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My Darling Donkey Boy
Our Little Egyptian Cousin by Blanche McManus
© 2013 James LaFond
I recently perused a collection of antique books and fell in love with this one. The text and art—five very nice paintings—were done by the same lady, who apparently went on vacation with her husband, and kept a journal. On her return from the exotic near east she then wrote a book for boys about her experience, replacing herself with a young boy. It seemed to be a profitable gig, her being credited with at least three other ‘Little Cousin’ books.
This youth’s book was part of a series of at least 64 volumes meant to educate American children about other nations through a text that encouraged the reader to identify with a person their age from an alien culture. I would really like to get my hand on the historic sister-series Our Little Cousins of Long Ago; particularly Our Little Aztec Cousin! It was no accident that such a series of books was placed in American libraries beginning at the time of the Spanish–American War.
The subsequent Philippine Insurrection prompted imperialistic British war-monger Kipling to pen The White Man’s Burden, admonishing the crude Anglos across the pond to help drag the colored heathens of the world into the industrial age. His poetic blueprint for world conquest-administration did its literary part in paving the way for human advancements as diverse as the Colt .45 1911, The Federal Reserve, The World Bank, and collectable trading cards, so we can’t be too hard on the old wind-bag. This little volume seems to be a means of indoctrinating the next generation of American boys to take up the burden of empire by promoting the identification of foreign boys as fully human and eager-to-please representatives of an inferior population: a ready-made laboring class. All this was readily apparent through a reading of the cover and front matter.
But what kind of read is it? Granted, it would be burned by most editors today. But can it help us understand some part of yesterday, and, more importantly, is it a fun read?
Our Little Egyptian Cousin
Blanche McManus
1908, original publication
1934, New Revised Edition, 6th imprint, The Page Company, Boston, 135 pages
Blanche could write, and did go to great lengths to overcome her cultural conditioning to craft a sympathetic portrait of Little Nabul. When Nabul and his fellow Egyptians converse they do so in stilted 18th Century English. When he converses with George, his prissy pugnacious Teddy-Roosevelt wannabe American tourist friend, the author does not demean him by having him spew broken English. Rather she narrates the conversation largely without quoting Nabul, who is a really likable donkey jockey—the cabbie of the medieval world.
Mrs. McManus wrote in the age of the grand travel book. She also knew how to write for boys, making certain to depict such scenes as haggling with vendors in the bazaar and competing for fares with other donkey boys as real harrowing and fulfilling adventures in the life of this youth who dreams of buying his little sisters dresses and his mother jewelry by landing a gold-strike American tourist fare.
A lot is made of the economic disparity of America and Egypt and how contact with American industry will change the life of Nabul for the better—but, Nabul is not certain he wants smelly automobiles driving his pretty white donkey off the road. It is bad enough dealing with camel drovers! The author permits the boys to subvert the money-grubbing propaganda extolled by the template she was writing in, in much the same way that Achilles subverts the message that the Iliad was supposed to promote: that war is glory. There is a very real sense that the things that Nabul wants to earn for his family might come with a cultural price.
There is very little criticism about Islamic customs in this 1908 volume. Reading it made me wonder about our current attitudes: are they evolutionary or devolutionary?
Despite the box of cultural inferiority that Nabul is written in to he emerges as the hero of this story, in a friendly fashion. You could well envision him growing up to follow a British officer into combat. The one thing that struck me as telling was the author’s opinion that Egyptian men and boys were so much more fit than Americans: an observation that seems to have shocked her, as she notes time and again how incapable American tourists are of even walking around, let alone defending themselves. The highlight of the book was a brawl between Nabul and his fellow donkey boy and a gang of their Bedouin counterparts who monopolized the tourist transport trade out at the Great Pyramids, in front of which Nabul posed proudly with his white donkey for the cover painting.
As a grammatical note the evolution of compound words in printed English is noteworthy. In 1908 today was to-day, tomorrow was to-morrow, goodbye was good-bye and passersby was passers-by. The book itself resided in the Maryland State Normal School Library in Towson Maryland from April 1934 until March 1946, during which time it was loaned out 11 times. It appears to have been discarded in June of 1946. It was bound in decorative cloth and sold for $1.
As far as social commentary I would like to quote Mrs. McManus on her one criticism of Egyptian men, “Egyptians have the bad habit of smoking one of those nasty little cigarettes at nearly all times.”
I wonder what she would say about young American men today: as unfit as the American tourists of her day and as nastily addicted as their Egyptian servants. I liked Nabul and his feisty donkey and hope he made enough money off of those soft Americans to buy his sisters each a new dress. I think maybe that was what Blanche was thinking when her ship pulled out of Alexandria headed for home.
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