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    Review of TOM SWIFT AND HIS GREAT SEARCHLIGHT by Victor Appleton


    Grosset & Dunlap, 1912

    Inventer and aircraft engineer Tom Swift is surprised to find someone inspecting his airships from hiding. Upon questioning, the man reveals himself to be a US Customs official. Someone is smuggling goods in from Canada, apparently using airships. Since Tom has the largest fleet known, he becomes a suspect.

    Tom has some difficulty persuading the official of his innocence but when he does, the agent has an unusual suggestion--will Tom help him track the smugglers? Without airships of its own, customs has no chance of catching the tricky smugglers and their activities are costing the US Treasury dearly. Although Tom is at first reluctant, the agent appeals to his patriotism and Tom's fortuitous invention of a giant searchlight, capable of searching out airships for miles, makes a smuggler hunt possible.

    Tom's old nemesis, Andy Foster is back, and is even a suspect in the smuggling operation, but the customs officials can't figure out the connection and leave him free. Bad clues from informants, and exceptional skill on the part of the smugglers makes them hard to locate and harder to capture, but, armed with his searchlight and his electric gun, along with an airship driven by a newly invented silent motor that allows him to sneak up on his enemies, Tom, along with sidekicks Ned and Mr. Damon, persists in his efforts to protect the border and keep the dangerous flood of Canadian goods from damaging the US economy.

    As with all of the Tom Swift adventures, TOM SWIFT AND HIS GIANT SEARCHLIGHT has to be read with some caution. In addition to the now-familiar stereotyping used for Tom's African-American friend/servant Eradicate Sampson, and the giant Koku (who at least doesn't seem saddled with Tom's arbitrary renaming), SEARCHLIGHT features Native Americans living on a reservation and speaking with the kind of dialect that simply would not be allowed in a modern book. It's interesting to hear Canada discussed as 'British' territory--and remember how recently it was that the British Empire really was an Empire constructed to funnel wealth back to that nation's economic leaders.

    Tom's activities (shooting an airship from the sky because it's suspected of being involved in smuggling), tying up someone who crept to near his airship and is suspected of being a sabateur, and blowing off the concerns of others when they accuse him of trespassing aren't all what would be considered appropriate for today. Apparently, though, they were seen as unexceptional at the time.

    As with all of these Tom Swift books, TOM SWIFT AND HIS GREAT SEARCHLIGHT has to be taken with more than one grain of salt. Still, this is a readable adventure, offers unanticipated lessons in how public attitudes have changed (and on how some of our more unfortunate prejudices may have been created or reinforced), and it does reflect the excitement of a time when invention seemed to be coming ever-more quickly and the optimism of a day so shortly before the horrors of war broke out.

    See more reviews of novels by Victor Appleton.

    Two Stars

    Reviewed 6/06/07


      . Multiple formats.

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