Book Review: Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship by Victor Appleton

Victor Appleton was actually the pseudonym for several uncredited authors of the popular Tom Swift series, which was published by the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate, a group which released several series of books for boys (especially Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys) and for girls (the Nancy Drew series.)

Released between 1910-1941, the 40 adventure novels in this series feature a young inventor named Tom Swift, whose story begins in the book Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle.

Tom lives in a small town in upstate New York with his father, Barton Swift, himself an inventor. Each of the books involve Tom inventing some new device, and having a series of adventures as he tries to perfect his invention, and/or keep it from falling into the wrong hands. In the world of boys’ adventure, inventing is a very perilous profession, it seems.

All of these books feature some recurring characters worth mentioning: Ned Newton, Tom’s best friend, who works for the local bank, an employer awfully generous in the amount of free time they give young Newton, as he spends well over half of his 40 hours hanging out with Tom; Mary Nestor, Tom’s sweetie (their love, always platonic, of course); the eccentric neighbor, Wakefield Damon, known for his peculiar expletives (e.g. “Bless my dynamite cartridge!”)

The two most controversial characters from our perspective are the black servants of the Swifts: Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson (aka “Rad”), an elderly black man, fiercely loyal to the Swifts and to his mule, Boomerang; and Koku, an African prince of great height and strength, who does a lot of the heavy lifting required in Tom’s workshop. Both are presented in ways we could only characterize today as racially insensitive.

Read more of Bernard Norcott-Mahany's 2015 reviews of books about the First World War:

January 12, 2015
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

February 5, 2015
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

March 13, 2015
Tarzan the Untamed by Edgar Rice Burroughs

April 6, 2015
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

May 4, 2015
Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

June 3, 2015
The Enormous Room by E.E. Cummings

Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship, number 18 in the series, has Tom working on a modified dirigible to which he plans on attaching a large gun from the gondola. When we first see Tom, he is stuck on the problem of how to reduce the recoil in the gun, which is too great, and which without modification will tear the gondola free from its mooring and send the gun and gondola to their destruction, and the gun crew to its death.

No sooner has Tom articulated his problem to Ned Newton than a suspicious fire breaks out in one of the storage sheds. The circumstances seem suspicious and, upon investigation, it is clear that the fire was deliberately set.

It turns out that some foreign government wants to stop Tom’s work on the dirigible and gun, for fear that its superior maneuverability and firepower might be used against the foreign power, either by the United States directly, or by its allies, if Tom or the government should choose to sell to another power.

When Lt. Marbury, the Navy man sent to coordinate with Tom in the selling of his invention to the Navy, is asked who might be behind the sabotage, he suggests that it would not likely be any of the Allied Powers, suggesting that Germany is behind the sabotage, but as it turns out, both sides of the European conflict have it in for Tom.

Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship is chiefly interesting as a time capsule of US views in the years before our entry into World War I. The book was written and published in 1915 when the United States had not yet entered the War. Woodrow Wilson later would win re-election in 1916 on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” And United States business interests as well as a strong sense of isolationism in the Congress in 1915 would likely keep the US out of the war, but business interests might also convince the US to sell such an invention to one of the warring powers.

For a work written before the United States declared war on Germany and entered WWI, the novel is remarkably prescient in some ways. Tom wants the United States to be ready in case it needs to go to war, a view that was not being broadcast in the public sector – the official line was that the United States could and should stay out of the conflict in Europe, and was not ready to go to war against European powers. But the authors are also careful not to link the United States with either the Allied or Central powers, as one of the potential saboteurs in the novel appears to be German, but another appears to be French. That way, no matter what side the US ended up on, if it entered the war at all, Stratemeyer Syndicate was covered.

The Tom Swift books are available in electronic form from Project Gutenberg. You can read the book on your computer, or download it in ePub or Kindle file formats to a device for more portable reading.

The Tom Swift books in the teens and twenties of the last century were a huge phenomenon. They frequently appeared high on lists of popular books, often right behind the Bible. And authors like Isaac Asimov credited the books with inspiring them to take up writing. Apparently, even the term taser is based on an idea presented in Tom Swift books, the letters of the acronym standing for “Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle”.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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