Interacting with Books

The Happy Hollisters and the Drangedal Secret


“I tell you, books are the depositories of the human spirit, which is the only thing in this world that endures.”

~ Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop

Halfdans Bokhus, Drangedal, Telemark, Norway

In observance of National Book Month in the United States – an under-appreciated celebration here generally, barely noticed this year – several of my October posts are dedicated to books and bookstores. I begin with an adventure in Kjosen, Telemark, Norway, location for all photos but those of the book covers. Happy reading!

Bi-Continental Hollisters - USA and NorwayIn two periods of my life, I have joined forces with the Happy Hollisters in secondhand bookstores.

I first came across them either at the Manayunk Salvation Army on Pechin Street in Philadelphia or among the shelves of the now-shuttered Owl Bookshop at Bryn Mawr College. Book-shopping excursions, like trips to the library, featured regularly in my childhood, and I spent many hours seated on floors amid crowded shelves, pondering the mishaps and successes of animals (talking and otherwise), children, sailors, witches, pirates, priests, thieves, even royalty.

Inevitably my parents and I came home with a large number of 5- to 25-cent volumes (enough to offset the cost of a new book), and on a few such occasions I picked up writer Jerry West’s adventures of the Hollister family. For a long time, they and I were left to our own devices, and in the recesses of my mind I’d join them as they followed up illogical warning messages inserted in used books or clambered over shipwrecks on shore holidays, ever stalked by peculiarly sinister strangers.

Shelves in Halfdans Bokhus, Drangedal, NorwaySomewhere along the line, my father took to reading the books to me as bedtime stories – and that was when the Happy Hollisters became household legend.

My father formed an unusual dislike of this wholesome family, whose children seemed, as he put it, “to cause a lot of trouble.” (He was on the side of the sinister strangers.) Noting that the Hollisters had an uncanny tendency to attribute disaster to someone else – especially one Joey Brill, as I recall – he determined that the Happy Hollisters meant “the unhappy neighbors” somewhere in the mix, and with a critic’s flair for language, he annotated the books in his reading sessions.

The resulting social commentary on self-righteous, self-satisfied America undoubtedly contributed to my suspicion of piously articulated values in our culture today. In childhood, however, his delivery honed my sense of humor and my questioning of human nature. The subtler values the books articulated – unproblematic school attendance, eagerness to read, interest in one’s surroundings, curiosity – never landed on Dad’s chopping block; they were part of a “normal,” correct attitude toward life. But the setting up of scapegoats, treating certain children as inherently “bad” elements, and finding ways to promote oneself as blameless without self-scrutiny received a scathing Lutheran treatment.

My father paid a hefty price for asserting his ethical standpoint: I would have no bedtime reading other than his interpretation of the hilarious Hollisters. His performance topped even his rendering of the classic Poky Little Puppy (who had earned the moniker “pukey little puppy” for his brattiness, and zero sympathy at finally getting a smackdown). And so, regardless of whatever trials he might have been undergoing in the adult world, Dad was condemned by his own success to six or seven volumes of unpaid nightly interpretation of the Hollister family: from Pete, the eldest, to Sue, the youngest (and their “long-suffering” pets).

Needless to say, I was forbidden to acquire the rest of the series. Forever.

Road outside Halfdans Bokhus, Drangedal, TelemarkI never investigated the background to the Happy Hollisters series. As I grew older, I segued to Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew (who earned Dad’s wry commentary that her attorney father’s dry-cleaning and auto repair bills must be sky high but incurred none of the wrath reserved for the Hollister family). Gradually I moved on to adventure romances by Mary Stewart and adult crime fiction and fantasy tales, and even into science fiction.

Finally, “great literature” beckoned – and fell under the same sarcastic eye of the novice literary critic that her father had brought to children’s literature. (You really don’t want my opinion of Ethan Frome.)

Now, flash-forward nearly 40 years, to a Norwegian weekend of midsummer deluges appealing only to John the Baptist, whose feast day (Sankthansaften) appropriately landed amid them this year. My friends in Kragerø, Telemark, having abandoned all hope of an excursion to one of Norway’s innumerable breath-taking natural areas, adopted the right-thinking attitude that I might enjoy a visit to a rather unique bookstore.

Halfdans Bokhus on Fv 302, about 12 km northwest of Drangedal in rural Telemark, is a house literally filled, top to bottom, with secondhand books. Open weekend afternoons to bibliophiles greedy for discoveries, it lovingly encompasses both well sorted and unsorted volumes – from first editions to later discards – of all ages and subjects. While the vast majority of the books are in Norwegian, other languages find copious shelf space as well.

Cozy Reading at Halfdans Bokhus, Drangedal, Norway

Even more than the Owl of my youth, Halfdans Bokhus makes no visible attempt to separate living from literature. The family embraces visitors and offers them coffee and cozy furnishings, so they can sit by a corner stove or a window with a view onto the countryside while connecting with the old friends on the shelves and making new ones. The shop receives much of its stock from other secondhand booksellers, and it is clear that the owners hold their acquisitions with not only fondness but considerable esteem.

While the limited hours may agitate the academic mind, the environment reminds the regular reader of the ways in which books speak to us. As I stuffed a Norwegian copy of Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic (Forhekset øy) under my arm, my friends and I discussed our childhood introductions with books, frowned at some titles and gasped at others, and stopped on a dime – er, krone – to grab volumes for perusal and possible later purchase.

A bookstore visit is a journey in recollection and acquaintance, not the mere pursuit of a product.

It was as I wandered through the shelves of the Happy Halfdan family to the Nordic literature for young readers (easier than Sigrid Undset for early language students) that my eye curiously fell, amid the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy series, upon a set of young adventurers whose name rang no bells but who, even by the spine of the book, somehow seemed familiar in the cadence of the title. I don’t know how I happened to draw them off the shelf, but it took only a second to realize I had encountered my father’s old nemesis.

It was those blasted Hollisters.

Archway in Halfdans Bokhus, Drangedal, NorwayIn Norway, as translation treats such things, the Happy Hollisters became Lykkebarna, which can be rendered “lucky children” as easily as “happy” ones. When he later discussed with me the breaking of the family injunction against acquiring more of the little demons, my father (who knows no Norwegian) firmly declared the former translation accurate, for they must be pretty lucky not to have received forceful retaliation by characters they blithely inconvenienced and turned into fall guys over the years.

Yet, true to form among book lovers of all ages, Dad was actually delighted with my purchase of Lyykebarna og den kinesiske dobbelt-gjenger (“The Happy Children and the Chinese Doppelganger,” a more intriguing and somewhat culturally revealing rewording of the U.S. Happy Hollisters and the Mystery in Skyscraper City). Never an advocate of book bans – which he finds even more self-righteous and annoying than Hollisters – and with the imbiber of his moral lessons being past an age suggesting the need for critical reinterpretation of her reading matter, he has considered it appropriate to declare détente at the Hollister family’s pursuit of a reader across the Atlantic.

Or as he put it: “They always did turn up like a bad penny.”

An example of Norway’s generous refugee policy, the Hollisters took on the more familiarly Nordic names of Tone (Sue), Pia (Holly), Roy (Ricky), Hanne (Pam), and Peter (Pete) – presumably, to assist in their assimilation. Otherwise, however, in Den kinesiske dobbelt-gjenger they still manage to get themselves and others in trouble while blithely assured of their own virtue, and the appropriately baleful stranger finds them a nuisance, as ever.

Room of One's Own at Halfdans Bokhus, Drangedal, NorwayTheir cheerful reappearance amid a Norwegian rain has lent my father a certain pity for the country, and he consequently is less likely to attribute any questionable behaviors in that society to a surfeit of oil wealth than he does to the unfortunate effect of their inheriting the Hollisters. For my part, I have rather wondered what young Norwegians made of them growing up.

That is not all I have wondered, and I went to some effort to learn a little about this unruly band of 1950s American children. Hence, I learned that “Jerry West” was the pen name of Andrew E. Svenson, born in Belleville, New Jersey – only a couple hours’ drive north of Philadelphia and just up the road from Newark Liberty International Airport, my point of departure and return on my Nordic travels. This descendant of Swedes in the United States lurks also behind certain Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins stories, having ghost-written for the series with the successful Stratemeyer Syndicate of book packagers in the late 1940s.

In Svenson’s work of setting a new, nondiscriminatory tone for the Hardy Boys, as well as in his Happy Hollisters series, one can see a cosmopolitanism and egalitarianism unusual in much prior U.S. children’s literature. That, as well as the characters’ curiosity and ease with taking on adventure, was what drew me to the Hollisters to begin with – and propelled me into my later interest in reading literature about and by people other than Americans.

Countryside behind Halfdans Bokhus, Drangedal, TelemarkI suspect that’s why the Happy Hollisters, like many other creations of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, have international adaptability: their cross-cultural curiosity, coupled with the middle-class lifestyle that once seemed a norm, has even more durability outside the United States than within it.

But whatever the reason for their international success – and despite my father’s resilient opinions about the Hollisters – I owe this Swedish-American New Jersey neighbor a posthumous thank-you. The adventures of the family have provided years of delight and occasions for joy on two continents. And that strain of writing which continues to haunt the shelves of fond used booksellers such as Halfdans Bokhus has contributed to my lifelong fascination with connecting to other peoples and finding fantastic adventures in unlikely places.

Many writers would give their eye teeth to have a similar effect.

ADDENDUM: Although I am loath to let go a book that has had lifetime significance, and hence my surroundings resemble those of a bookseller, it appears I returned my U.S. Hollisters to circulation. To photograph a copy of one of the American series, I finally resorted to a Philadelphia neighborhood used bookseller. He, despite vigorous attempts to cultivate a stock appealing only to bohemians, somehow had resignedly included the Happy Hollisters on his shelves.

They are, indeed, a hard family to vanquish.