rear wheels only. The transmission is manual with at least 3 forward speeds. Top speed on smooth and level road is in excess of 80 mph, and a sustained cruise speed of 50 mph is expected. It has high ground clearance, giving it a limited off-road capability. Weight is in the 4000lb+ range, and the running gear sports electric headlamps, starter motor and windshield wipers. The living area consists of 4 "rooms" and includes a galley, living room, 2 bed rooms and entrances front and rear. More details, below.
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
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. It also has given me a grasp of just how technologically and culturally unsophisticated the average reader was in the early 1900's.
Attitudes and Prejudices- Some clews (although that term is no longer used) that were detected as to the author of this tale: This tale reeks with a string of coincidences that are required to allow the story line to progress. The story also requires significant foreboding, (bordering on clairvoyance,) to prepare for events that make the plot flow. Characters are introduced and discarded with abandon, many not named or described. The author's engineering knowledge is minimal. The look-and-feel of the text remains familiar. The circumstances & hazards in this tale (spooky houses, stormy nights, and multiple opponents-one hooded) are very reminiscent of the Talking Pictures, AirLine Express, and Television Detector. Language remains a mix of modern slang and older English. The author discovered the word "laconic," and uses it to describe Tom several times. The words "piazza" and "dingus" are also reused many times. The similarity in writing style and attitudes is, in my judgment, pretty conclusive. I feel that Harriet Stratemeyer is firmly planted behind the typewriter for this one, at least as editor.
Engagement (to be married) seems to be a fluid sort of commitment in these stories. Mary seems to have somewhat of a roving eye, hanging out with Floyd Barton, in this tale. This causes Tom no end of heartburn (physical and mental) and seems to make light of the commitment to exclusivity that serious companionship and "engagement" implies, at least nowadays. Also it is interesting, that while Tom & Mary have been "engaged" for at least the last dozen or so books, he just now gets around to finally asking Mary to marry him. I was under the impression that a commitment to marry was what "engagement" was all about.
On that note, Tom once again displays an almost psychopathic rage and desire for revenge, when he hears that Mary is in the company of another potential suitor. Perhaps there is a bit of feline in the Swift genes? Tom behaves with all the restraint of a tom-cat defending his territory. Mary, on the other hand, seems content to sit on the sidelines and watch the fur fly, as any good queen in the feline world would do. This marriage could become "interesting" as in the Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times..."
Speaking of our All-American Hero's other fine qualities, his judgment stinks. He goes into a lonely area with a known bad reputation and inhabited by an unknown number of armed and dangerous felons, apparently for the sport of it. He figures such activity will be "stimulating and keep him from going stale." (Ya think?) He gets carjacked, not once but twice, kidnapped, imprisoned and shot at. Stale, indeed! Stale, moldering and resting in an unmarked grave... Mary needs to make sure his insurance is paid up...
Tom continues in his use of firearms for personal protection. He and Ned both carry small "pocket sized automatics" (probably .25 or .32 ACP caliber) when chasing bad guys. Those pistols actually get used, but only as noisemakers. Even in a firefight, Tom won't aim to hit anybody. On the other hand, if they are "savage tribesmen," then, it's open season. The need for personal protection? Times are getting tough. It is said that the (lonely) road to Mary's house has had "many robberies" and "highwaymen" using it to ply their trades. The inhabitants of Dismal Mountain, are said to be "highwaymen, bootleggers, and train robbers"๑and I suspect there are probably lions and tigers and bears, too. (Oh my!) All of the bad guys seem to be "armed and dangerous," and ready to commit capital crimes. Tom's world isn't all that idyllic, any more.
The police apparently have suddenly become a bit more effective (or, at least New York State Troopers are.) Tom no longer has to "go it alone," while apprehending the crooks. A dragnet is laid and the bad guys are all scooped up when they bolt from their mountain hideout. Why the cops let all this stuff go on and did nothing until Tom stirs the pot, is a mystery to me. Maybe they just waited for a bird dog like Our Hero to flush their game out of hiding for them?
Tom & Mary are hitched at the Union Church in Shopton. It's been a while since any spiritual references have been made in these tales. Perhaps Tom is one of those Christmas and Easter church members? Union was probably a Presbyterian Church as that was the nominal faith of the Stratemeyer family.
Errata-There is a running gag throughout this series. Mr. Damon's home keeps flip-flopping between Waterfield and Waterford, NY. Sometimes it is in neither, and several times in both places, at once. This is partly due to the enforced poor communication amongst the many ghostwriters at G&D that contributed to this series.
There are now 4 distinct categories. In this tome Mr. D's home is not mentioned.
The tally for 32 volumes, to date is:
Waterfield-15, Both places-2, Waterford-9, and Neither place-6.
Typos and malapropisms were almost nonexistent. P17 has "...that it (is) at the rear and p73 describes the fastness (vastness) of the forest.
It has previously been de rigueur for Tom to "rescue" someone, anyone, at least once per episode. In this tome, he picks up a stranded Mr. Damon. Later, he is the one needing rescue-actually, several times. After he gets carjacked a second time, you wonder if he is a slow learner...
Back to guns & such, Tom starts this tale carrying a revolver, but later his "carry piece" is a small automatic. Given that he could own several, most folks stick to one or the other
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy- Anyone who is familiar with a device called the "Tardis" from Dr. Who, knows about the "contents of this contrivance are much more spacious than is physically possible" law of fiction writing. The interior of the HoW, from the rear entrance forward, consists of 4+ "rooms." Rear entry is via fold away stairs, "so children cannot hitch-hike," ( Hanging on the exterior of a trolley was a popular way of avoiding the five cent fare of the day. That nickel could then be used to see a matinee movie. My father told me he did such things as a child. It's no wonder my grandmother beat him...) As you enter from the rear, first is a galley with electric stove, icebox and pantry. Moving forward, there is a dining/living area with table and chairs. Then, 2 bed rooms, port and starboard. Each of these can sleep two, presumably in bunks. (I'd have made at least one a double, as this was to be Tom & Mary's "Love Shack" during their honeymoon...) Then, there is a "vestibule" front entrance that goes to the driver's area. Somewhere in there, a bathroom/toilet is also hidden. Pretty plush!
Running gear is via manual transmission from a V12 gasoline motor, driving "special grooved non-skid tires." Speaking of those tires, running this behemoth at speeds approaching 100mph on the Model T style tube tires of the day borders on suicidal. Today's radials can be driven safely at high speeds, but even their precursors, the bias-ply glass belted tires of the 60's and 70's were subject to blowouts at 100mph speeds. Anyone who has seen movies of tire deflection at high speeds, (I have) wonders how they stay together for any length of time. One good pot hole and... Well, maybe Tom was just ignorant. Much is made of his judgment <sic>and driving skill.
Initially, it is said the V12 drives a "dynamo" to "provide current for the electric stove and motors." Nothing further is ever said about an electric propulsion drive, so I presume that the author was just copying old habits and making every contrivance Tom builds an electric or a hybrid. When racing a freight train at speeds approaching 100mph, the only concern was for damaging the V12 motor, as it is not "broken in."
There isn't a lot of real engineering in this "invention," other than cramming all those luxury features into a mere 4000lb vehicle. We are talking large, gaily varnished/painted wood construction with "shutters on the windows" a la circus wagon. My original 1970's "pop-up" camper had a wood frame, was much smaller and had a lot less in the way of luxury features than Tom's RV. With no cab, chassis, motor or running gear, it weighed almost 1800lb, empty. Tom must have built his out of Balsa wood.
Geography- The author remains enigmatic about Shopton. It is still not specified as to which state it is in, however the local topography is once again expanded and described in more detail. A new city, Chesterport, is said to be located near Shopton, in "this state." Previous volumes specify "this state" as New York. State highways are now smooth, flat and paved with concrete.
Dismal Mountain , the "Peak of Mystery," is said to be about 100 miles away from Shopton. If, as is presumed, Shopton/Carlopa are actually modeled on Lake George NY, the peak would be in he Catskill Mountains. Nearby Chesterport would then be on the Hudson River.
JP Karenko, 10/26/05
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