Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories: "Through Fire and Water"

I had a real fear of fire growing up.  In fact, I demanded to have a fold-up emergency ladder installed in my second-floor bedroom when I was in elementary school (and I got it too!  That was an awesome birthday).  Who could blame me, when everything from Charlie Brown specials to Disney flicks used fire as a plot device to warn naughty children?

The one that stuck with me the most, though, was the Uncle Arthur Bedtime Story "Through Fire and Water."  While not as purely horrific as "Mother Love" (or its tamer revised version, "Mother's Hands"), "Through Fire and Water" terrified me because its message was directed squarely at me.  Did I quarrel with my brother?  Why yes, I did.  So this story surely outlined the fate I deserved.

Our story begins with Mother threatening to whip her children, Gordon and Clarice, because they are quarreling.  And yet this is not a story about the evils of child abuse; this is a story about how they totally get what's coming to them, and why a whipping would have been preferable.

Mother then leaves the children alone (obviously a model parent), and the children squabble about Gordon's amazing alcohol-burning toy train (I wonder if Mother went out to get more alcohol--for the train, of course).  Gordon warns Clarice that if she touches his engine, she'll "be sorry," and Clarice retorts that he "daren't touch [her]."  Ah, but daren't he indeed?

Clarice knocks the train off the tracks, and Gordon goes to clobber her, but soon they notice that the upset train set has now set the living room on fire.  Clarice tears down the curtains and stamps on them, but her dress catches fire, and Gordon throws a bucket of water over her.

But poor Clarice's legs are "burned, badly burned" and she must spend the next few weeks in the hospital.  And Gordon, who is astonished that "a girl could be so brave," brings her flowers, and when she comes home--here comes the moral--"while neither of them said anything about it, they both determined in their little hearts that they would never be mean to each other again."  Perhaps the afterword about suing the toy company that manufactured highly combustible toy trains got lost in my edition...

Lesson learned:
Don't mess with your brother's toys unless you want to wind up horribly disfigured.

Maxwell, Arthur S.  "Through Fire and Water."  Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories.  Vol. 1.  Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1950.  291-96.
Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories


  1. Try reading Lucy Clifford's "The New Mother" sometime. Gordon and Clarice got off light.

  2. These posts are hilarious! I was ready to purchase these books for my son, but thankfully I read your blog first.

  3. I should point out that when these stories were written whippings, leaving children unattended, and dangerous toys were common place. It is because of this kind of happening that society finally figured out that children should be attended and toys checked for safety.

    Uncle Arthur isn't writing to parents about how to care for children but to kids growing up in that era about how to be obedient and safe.

  4. With all respect due to the late great Arthur S. Maxwell and his family, your interpretations of his "Bedtime Stories" are priceless. I would love to see you review - or, more appropriately, roast - more of them in the near future. Please and thanks!

    P.S. I know how tough a young child's life can be; when I was little, I got issued painful ultimatums like "Either do 'the Hokey Pokey' or take a time-out". Could I help it if "HP" just wasn't my style? Maybe if Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made a movie set in a mental hospital (pre-"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", of course).