By Ronnie Blair
The Florida Antiquarian Book Fair always holds treasures, and a year ago on my annual pilgrimage there I uncovered one, a book of questionable literary value but of personal interest that made up for any artistic failings.
The book was The Silent Alarm by Roy J. Snell, an adventure novel for girls originally published in 1926. Perhaps you have heard of it. Likely you have not. Snell was once a popular author of many such adventure stories for both girls and boys, although these days he hardly registers as a footnote in children’s literature.
It wasn’t always so. A 1938 newspaper article claimed at that point in time, total sales of Snell’s 60 books had reached 800,000 volumes, or roughly an average of 13,000 sales per title. (For perspective, this line from a 2022 New York Times article illustrates how difficult it is these days to sell that many books: “Of the 3.2 million titles that BookScan tracked in 2021, fewer than one percent of them sold more than 5,000 copies.”)
Eventually, Snell would write 82 books with over 2 million copies sold.
It was not Snell’s prominence as the R.L. Stine of his day, though, that attracted me to The Silent Alarm. Instead, it was the book’s setting, Harlan County, Kentucky, the place where I was born and raised. The book resonated on a personal level.
Snell, who was not from Harlan County, had something of a Jack London-like literary career. He was born in Missouri and grew up in Illinois, but as an adult he traveled to or lived in what were considered exotic or remote places at the time. Like London, Snell turned his experiences and the people he encountered into fiction.
Harlan County, a coal-mining area in the Appalachian Mountains, is one such place where Snell ended up for a brief time as a school teacher, and so it became the setting for a few of his novels. Others were set in such places as Alaska, where, according to that 1938 article originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Snell had been sent by a missionary group and “found himself in charge of 350 Eskimos and 1,500 reindeer.”
“He crossed the Bering straits in a skin boat, and life in the Eskimo village had its tribulations,” the article said, “but out of the experience in 1916 came the first of Mr. Snell’s 60 books, ‘Little White Fox and His Arctic Friends.’ ”
Snell was writing at a time when the powerful Stratemeyer Syndicate had a strong hold on the juvenile series market and provided stiff competition with its seemingly endless inventory of series, such as Tom Swift, Ruth Fielding, the Motor Boys, and the Rover Boys. The 1926 publication of Snell’s The Silent Alarm just slightly predated the creation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s two most enduring series: the Hardy Boys, created in 1927, and Nancy Drew, who debuted in 1930.
The 1938 Chicago Tribune article describes my home county as one of the “feud counties of the Kentucky Cumberlands,” which is likely how Snell portrayed it to the reporter. At the time, this may not have been that far off the mark because in the first half of the 20th century Harlan County did have a violent reputation that drew national attention.
Snell included quite a few threatening characters in The Silent Alarm, though the opening is a placid prelude to the tension-filled moments to come. Here is how the novel begins:
“In a cabin far up the side of Pine Mountain, within ten paces of the murmuring waters of Ages Creek, there stood an old, two roomed log cabin. In one room of that cabin sat a girl. She was a large, strong girl, with the glow of ruddy health on her cheeks.
“Her dress, though simple, displayed a taste too often missing in the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky, and one might have guessed she was from outside the mountains.”
Let’s ignore the poor editing of the first sentence that seems to place a cabin inside another cabin. We also will ignore Snell’s casual insult of the fashion senses of 1920s Harlan County girls and women, and simply note that the novel comes with plenty of plot twists to keep girls in 1926 reading, including hidden treasure, a kidnapping, a small child with a mysterious background, election intrigue, and an effort to save a financially failing school that is providing mountain children their best chance at an education.
“Almost all successful children’s books are a series of adventures tied together with one or more threads of mystery,” Snell told the Chicago Tribune.
The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew would have agreed.
The Florida Antiquarian Book Fair may or may not have some of Snell’s books this year, but it certainly will have thousands of other old books to draw in bibliophiles. The fair is March 1-3 and, as always, is held at The Coliseum, 535 Fourth Avenue North, St. Petersburg, FL.
Here are the hours: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. March 1; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 2; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 3. Admission on the evening of March 1 is $10 and that is good for all three days. Admission March 2 is $6 for the day or $10 for the weekend. Admission March 3 is $6. The box office is cash only.
Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up On Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.