Sunday, March 18, 2012

Danny Orlis and the Critical Mrs. Smucker

I grew up on Danny Orlis books, and I'll bet a good many of you did too--those little paperbacks from Moody Press with a yellow-framed cover with a pencil drawing in blue. There are over 50 titles in the series, according to Wikipedia, and I'm guessing I read most of them. Here's a small sampling:
  • Danny Orlis and the Hunters (1955)
  • Danny Orlis Goes to School (1955)
  • Danny Orlis on Superstition Mountain (1955)
  • Danny Orlis Makes the Team (1956)
  • Danny Orlis and the Wrecked Plane (1956)
  • Danny Orlis and the Big Indian (1956)
  • Danny Orlis Changes Schools (1956)
  • Danny Orlis and the Rocks that Talk (1956)
  • Danny Orlis Plays Hockey (1957)
  • Danny Orlis and the Point Barrow Mystery (1957)
  • Danny Orlis and the Boy Who Would Not Listen (1957)
  • Danny Orlis, Star Back (1957)
  • Danny Orlis and His Big Chance (1958)
Bernard Palmer was the author, and he puts a whole new spin on the word "prolific." Look at that, five books in 1956 alone. True, they were short and pretty much fit the same formula, but still.

We used to get Danny Orlis books for VBS rewards and such, and also for memorizing verses through Radio Bible Club. Or, generally, my sister Rebecca would memorize the verses and get the books, and I'd read them.

Danny Orlis lived up in the Northwest Angle, that little bit of Minnesota that sticks up into Canada because of a long-ago surveyor's mistake. Since most of the Northwest Angle is taken up by Lake of the Woods, Danny and his cronies used to have all kinds of adventures on the lake, such as zooming along in their motorboat chasing or being chased by the bad guys, and losing them among the islands.

At the end of the book, things worked out. The bad guy was caught, and usually he got saved. That was how stories were supposed to end.

Years later I traveled in that area a number of times, but I never saw Danny Orlis. I did, however, meet a guy who grew up on the lake. I mentioned how Danny used to zoom around on his motorboat among the islands and this guy said, "I used to do that too, with the cops chasing us."

I asked him why and he said, "Uh...drugs."

But, like a good Danny Orlis character, this guy eventually got saved and worked at Stirland Lake High School.

I think Bernard Palmer must have gotten some critical mail about his formula happy-ending fiction, so he wrote one book that broke the mold. "Danny Orlis and the Defiant Kent Gilbert," I think it was called. Danny was married to the lovely Kay by this time, and they took in a delinquent and tried very hard to befriend and help him, but in the end Kent did not get saved. It was shocking. An ending so horrible that I still remember it--something like "He knew the way out, but he wouldn't take it."

It shook us up, that ending did. What was the point of writing the book, or reading it?

I am looking at all the fiction in my life with a new eye now that I've finished the online short story writing course from Stanford that I posted about here.

I finally made an uncertain peace with the assigned stories in the class, supposedly the finest of modern short stories but generally weird, dark, mysterious offerings in which nothing much happens but the characters and the despair keep you awake at night.

Thankfully the instructor was excellent and the others in the class supportive, so despite the assigned stories, I learned a lot about the elements of fiction and got lots of helpful feedback on my own work. We had to write a longer story for the final project and even after a 10-week class with lots of short exercises, I was wandering around the house muttering, "I can't do this. I just don't have it in me," and Emily was trying to help by texting me story ideas every hour but it didn't help. Dear me, why was I trying fiction when I couldn't come up with even one idea and she could come up with a good one every hour?

Finally I told myself I'd write a story that would never see the light of day outside of the class, and pulled together all these real local people and events and confessions, and glued them in a row, and painted and varnished, and there was a 5000 word story.

The character had a great epiphany, and the ending was satisfying, so I knew it would never fly as literary fiction but I didn't care.

The others in the class said very nice things about it.

But no, seriously, you will never get to see it, so don't ask.

Overall, I feel like the class was a success and I have a much better sense of where to go from here with writing fiction.

Meanwhile, speaking of epiphanies, I realized something: Bernard Palmer had one grand moment of rising above the formula fiction he churned out by the bucketful. That one book, Danny Orlis and the Defiant Kent Gilbert, whose ending Rebecca and I hated so bad, was actually not so far from today's fancy literary fiction, because the ending was utterly unsatisfying, and nothing got resolved, and you wished you had never started reading it.

Mr. Palmer probably got lots of mail about that book from disappointed readers. Too bad he and they never realized what great literature it actually was.

Quote of the Day:
Jenny: If there's one thing I detest most in the world, it's being wrong. I just HATE being wrong.
Me: What's wrong with being wrong?
Jenny: That means the other person's right!
Steven: Good luck in life, kiddo.


  1. I don't think I read any Danny Orlis books but my two youngest sisters were fans of his books.

  2. Rosy (from Plain City)3/19/2012 3:04 AM

    I devoured them wholesale...I found some again not long ago,and looked through them and just laughed! They are quite formulaic! :-D

  3. What a fun column! I had forgotten all about Danny Orlis...chuckle.

    And Steven's comment is actually quite profound.

  4. I have read some Danny Orlis books in my childhood.Thanks for the memory.My favorite Bernard Palmer book is My Son,My Son,a true story written by Mr.Palmer about his wayward son.A very good read!

  5. I too listened to many Danny Orlis stories read on the radio on Saturday mornings read by Melvin Jones.I really enjoyed them. This would be in the 1950's. I think I may have read some to our sons when they were young.Good memories. They were read in the Back to the Bible offices here in Lincoln NE.

  6. My middle school boy is reading my old collection of Danny Orlis. It might not be literature but a lot better than a lot of modern books for kids!

  7. I didn't grow up in a Christian home so didn't read these as a child. I was saved as an older teen and introduced to Grace Livingston Hill and Francena Arnold. I preferred Arnold's books because the Hill ones were SOOOO formulaic they made me want to grind my teeth. Arnold's books always had (somewhat) happy endings, but the people often suffered greatly in the process, which was a lot more realistic. I think I cried through almost all of "Not My Will".

    I'll admit I'm not a big fan of most "Christian" fiction today. Formulaic, poor plot development, shallow characters... when I find myself grinding my teeth I know it's time to stop reading one. LOL My favorite author right now is Jan Karon; my husband and I so enjoy her books! I'd love to hear from you -- and others -- what you've read and enjoyed and can recommend. Life's too short to read poorly written books!

  8. I read some of them growing up too. Also, wasn't there a series in that era called the 'Peggy' series or something like that? About a Christain girl living her faith in high school? I must be getting old, can't remember such things.

  9. Yes! I happen to have a few of them--"A Mystery Solved for Peggy" "Wider Horizons for Peggy" etc.

  10. That's a blast from the past....
    Contemporary fiction is depressing.....I also like Jan Karon, calong with Ellis Peters' Cadfael, and Penelope Wilcock's monks.

  11. I guess it's who defines great literature. What is "great literature"?

  12. I to loved those Christian books as a young girl on farm in Mississippi, and enjoyed Danny Orlis. But do you recall a book with a young teen age girl as the main character. I've been trying to recall her name. She had a father who was a teacher and later converted I think, and a mother who divorced the father. It's been since 1969. So you know I am old. I think the father was a teacher or a psychologist. Those books really got us through the long hot summer days and cold winter months in the house.