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Nina And Skeezix (Of "Gasoline Alley"): The Problem Of The Lost Ring
posted February 3, 2010
Unknown, Based on Frank King's Characters
Whitman, hardcover, 256 pages, 1941.
This was an out-of-the-blue gift from the writer Matt Maxwell -- thanks, Matt -- and something which I didn't know about but was nonetheless not a surprising thing. It's an early '40s prose work for young people featuring Skeezix Wallet and Nina Clock. According to Frank King's famous choice to have the characters in his strip age in relation to real-world time, Skeezix was a young man now, and I believe without knowing for sure that Skeezix and girlfriend Nina were the focus of the Gasoline Alley
radio shows as well as finding increased space for themselves in the strip. The year of this book's publication was the year of their comic-strip engagement, and the book actually adheres closely to strip continuity in its final 25 pages by acknowledging that outcome. There are several illustrations that I believe are done by some Whitman craftsperson of note, although I can't be sure -- they're fun to look at it basically for Skeezix's design, which at time looks like the boy's head on the body of a man.
I had no time for this, so of course I read the whole thing. Skeezix and Nina don't drink enough to be Nick and Nora Charles, but they're certainly blandly engaging to the point one can imagine them as a young Jerry and Pam North. It was a high time for mystery-solving couples, and our comic strip crossover couple is given an appropriate mystery to solve involving a famous, missing ring. The prose itself is fine: the paragraphs are small and the narrative straight-forward, but it's not as mind-bendingly stupid and smarmy and poorly written as a few of the modern examples of popular books aimed at young people I've read. It's sturdy. Skeezix and Nina became interesting to me as the story unfolded in that they clearly operate as a phenomenon I call "decency fantasy." They're good-natured and kind and brave and smart and honest, but not obnoxiously so in any one direction, and it is this mix of modestly-attained virtues through which they get by in the world. That's not the worst idea to which one might expose children, and certainly must have been subliminally comforting to any teens that might have read this stuff in the increasingly crazy, modern and jittery age in which the book was initially sold. Skeezix and Nina feel no more endangered than the Hardy Boys do on those occasions the boy sleuths and Chet Morton exchange blows with a group of adult smugglers. Most of what Skeezix faces is people making scowly faces at him and suggesting he's not a good egg; Nina's lone physical feat of note is scampering to the top of a stuffed elephant. They're good kids, and we all know they deserve one another.