The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 17, No. 104, June, 1866
Author: Various
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Mr. Doolittle speaks of a class of degraded individuals in China, "who are willing to make amusement for others." The severest critic can hardly assign him to any such class, for there is no reason to suppose that he would have made his book amusing, if he could possibly have helped it. But the Chinese are a race of such amazing and inexhaustible oddities, that the driest description of them, if it be only truthful, must be entertaining.

What power of prose can withdraw all interest from a people whose theology declares that whoever throws printed paper on the ground in anger "has five demerits, and will lose his intelligence," and that he who tosses it into water "has twenty demerits, and will have sore eyes"? A people among whom unmarried women who have forsworn meat are called "vegetable virgins," and married women similarly pledged are known as "vegetable dames,"—among whom a present of sugar-cane signifies the approach of an elder sister, and oysters in an earthen vessel are the charming signal that a younger brother draws near,—a people among whom the most exciting confectionery is made of rice and molasses,—how can the Reverend Justus Doolittle deprive such a people of the most piquant interest?

And when we come to weightier matters, one finds this to be after all one of those "dry books" for which Margaret Fuller declared her preference,—a book where the author supplies only a multiplicity of the most unvarnished facts, and leaves all the imagination to the reader. To say that he for one instant makes the individuality of a Chinese conceivable, or his human existence credible, or that he can represent the whole nation to the fancy as anything but a race of idiotic dolls, would be saying far too much. No traveller has ever accomplished so much as that, save that wonderful Roman Catholic, Huc. But setting all this apart, there has scarcely appeared in English, until now, so exhaustive and so honest a picture of the external phenomena of Chinese life.

It is painful to have to single out honesty as a special merit in a missionary work; but the temptation to filch away the good name of a Pagan community is very formidable, and few even among lay travellers have done as faithful justice to the Chinese character as Mr. Doolittle. He fully recognizes the extended charities of the Chinese and their filial piety; stoutly declares that tight shoeing is not so injurious as tight lacing, and that Chinese slavery is not so bad as the late lamented "institution" in America; shows that the religions of that land, taken at their worst, have none of the deified sensuality of other ancient mythologies, and that the greatest practical evils, such as infanticide, are steadily combated by the Chinese themselves. Even on the most delicate point, the actual condition of missionary enterprises, the good man tells the precise truth with the most admirable frankness. To make a single convert cost seven years' labor at Canton, and nine at Fuhchan, and it was twenty-eight years ere a church was organized. Out of four hundred million souls, there are as yet less than three thousand converts, as the result of the labor of two hundred missionaries, after sixty years of work. Yet Mr. Doolittle, who has spent more than a third of his life in China, still finds his courage fresh and his zeal unabated; and every one must look with respect upon a self-devotion so generous and so sincere.

Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, a Story of Life in Holland. By M. E. DODGE. New York: James O'Kane.

Hans Brinker is a charming domestic story of some three hundred and fifty pages, which is addressed, indeed, to young people, but which may be read with pleasure and profit by their elders. The scene is laid in Holland, a land deserving to be better known than it is; and the writer evinces a knowledge of the country, and an acquaintance with the spirit and habits of its stout, independent, estimable people, which must have been gathered not from books alone, but from living sources.

Graphically, too, is the quaint picture sketched, and with a pleasant touch of humor. We all know the main features of Dutch scenery; but they are seldom brought to our notice with livelier effect. Speaking of the guardian dikes, Mrs. Dodge says:—

"They are high and wide, and the tops of some of them are covered with buildings and trees. They have even fine public roads upon them, from which horses may look down on wayside cottages. Often the keels of floating ships are higher than the roofs of the dwellings. The stork chattering to her young on the house-peak may feel that her nest is lifted out of danger, but the croaking frog in neighboring bulrushes is nearer the stars than she. Water-bugs dart backward and forward above the heads of the chimney-swallows, and willow-trees seem drooping with shame, because they cannot reach as high as the reeds near by.... Farm-houses, with roofs like great slouched hats over their eyes, stand on wooden legs with a tucked-up sort of air, as if to say, 'We intend to keep dry if we can.' Even the horses wear a wide stool on each hoof to lift them out of the mire.... Men, women, and children go clattering about in wooden shoes with loose heels; peasant-girls, who cannot get beaux for love, hire them for money to escort them to the Kermis; and husbands and wives lovingly harness themselves, side by side, on the bank of the canal, and drag their pakschuyts to market....

"'One thing is clear," cries Master Brightside, 'the inhabitants need never be thirsty.' But no, Odd-land is true to itself still. Notwithstanding the sea pushing to get in, and the lakes pushing to get out, and all the canals and rivers and ditches, there is, in many districts, no water fit to swallow; our poor Hollanders must go dry, or drink wine and beer, or send inland to Utrecht and other favored localities for that precious fluid, older than Adam, yet young as the morning dew.

The book is fresh and flavorous in tone, and speaks to the fancy of children. Here is a scene on the canal:—

"It was recess-hour. At the first stroke of the school-house bell, the canal seemed to give a tremendous shout, and grow suddenly alive with boys and girls. The sly thing, shining so quietly under the noonday sun, was a kaleidoscope at heart, and only needed a shake from that great clapper to startle it into dazzling changes.

"Dozens of gayly clad children were skating in and out among each other, and all their pent-up merriment of the morning was relieving itself in song and shout and laughter. There was nothing to check the flow of frolic. Not a thought of school-books came out with them into the sunshine. Latin, arithmetic, grammar, all were locked up for an hour in the dingy school-room. The teacher might be a noun if he wished, and a proper one at that, but they meant to enjoy themselves. As long as the skating was as perfect as this, it made no difference whether Holland was on the North Pole or the Equator; and as for philosophy, how could they bother themselves about inertia and gravitation and such things, when it was as much as they could do to keep from getting knocked over in the commotion?"

There is no formal moral, obtruding itself in set phrase. The lessons inculcated, elevated in tone, are in the action of the story and the feelings and aspirations of the actors. A young lady, for example, has been on a visit to aid and console a poor peasant-girl, whom, having been in deep affliction, she found unexpectedly relieved. Engrossed by her warm sympathy with her humble friend, she forgets the lapse of time.

"Helda was reprimanded severely that day for returning late to school after recess, and for imperfect recitation.

"She had remained near the cottage until she heard Dame Brinker laugh, and heard Hans say, 'Here I am, father!' and then she had gone back to her lessons. What wonder that she missed them! How could she get a long string of Latin verbs by heart, when her heart did not care a fig for them, but would keep saying to itself, 'O, I am so glad! I am so glad!'"

The book contains two things,—a series of lifelike pictures of an interesting country and of the odd ways and peculiarities and homely virtues of its inhabitants; and then, interwoven with these, a simple tale, now pathetic, now amusing, and carrying with it wholesome influences on the young heart and mind.


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