044: “Black Joe”, a novel from 1931

Published by The R.T.S. Office, 4 Bouverie Street, London, 1931
Published by The R.T.S. Office, 4 Bouverie Street, London, 1931
Gordon Browne's sole illustration
Gordon Browne’s sole illustration

Black Joe was published in London in 1931 by the Religious Tract Society, a nonconformist Christian publisher which had established both the Boys Own Paper and the Girls Own Paper in the 1880s, with moralising and improving stories for the young. Ethel Nokes wrote many novels, often Christian preaching for children and always far from lurid or sensational. Black Joe was one of her earlier works, and the RTS Office published at least five others in the 1930s.

In early February 2010 six copies of Black Joe  were to be found on Abe Books – on offer from dealers in Canada, Australia, the U.S.A. and Britain, hinting at a broad sale in English-speaking lands. Nokes’ tale (224 pages) has Harry Johnson and his son Joe reach the village of Brockley, Cheshire, pedling needles and small household items en route to Liverpool. Johnson explains that he did not need fare money as “I’se startin’ sho’ to get a berth, stokin’ or somethin’. Niggers can get jobs quick on dem ar boats, fer sho'”. He had come “over fer dat ar Exhibition….Two years we ab good money, den dey most all go back to Carolina. But mammy, she got job fer cook….and died ’bout six months ago”. Fare for Joe would be a problem.

The village policeman and the vicar help, the vicar agreeing to keep Joe until his father sent the fare from South Carolina, an estimated six months. The vicar’s housekeeper refers to Joe as “that black imp of Satan”. The minstelsy-based dialogue, with Johnson pretending that a tennis racquet is a banjo when he sings about his dreams of the “ole Missouri, de ribber by de rice plantations low” (reflecting Ms Nokes’ profound geographical ignorance), stumbles on. By page 187 a letter from Johnson in the “Male Ward, No. 2, Mifta, South Carolina” in the same dreadful language (“Yer ferder’s an ole black sinner fer sho'” and “tell der vicar dis nigger nebber, nebber fergit”) reaches them. Joe will have a stepmother when he gets to America, which he does not want.

Joe injures himself doing a good deed for a small girl, and is put to bed – doctors come, a bunch of “pure white chrysantheums” come from the squire (Joe asks: “Fer me – fer dis chile?”), and a week later dies just after singing the tosh about “de ribber ob ma dreams am ole Missouri”. The last sentence of the novel ends “but he wakened in heaven, where all are whiter than snow”.

The impact of this novel, and stories of this nature in apparently well-meaning publications, can only be guessed at.

See page 170 of this site.


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