Things Get Very Uncomfortable: The Secret Mountain

The Secret Mountain
Enid Blyton
First published in 1941

My history with this book
I loved Enid Blyton’s books as a child, and I remember this being one of my favorites, so much so that I sought out the same 70s paperback edition that I had once owned and ended up buying a much earlier hardcover edition as well. I didn’t remember much about the plot, beyond it being about a group of children who travel to Africa to rescue their missing parents and that it was very exciting.Secret Mountain new

My thoughts
Enid Blyton is a much-beloved British author of children’s book. She was incredibly prolific, writing over 700 books, and wildly popular (over 600 million books sold). She’s not as well known in the US, but her books are huge in the UK and many other parts of the world. I became a fan because I spent my childhood summers in the Irish countryside with my grandparents. The nearest town was quite small and didn’t have a lot of books available, but Enid Blyton’s books were always plentiful. My grandparents bought many Blyton books for me, and I borrowed others from my cousins. My time spent traipsing around the countryside with my cousins was not unlike the idyllic country adventures Blyton portrays in many of her books, so it makes sense that I loved these books at the time.

I’ve read a couple of Enid Blyton books since I started this project, and although they’re fairly simplistic, I enjoyed them, and I was looking forward to re-reading The Secret Mountain, which I recall liking very much as a child. So far, all of the books I’ve re-read have held up reasonably well. Sadly, The Secret Mountain does not.

It’s the story of four young children, Jack, Peggy, Mike, and Nora. I assumed the four were siblings, but later in the book, it’s mentioned in passing with not much of an explanation that Jack isn’t actually a sibling of the other three, but he lives with them. I assume this was explained in one of the earlier books (The Secret Mountain is the third book in a series, but like most of Blyton’s books, it’s not strictly necessary to read them in order). Their parents, Captain and Mrs. Arnold, are famous aviators. The book begins with the parents flying off to Africa for an adventure. Within a few days, the Arnolds have disappeared, and the children decide to go to Africa to search for them.

This would seem like a tall order for four young children (their ages aren’t specified, but they seem to be around 9 to 12), but the foursome just happen to be friends with Prince Paul of Baronia, a child who has a plane and two servants at his disposal. This book is total childhood wish fulfillment. The Arnold children are able to slip away from their guardian with no trouble, and Prince Paul has unlimited resources and servants who apparently must follow his every order, no matter how dangerous.

So, they head off to Africa, and that’s where things g0t problematic for me. The country is never named, and there’s no mention of the fact that Africa isn’t a country, but a continent with many countries and cultures. But this is a children’s book written in 1941, so perhaps I shouldn’t expect any nuance on this topic. All of the African characters are portrayed as rather simple or evil. Or in some case, simple AND evil. The general attitude toward the African characters feels paternal. It’s pretty creepy, but it’s also not totally unexpected in a book written by a British author in the waning days of the colonial era. The children are joined on their adventure by a young African boy, Mafumu. Mafumu is portrayed as very intelligent (he picks up a lot of English in just a few days with the children), and he’s invaluable to their search. But he’s also very credulous. He develops a bad case of hero worship for Jack after the British boy tries to defend Mafumu from his uncle who beats him at the drop of a hat. That episode leads to this passage:

Secret Mountain old“He says he will be your slave forever,” said Ranni with a grin. “He says he will leave his uncle and his tribe and come and follow the wonderful white boy all his life. He says you are a king of boys!”

Yes, really. My jaw dropped when I read this passage. I’ve come to expect some occasional racially insensitive language when I read older books, but this bit is beyond the pale. I didn’t remember this at all from reading the book as a child. I was probably 7 or 8 when I read The Secret Mountain. Did I not understand the implications of this quote? Did I even truly understand slavery at that age? Probably not. This book is seems to be intended for kids age 10 and up. I tended to read a few years ahead of my age, and I glossed over things I didn’t quite understand.

The Secret Mountain is the first book I’ve re-read for this project that I can’t recommend. If you’re ready to have discussions about slavery and other horrors of the world with your children, there are plenty of books with actual literary merit that would be a better place to start.

Many of Enid Blyton’s books are still in print, and the current editions have had some revisions to remove objectionable language. The Secret Mountain is currently out of print, but there have been recent editions. I don’t know the extent of the changes made to The Secret Mountain, but I would hope the above-mentioned passage has been cut or rewritten.

Does it hold up?
Sadly, no.

Is there any objectionable content?
See above.

Can you read it aloud?
Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Would I want my kid to read it?

The book is currently out of print, but there were many editions, and it’s not hard to find used copies.

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