Retelling the First World War as Alternate History and Technological Fantasy in American Children’s Literature
Following nineteenth-century British children’s literature written by popular authors such as G.A. Henty, American adventure fiction for young readers of the early twentieth century focuses on the intelligence, honesty, and resourcefulness of its boy characters, traits that typically enable the young male protagonists to engage in acts of courage, chivalry, and heroism. One strain of American children’s literature directed particularly toward male readers, the “edisonade,” expands the notion of the “frontier” of the adventure tale to include new technologies that allowed for greater exploration of the air, sea, and land. Feats of turn-ofthe-century engineering that pioneered advances in aviation, marine technology, weaponry, and communication provided the context for these edisonades, named for the American inventor Thomas Edison.1 Often, these thrilling tales are set during times of conflict or war. In the original Tom Swift series about a boy inventor/engineer, for example, two of the books take place in (and were published during or just after) the First World War years: Tom Swift and His War Tank, or, Doing His Bit for Uncle Sam (1918) and Tom Swift and His Air Scout, or, Uncle Sam’s Mastery of the Sky (1919).2 This chapter will focus on an extreme version of the American edisonade set during the first years of the same war, Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk trilogy Leviathan (2009-11). Although these examples
of American science fiction/adventure novels for young readers are separated by 100 years and changing ideologies of nationalism, militarism, and empire-as well as very different approaches to gender and racial equality-the two sets of works nevertheless manipulate historical events and warcraft in remarkably similar fashion, thus illuminating a striking continuity within this genre in the representation of young people as agents of change.