Who is Hank? (Part Three)

Sunday, November 20, 2011 | By John

Books and Authors.  Teachers and librarians are often surprised (and maybe disappointed) to learn that, as a boy, I wasn’t an avid reader.  In my parents’ home, we had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in our living room, loaded with books, and my bedroom upstairs had a smaller version, filled with books my mother had bought for me.  

But I was more of an outside-kid, drawn to sword-fighting, WWII reenactments, clod fights with the neighbor boys, playing with dogs and cats, hiking, playing sports, and going to the farm with Bob Wright and his dad.  Now and then I sat still long enough to read one of the Sugar Creek Gang novels, but most of my reading came in short bursts, spot-reading National Geographic or a World Book encyclopedia, and following my curiosity. 

In my youth, the book that affected me most was the King James Bible, which was written on my soul at an early age.  In the Erickson home, our daily conversations were salted with quotations from the KJV.  When my father said, “There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” it served as a warning that Father’s wrath was about to fall on someone.  When I squandered my allowance at the “dime store,” Mother would call upon one of her favorite verses from Proverbs:  “A fool and his money soon part.”  Another of her favorites was, “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  [Proverbs 22:6]

After the KJV, the book that influenced me most was Tom Sawyer.  In 1954, my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Faith Smith, read it aloud to the class, often laughing so hard, she had to stop and catch her breath.  For the next six months, I became an inspired reader—but only of Mark Twain.  I read Tom Sawyer on my own, then read Huckleberry Finn two times.  

Twain’s novels dealt with the experiences of restless, imperfect boys (like me), who didn’t sit around reading books.  Tom and Huck were drawn to great adventures:  fishing, camping, exploring, playing hooky from school, and rafting on the Mississippi River.  That was the life for me, and those books seized my imagination.  

The quality in Twain’s writing that impressed me most was his use of humor.  The reader was allowed to laugh!  Reading didn’t have to be a drab, joyless experience.  I loved the way he used regional dialects and played with language, like a dog chasing butterflies through a field of wildflowers.  

I have tried to capture that playful spirit in the Hank the Cowdog books, and Mark Twain’s fingerprints are all over them.  When I get fan letters from fourth grade boys who say, “I hate to read, but I love your books,” I smile and think of myself at that age, and of Mark Twain. 

Today, in my sixties, I sometimes look back on formative events in my life and wonder how different things might have been if they had not occurred.  Mrs. Smith’s reading of Tom Sawyer was one of those major events.  If she hadn’t taken the time and trouble to read it to my class, I wonder if I would have ever discovered Hank the Cowdog.

I suspect that I owe a nod of gratitude to Arthur Conan Doyle.  I have never been a reader of detective fiction, but during the early 1980s, I borrowed a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories from my father’s library and gave it a careful reading. 

When I began writing the Hank books, I wasn’t thinking of Sherlock Holmes or trying to imitate Conan Doyle, but the evidence suggests that there might be a genetic link between Hank and Holmes:  a long-running series of stories involving two main characters (Holmes-Watson, Hank-Drover), one of whom is oddly dedicated to solving criminal cases.  

The evidence grows stronger when we consider another point of similarity between Holmes and Hank:  both characters are self-preoccupied and devoid of humor.  The Hank stories are funny, but Hank himself is as humorless as a cinder block.  So was Sherlock Holmes.  

The ultimate joke in the Hank stories is that he has no self-knowledge, isn’t very smart, misses the most important clues in a case, and doesn’t know what he’s talking about half the time.  The reader knows, but Hank doesn’t, and that is funny. 

I think a case could be made that, to some extent, Hank is a parody of Sherlock Holmes—the great British detective with floppy ears and a big nose.  It wasn’t something I set out to do on a conscious level, but there it is.  

One of the highest compliments I’ve received on the Hank series came from a New York publishing executive, who said, “They’re not children’s stories.  They’re great literature, like Sherlock Holmes.”

[To Be Continue]

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