Loyal readers may remember that some time ago these pages revealed the shameful secret of the Edward Stratemeyer syndicate that produced the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and Bobbsey Twins series under names like Franklin W Dixon, Carolyn Keene, Victor Appleton and Laura Lee Hope, figureheads whose sheer implausible prolificacy would have made the underlying ruse obvious to anyone but an early-teenage reader.
That perfidy was contrasted with the honest charms of Willard Price, a singular attested author whose Adventure series delighted more of us than I ever expected. I have even had some feedback on the site and through e-mails fondly remembering this admirable journeyman—approaching 1% of the interest in Missy Higgins Lesbian, much better than it sounds—and bright flashes of recognition among literate types of a certain age at parties, book clubs and so on. It’s encouraging.
But for once the Internet proves not to be the fountain of all knowledge we have come to rely on. (Some people say “font”, but that’s not right: everyone knows that the font of all knowledge is Times New Roman, just as—thanks Nick—the 389 from the City to North Bondi is the route of all evil.) There’s just nothing out there. Perhaps Price lived and wrote at the wrong time, too late to be out of copyright but too early to have made an impact on the current generation. If only he’d written Hilary Duff’s Boobs Adventure or Kate Beckinsale Fucking Adventure, things would have been different, according to my search-engine logs.
But we needn’t go that far. I have consulted the admirable Third Edition of Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers (London: St James Press, 1989) in hardcopy and can offer the following information about this too-long-quiet achiever.
Willard DeMille Price was born on 28 July 1887 in Peterborough, Ontario, and moved to the US when he was four. He got his MA and Litt.D from Columbia, edited the journals Survey and World Outlook, and travelled on many expeditions for the National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History between 1920 and 1967. He wrote fourteen Adventure books for young readers: Amazon Adventure (1949), South Sea Adventure (1952), Underwater Adventure (1954), Volcano Adventure (1956), Whale Adventure (1960, pictured is the 1980 edition, the one that terrorised me with its cat-o’-nine-tails), African Adventure (1963), Elephant Adventure (1964), Safari Adventure (1966), Lion Adventure (1967), Gorilla Adventure (1969), Diving Adventure (1970), Cannibal Adventure (1972), Tiger Adventure (1979) and Arctic Adventure (1980). They were actually more diverse than they sound. And at least he wrote them all.
Price embarked on his Last Adventure on 14 October 1983. Earlier that year, he had said:
My aim in writing the “Adventure” series for young people was to lead them to read by making reading exciting and full of adventure. At the same time I want to inspire an interest in wild animals and their behavior. Judging from the letters I have received from boys and girls around the world, I believe I have helped open to them the worlds of books and natural history.
Doesn’t that sound nice. Bear in mind that he’s 96 years old here. And at the risk of sending contributor Fiona Waters, editor Tracy Chevalier and the good people at St James Press broke, I also extract Waters’s essay on the series:
Willard Price’s highly improbable adventures of Hal and Roger Hunt have all the ingredients of Superman except the boys wear safari suits and save animals rather than humans.
In the first of the adventures, Amazon Adventure, the framework is set for all the following books. John Hunt had “studied and collected animals for twenty years, supplying zoos, circuses and museums,” and was planning a trip to South America accompanied by his sons, Hal and Roger. “No man could want better pals on a jungle journey. Hal, finished with school and about to go to college, was as tall and strong as his father. Roger did not run to length, but he was alert and wiry, and brave enough.” Hal and Roger, at 19 and 15, never seem to age and so remain conveniently popular with the widest range of readers possible. Equally, there is never any real development in the two characters, Hal steady and almost a man, Roger endowed with great courage but not much common sense. The plot is always simple, a search for whatever kind of animal is required, but well endowed with feats of endurance and dramatic episodes, and the pages quite crammed with factual detail on the animals which the boys appear ever to have at their encyclopaedic finger tips. They also possess a remarkable ability for picking up scientific and technical detail relevant to the current project, and are therefore able to take on board ballooning, underwater diving or diamond mining without any hesitation or pause for training. Most of all they do have an extraordinary amount of luck. In Gorilla Adventure they survive between them a charge by an infuriated gorilla, a fire in their cabin and a fight with their local guide, an attack by a mamba and then a spitting cobra, a 20-foot fall followed by a fight with a black leopard—all the while managing to collect 22 animals for their father, to find enough diamonds to maintain an ailing bush hospital, and to capture a python and a gorilla together with one rope.
The exploits may be fiction, but the facts and settings could only have come from real life; Price’s tales are based on his own tumultuous and action-packed life. The detail in these adventure books is all accurate and undoubtedly has an enormous appeal to his wide following. Nothing gets in the way of the narration, of the boys’ exploits and the constant stream of information—no time is wasted on philosophizing or theorizing, all is action and very successful.
One gets the feeling from this mixed review that Waters is secretly a huge fan but is just slightly too sophisticated to say so. Come on, Fiona! Let it all out. That sequence with the fire and the gorilla and all the kinds of snakes, where they’re biffing the treacherous guide and the black leopard (the rarest of them all!) and diamonds are spilling everywhere—you can’t get better than that. It wasn’t luck—it was pluck, though having encyclopaedic fingertips can’t have hurt either. And there may not have been much theorising, but there were important themes addressed—of conservation, of cruelty, of courage and cannibalism—all thrashed out through action rather than boring old speeches.
What I certainly never knew growing up was that Price also wrote a slew of non-fiction books for adults, also based on his extensive travels. Some of them were clearly the product of their time, like perhaps Ancient Peoples at New Tasks (1918, for the Missionary Education Movement) and The Negro Around the World (1925). He wrote many, many books on Japan, from the original The South Sea Adventure: Through Japan’s Equatorial Empire (1936, published in the US as Pacific Adventure—a trap for young players) through Japan Rides the Tiger (1952) and Japan’s Islands of Mystery (1944) to Journey by Junk: Japan After MacArthur (1953) and The Japanese Miracle and Peril (1971). He kind of took up where Lafcadio Hearn left off, though perhaps he was always an outsider and never really embraced the culture. Professor Laurie Barber at the University of Waikato across the ditch goes so far as to suggest that Price may have been some kind of US intelligence agent, citing in particular his writings on the Japanese Mandate in Micronesia:
In early 1944 the allied thrust toward Japan reached the South Seas Mandate’s atolls and islands. Fire storm bombardments by now superior United States naval and airforce destroyed air strips and left Truk’s boasted naval fortress, constructed after the war’s beginning, in ruins. Amphibious landings, the employment of flame throwers, tanks, satchel charges, and overwhelming reinforcement, smashed depleted Japanese defences. It is difficult to estimate how much or how little of Price’s information on the Mandate’s coast, atoll chains, and anchorages, may have helped the American invaders at this time. It is likely some did!
But, even so, the question still remains. Was Willard deMille Price, travel story purveyor par excellence, a United States spy? We may never know whether he was formally a United States intelligence agent, or just a patriotic American willing to tell what he had seen. But we do know that Willard Price deliberately travelled to Japan’s South Seas Mandate to check-out whether Japan had contravened League of Nations mandate provisions by erecting fortifications, and incidentally to discover the extent of Japanese colonisation and control. It may be that he was just a patriotic journalist, offering his findings to the jigsaw assembled by United States military in preparation for a foreseeable war. Why not? After all it is proven fact the Japanese tourists in the 1930s deposited their holiday photographs, often taken against backgrounds of port facilities and likely land beaches, with Japan’s military intelligence in Tokyo. For Price and for the Japanese tourists it was the least patriots could do. But there is the lurking suspicion that Price may have been more in the intelligence world, considerably more than just a patriotic citizen!
Well, who knows. Price also wrote about South America, Africa, Tahiti and even Roaming Britain: 8000 Miles Through England, Scotland and Wales (1958: he must have been very lost). His travels were summarised somewhat prematurely in 1952’s I Cannot Rest from Travel: An Autobiography of Adventure in Seventy Lands, and more comprehensively in 1982’s My Own Life of Adventure: Travels in 148 Lands, which was directed at the readers of his children’s series.
But I’m going straight down to the local library to see if they’ve still got Gorilla Adventure. You should, too!