The Airplane in the Early Judy Bolton Books

Arthur’s Airplane and Judy Bolton’s Romantic Dilemma

David K. Vaughan
Although Margaret Sutton’s Judy Bolton series is directed primarily at girl readers and features mostly domestic adventures, that is, adventures that take place around the home and immediate community of the main figure, some aspects of the stories are often found in boys’ series stories, such as occasional threats of physical violence, robberies, and other crimes. There are also airplanes in the Judy Bolton series. This is not too surprising, for there are airplanes in other girls’ series as well. Especially during the late 1920s and early 1930s, it seems as if airplanes were a required element of any series story. But in the Judy Bolton series, Margaret Sutton made the airplane an integral part of those stories in which it appeared, carrying greater meaning than just a vehicle for adventure.

The airplane that is especially important in the Judy Bolton series is the biplane owned by Arthur Farringdon-Pett, young member of the most socially prominent family of Farringdon, the town in which Judy and her family are living during the period of these stories. Arthur Farringdon-Pett possesses the latest forms of transportation in the early Judy Bolton books, including two automobiles as well as an airplane. This is not surprising given his education as an engineer and his interest in building or rebuilding several structures in Farringdon and Roulsville. No character in the stories is better suited by profession and temperament to operate these modern transportation machines.

There are six consecutive stories in which Arthur Farringdon-Pett’s airplane appears: Ghost Parade, Yellow Phantom, Mystic Ball, Voice in the Suitcase, Mysterious Half Cat, and Riddle of the Double Ring. These stories were written during the years 1933-1937, when the airplane, especially the newly developed sport airplane, was a major image in the popular imagination. This popular interest in the airplane was sparked primarily by the flight of Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic in 1927, and the airplane, and its potential for travel and adventure, remained popular for the next ten years, until the clouds of World War II started to gather in Europe, and the airplane’s potential as a lethal instrument of war became clear.

Arthur’s airplane first appears in Ghost Parade, when Arthur flies it up to the Thousand Islands summer camp where Judy and the other Farringdon girls are enjoying an early summer vacation after a fire destroys their school. Arthur has no purpose in flying to the camp other than to impress the girls, especially Judy Bolton, to whom he gives the honor of being the first girl to fly in his airplane. The topic of Arthur’s airplane comes up even before the girls reach the camp, when Lorraine describes the shore of the island where the camp is located as wide enough “to land an airplane on. That is, if anybody had one.” Apparently the fact that Arthur owns an airplane is supposed to be a secret. But Judy knows: “I know about it. . . . Peter Dobbs told me” (41).

It is significant that this first discussion about Arthur’s airplane is between Lorraine Lee and Judy Bolton, for throughout these episodes they are in competition for Arthur’s attention. Or rather Lorraine is in competition, for Arthur clearly prefers the company of Judy to that of Lorraine. Arthur arrives in his airplane just after Lorraine has disappeared, upset because Judy’s cats have scratched her face, causing her to believe that her scratched face will not be attractive to Arthur when he arrives. When she sees the airplane for the first time, she inspects it closely: “She touched the painted canvas on the lower wing and marveled that it was hardly heavier than a sheet of paper. A square of corrugated aluminum bore the invitation, STEP HERE” (108). Arthur asks Judy what she thinks of his “new toy,” saying that it is “quite a sizeable bird, don’t you think?” Judy “glanced at the trademark printed on its glossy surface and laughed,” and says “’It is a Bird plane at that. I might have known it, Arthur. Your old car was the Bluebird and we called the new gray one the Pigeon and now you have a real Bird with wings’” (109).

At first it seems that Judy’s comments are about birds, not airplanes. But when Sutton tells us that Judy “glanced at the trademark” before making her comments, this gives us an important clue as to the true identity of the airplane. The only company that marketed a “Bird” biplane during this time was the Brunner-Winkle company, which was originally established at Roosevelt Field, in Garden City, New York, in 1926. After the war, the American public was eager to see flying machines first-hand, which had been rapidly developed during the war. Many wartime aircraft and wartime pilots earned money as “barnstormers,” giving exhibition flying performances across the U.S. Charles Lindbergh, for instance, got his first flying job helping out a barnstorming pilot, who taught Lindbergh the basics of flying. The Brunner-Winkle “Bird” was one of the early aircraft designed to serve this need.

The company built two basic designs, which differed according to the engine used. The first design featured the World War I era OX-5 engine, the engine that was used on many U.S. training aircraft, such as the venerable Curtiss “Jenny.” The OX-5 engine was an eight-cylinder, inline engine. Its performance was often unreliable, but it could be purchased for a very low price. When the war ended, the government had a surplus of these engines, which many fledgling aircraft companies bought for use in their aircraft.
The second version of the Brunner-Winkle “Bird” utilized the five-cylinder Kinner engine. This was a radial engine; the five cylinders extended radially out into the airstream where they were air-cooled.

Although this engine featured fewer cylinders, it produced more horsepower (125 Hp) compared to the 90-Hp OX-5. Its design allowed for greater forward visibility. It was also lighter and more reliable. The Kinner-powered Bird was described as possessing good short-field characteristics, good rate of climb, pleasant slow-speed characteristics and adequate cruise performance (its cruise speed was about 85 miles per hour). This is very likely the model in which Arthur and Judy share their aerial adventures. One source says that the performance of the aircraft, along with its gentle handling characteristics, “made it a joy to fly, especially for women pilots.” A female flight instructor named Neta Snook taught Amelia Earhart to fly in the later version of the aircraft. After he flew the Atlantic and became famous, Charles Lindbergh taught his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, to fly in the later version. Unfortunately, although many pilots liked the handling characteristics of this aircraft, the company did not sell enough aircraft to survive, and went out of business five years after it started, in 1931, a victim of the stock market crash.

The aircraft logo (a pair of wings on either side of the word “Bird”) was placed prominently on the lower fuselage, just behind the lower wing, and this is the “trademark” that Judy mentions. That it is a two-wing aircraft, or biplane, is evident when Judy observes water splashing “over the lower wing” as it taxis “too close to the bay” before taking off (135). One other feature of Arthur’s airplane that helps to confirm it as a Brunner-Winkle “Bird” is its large front cockpit. When Judy encourages Lorraine to fly back to the camp in the airplane with her and Arthur, she says that “there’s room for both of us in that forward cockpit” (143). Its front cockpit was large enough to hold two passengers; this was an intentional design feature in the later Bird aircraft which allowed barnstorming pilots to carry an additional passenger on each ride, thus increasing profits. This large front seat is mentioned later, in Voice in the Suitcase, when Arthur flies Judy and Selma Brady to the Brady farm.

In no other story does Sutton provide as much detail about the aircraft as in Ghost Parade. In the stories that follow, few additional details of the airplane are given. However, what is more important than identifying the specific kind of airplane that Sutton describes is recognizing the significant role that it plays in the stories in which it appears. It serves two important but related functions: First, it represents a kind of creative freedom for Judy that allows her to experience new feelings of liberation and exhilaration. Second, it represents and symbolizes the relationship between Judy and Arthur Farringdon-Pett, and the experiences she shares in the airplane with Arthur illustrate the nature of their relationship. Arthur’s airplane presents a major problem for Judy: although she enjoys the first aspect, the feeling of freedom the airplane provides, she is concerned, and even frightened by, many of the events that occur when she flies in Arthur’s airplane, and in the end she rejects the possibility of a permanent relationship with Arthur in a most spectacular fashion, by jumping out of the airplane.

The first aspect, the sensation of freedom and liberation, is immediately evident in Ghost Parade. When she thinks about flying in Arthur’s airplane, she says, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Arthur came to visit us while we’re at camp? Oh, it would be heavenly flying over these islands! I can imagine their beauty even in the dark—“ (41). After Arthur lands at the Thousand Islands camp, Arthur tells Judy that he has brought a green aviator’s cap and an extra set of goggles for her so she can go for a ride with him. “Judy squealed with delight. Everything else was forgotten in the joy of anticipation. Actually riding in that beautiful new plane—with Arthur! It was too wonderful!” (109).

Arthur appears very differently to Judy when he is flying his airplane. When Arthur leaps from the cockpit after shutting the engine off, he appears as a “stranger, almost, in his goggles and heavy flying gear.” Arthur’s altered appearance clearly appeals to Judy. When she asks him if flying is “wonderful,” he replies: “It gets into a fellow’s blood, this business of flying. I must watch my step or I’ll forget that it’s just a side-line and that my real occupation is being an engineer.” Judy “could not help thinking of her brother Horace and Peter Dobbs at home. She wondered if they had found as much pleasure in their chosen professions as Arthur found in flying” (111). Later, she thinks that “flying must make a person brave” (119).

Although Arthur seems to have made a full commitment to flying, he has relatively little experience, for he tells Judy that he has just “finished his twenty hours of solo flying only yesterday but the license is in my pocket.” He also tells her that there is a plan to improve the field and build a hangar in Farringdon; this will be his “next engineering job” (111). When Judy makes her first flight with Arthur, she feels a

glorious sensation of being over and above everything. . . . What a small world! What a geometrical world with its ordered system of land, water and fields of planted things. . . . Wind caught the plane and it dipped and swerved reminding Judy of a merry-go-round.

When Judy and Arthur land near the house where Lorraine has been hiding, Judy tries to convey to Lorraine how she felt about flying: “You never saw anything like how wonderful it is. Arthur and I were a couple of gods, really. I mean the kind they used to have in ancient Greece. The world was ours while we were up there above it, everything below us like a big map!” (142)

Judy is so excited that she briefly forgets that Lorraine will not be especially pleased to hear about the exciting sensations Judy experienced during her ride with Arthur. But even on her first ride, Judy recognizes the dangers associated with flight as she realizes that sudden swerves and dips could cause problems (135-6). Although Lorraine is promised a ride in Arthur’s airplane, that event is postponed, as one delay after another forces them to change their plans. In Ghost Parade, the only person who flies with Arthur is Judy, who is clearly impressed with the experience.

In the second story in this group, Yellow Phantom, Judy and Irene travel to New York City to stay with Pauline Faulkner, whose father, like Judy’s, is a doctor. On the bus ride to New York City from the Thousand Islands camp they meet Dale Meredith, a young and attractive aspiring writer of mystery stories. The main issues in the book have to do with bringing Dale and Irene together and determining the identity of a mysterious “Golden Girl” writer who works with Dale Meredith’s literary agent. At one point both Irene and her father disappear, causing a frantic search in New York City and Farringdon. The story concludes successfully for Irene as she not only captures the heart of Dale Meredith but also discovers that she is the granddaughter of the mysterious “Golden Girl” writer.

Although this story is primarily about Irene Lang, the relationship between Irene and Dale serves as a model, in many ways, for the kind of relationship that Judy is trying to develop. Judy sees how Irene and Dale have a solid relationship built on trust and love, and finds herself competing with Irene, an aspect that is brought out more fully in later books. Like Arthur, Dale Meredith also has an interest in aviation. Dale, it turns out, is a pilot like Arthur, except that he has had more flying experience. Not only that, his best stories, both Judy and Irene agree, are about flying, and they give a good sense of what flying is like. When Irene says that his flying stories are much better than his mystery stories, he says that his flying stories “were written from first-hand knowledge. . . . I had a pilot’s license and flew with a friend of mine across the continent. There was story material and plenty of it!” (50). A little later, thinking of the relationship that is developing between Dale and Irene, she reflects on her complicated romantic triangle: “Judy thought of Peter Dobbs and Arthur Farringdon-Pett at home” (59).

Arthur’s airplane isn’t mentioned until late (Chapter 21) in the book, when Arthur and Horace appear on Judy’s doorstep in New York City after flying from Farringdon. They had been looking for Mr. Lang, who also had been missing. But when Arthur stands in the doorway of Pauline’s house in New York in his flying clothes, Judy is immediately reminded of their flight together in the previous story: “It was Arthur Farringdon-Pett, the young pilot-engineer, who owned his own airplane and had taken Judy for a never-to-be-forgotten ride far above the beautiful St. Lawrence River” (146). It is not really necessary for Arthur to appear in the story, as his task, to search for Mr. Lang, could have been accomplished more easily and more practically by Horace in his car. But it is clear the Sutton wanted this brief reminder of Arthur’s flying activities in the story. It is significant also that at the end of the story, when everyone returns to Farringdon, Judy flies back in Arthur’s airplane (209). Although Peter Dobbs is present in the story, Judy relies on Arthur rather than Peter for a ride back to Farringdon.

In the third story in the group, Mystic Ball, the action returns to Farringdon, as Judy helps to reveal the unethical behavior of Wanda, the Fortune Teller. Equally important as uncovering the deceptions of Wanda, however, is the relationship between Judy and Irene, as Judy becomes extensively involved as an intermediary between Irene and Dale and ends up complicating the situation, causing them to become upset at Judy (and deservedly so, as Judy over-involves herself in their relationship). Judy’s over-enthusiastic involvement in their relationship must be linked to her confusion about her feelings towards Arthur Farringdon-Pett. The situation between Arthur and Judy is illustrated early in the story, when Arthur flies out to Dry Brook Farm to bring her into Farringdon. As she waits for Arthur to arrive, she tells her Grandfather Smeed that “I’ll always love flying. Perhaps someday I shall be a flying detective with a star and everything” (3). Grandfather Smeed is skeptical, however.

Before they fly to Farringdon, Judy and Arthur have an unpleasant discussion about how Arthur spends his money carelessly and whether they shouldn’t have different partners for their social outings: Lorraine with Arthur and Peter with Judy (10-11). On the way to Farringdon, he inadvertently puts the airplane into a spin and barely recovers in time. Judy’s response is to think “he hasn’t much sense after all” (14) and after they eventually land safely she tells Arthur that she will ask Peter Dobbs to give her a ride home in his car (15). Later in the story, Judy makes a telling observation: “Arthur’s always doing things for me, but Peter does them with me. It’s hard to say which way is best” (200). Although Judy has always been attracted by Arthur’s money and interest in engineering projects, this aerial mishap typifies their unstable relationship. At the end of the story, Irene and Dale have confirmed the strength of their relationship, while Judy has not achieved a similar resolution.

The next story, Voice in the Suitcase, moves away from the Judy/Irene relationship, as Judy works with Selma Brady to help the Brady household prepare for Grandpa and Grandma Brady’s 50-year wedding anniversary. Judy discovers that there are a number of issues placing significant stress on the Brady family, including the possibility of Brady family members being involved in a series of break-ins and robberies, and a serious long-term misunderstanding between Grandpa and Grandma Brady. Judy pretends to be Selma Brady’s distant cousin, whom the Bradys have not seen for many years. But Judy never forgets about her romantic situation; early in the story, she reflects on the happy relationship between Irene and Dale Meredith and compares their situation to hers: “I may be getting married too. What a nuisance, having to narrow down to just one boy when I like two so well. I suppose I’ll spend the rest of my life see-sawing between Arthur and Peter and never really falling in love with either of them” (41).

Arthur and his airplane have a major role in the story, as he flies Judy and Selma to the Brady farm. Initially Peter was supposed to have driven them, but they forget that in their excitement over the possibility of riding in Arthur’s airplane (77). Once they are in the air, they experience the magical feeling of liberation brought about by flying:

The girls forgot they were going anywhere except through keen, cool air that stung their cheeks and dazzled their eyes. The sun, grown bigger now, seemed to shed brightness over everything. Roulsville, passing beneath their wings, seemed a huddle of gray building blocks and the broken dam was a piece of broken china. Judy, in that moment, could forget the tragic flood that washed away her old home. She could forget everything except the joy of being alive in a world where there were such things as airplanes and boys to pilot them. (82).

However, the landing area at the Brady farm is very small and when Arthur lands, his wingtip knocks a hole in one of the farm buildings. This is another of the narrow aeronautical escapes he and Judy share. Although the Judy-Irene relationship is not featured in the story, it is interesting to note that at the end of the story, members of the Brady family move into Irene Lang’s old house (Irene’s father having moved to a hospital to receive better care for his industry-related illnesses).

In The Mysterious Half-Cat, the next title, the action focuses on finding relatives for Dora and Carol Scott, who have returned from Alaska in search of other family members. In a typical Sutton coincidence, a beggar and accordion player who owns a dream interpretation book that Judy uses turns out to be the girls’ grandfather. Judy also solves the mystery of the ghosts in the basement of Wing Lee’s Laundry (a gang of boys). At first consideration, this story doesn’t seem to have much to do with Judy’s conflicting emotions about Arthur and Peter—until we remember Judy’s dream of the “half-cat.” As the story opens, Judy is telling Honey about her dream, in which she was waiting for both Arthur and Peter to arrive to take her to a dance. (“Both of them?” Honey asks.) Just as they arrive, Blackberry rushes out into the street to meet them. To Judy’s dismay, a car races past and cuts Blackberry in half. In the dream Peter and Arthur do not seem to be bothered by the sight. Then, as Judy relates the dream, “Blackberry got up and followed them!” Although Blackberry should not have been able to walk, “Yet he did! Half of him followed Peter, the back half with that plume-like tail still waving and no head. The head part followed Arthur” (6).

At this point Judy and Honey are interrupted by the arrival of the old man, so they do not discuss the significance of the dream. But it is easy to see that Judy is experiencing conflicting feelings about Peter and Arthur. And if her head favors Arthur, her “gut feeling” favors Peter. Arthur’s airplane is briefly featured in the story as he offers to fly young Carol to New York City for an operation. But Judy does not fly with them. There are several instances of anxiety and anger in this story, as Judy alternately is friendly toward, then upset with, Dora Scott and Peter. Although Irene is not involved in the story, she remains as a symbol of a harmonious relationship. The story ends with Carol’s near-miraculous recovery of her ability to speak at a party during which Arthur flies his airplane overhead, dropping weighted balloons onto the party-goers. Although Dora and Carol are returned to both physical and familial health at the end of the story, Judy’s Arthur-Peter conflict has not moved any closer to resolution.

The Riddle of the Double Ring brings this group of stories to a close, wrapping all threads together and resolving three main issues: Judy’s confusion over Arthur and Peter; the significance of Arthur’s airplane; and Irene’s role as a model. In this story, Peter has suddenly moved to New York where he is working for a New York law firm. He has brought Honey with him as well as his grandparents (the family relocates back to Farringdon in the next story). After their departure, Judy feels that “the population of Farringdon had been reduced by half” although “Lois’s handsome brother, Arthur” was still around; Arthur “never tired of taking Judy for thrilling rides” in his airplane (3).

When Judy, Lois, Lorraine, and Arthur search for the source of a spring on Grandfather Smeed’s farm, Judy and Arthur find themselves alone underneath a moonlit night, and Arthur promptly declares his feelings for Judy. Judy realizes this is a crucial moment:

She looked up at him and saw that he was gazing down on her as if she were the only girl in the world. She knew that in a minute he would ask her a question and she must make up her mind. Now with Peter gone and nothing much ahead—but Peter would come back—and Arthur was so fine, so handsome, so like everything a girl could wish for. She must decide. But how could she? (45)

This is the climatic moment, the moment that determines how Judy’s dilemma will end. But just as Judy puts out her hand to push him away, Arthur “slipped the ring on her finger.” When she sees that it is a “pigeon’s blood ruby” instead of a diamond, she involuntarily expresses her reaction at receiving something she considers “distasteful.” And when she says she must return to the cave to pick up a note that will possibly help them solve a mystery, he begins to say that “this endless solving of mysteries–” and Judy finishes, “gets on your nerves.” All of these apparently small, offhand comments portend an unsuccessful conclusion to the engagement.

In the meantime, a gang of thieves steals some furs from Goldberg’s Fur Shop in Farringdon, and Lorraine, upset at the fact that Arthur appears to prefer Judy to her, hides in their get-away truck which takes her (and Red, Judy’s future gardener) to New York. Lorraine does this to show that she is “just as clever as Judy” in her determination to solve mysteries (which she thinks is what Arthur likes about Judy). Arthur offers to fly Judy to New York in his plane but says that they should wear parachutes as a “precaution.” Judy immediately imagines herself transformed into a new kind of being: “She was seeing herself, suddenly, as a new kind of angel—or butterfly—anyway, something with wings that looked like white umbrellas and floated like a cloud. She forgot Lorraine in the thrill of imagining herself wearing a parachute” (87). This vision is Judy’s ultimate effort at flight, seeing herself as a self-propelled agent of deliverance.

Arthur gives Judy detailed instructions about how to operate the parachute in case of emergency. When she puts her finger through the ring at the end of the parachute’s rip cord she is reminded of Arthur’s engagement ring: “It had tortured her while it was on her finger, while it was on a chain around her neck and even when it was safely hidden in her clue drawer” (88). Although a cheering crowd sends them on their way, Arthur is wearing a “pained expression” which disturbs Judy. Once they are in the air, however, the old feeling of liberation returns: “It was refreshing. It was exhilarating. It made her glad to be alive. Even though a thousand things back there on that distant green earth seemed wrong, everything seemed right while they were in the air” (89-90). This statement captures the Judy-Arthur relationship exactly: while they are flying together, the relationship is delightful. When the airplane comes near the earth, however, the relationship becomes more troubled.

Just as Judy expresses her delight in flying again, she immediately thinks of Peter: “Sometimes Judy had a guilty feeling that perhaps she was fond of Arthur because she liked riding in his plane. If Peter had a plane, what adventures! What thrills! Soon she would see Peter. Dear, helpful Peter Dobbs who always made things come right” (90). It is perhaps no accident that soon after Judy has this thought Arthur announces he is lost and the engine fails. Although they might have been able to land, Arthur decides that they must bail out of the airplane. Judy jumps first and Arthur follows. While Judy safely descends in her parachute, Arthur’s parachute develops a tear and he lands hard, breaking a leg. The airplane lands so close to Judy that she can feel the heat of the resulting blaze: “The wings that had been so swift and strong now burned like kindling wood. The whole plane was a blazing furnace, hot against her face” (94). Arthur is forced to remain in the local hospital to recuperate while Judy travels to New York City alone.

Judy pawns Arthur’s engagement ring to obtain funds to travel to New York, where she meets Irene and Dale. In New York she also meets Peter, who helps her track down the thieves and locate Lorraine, held captive in a boat in Long Island sound. This involves a substantial amount of physical labor on Peter’s part, rowing a small boat in some treacherous water conditions. At the end of the story, Judy realizes she doesn’t really love Arthur, and has been attracted by his interest in airplanes and other forms of technology (and probably his money). She returns his ring and attempts to assuage Lorraine’s fears that she is Arthur’s second choice for a bride. The story ends as Arthur proposes to Lorraine and Judy reveals her affection for Peter. Both Arthur and Peter intend to contribute, each in his own way, to the redevelopment of Roulsville, Arthur as an engineer and Peter as a lawyer.

Throughout this group of stories, the aircraft represents the relationship between Arthur and Judy. Judy is fascinated by it and enjoys the privilege it affords her. But Arthur’s repeated difficulties in flying it (a spin in Mystic Ball, nicking the side of a house in Voice in the Suitcase, and his loss of control and its final destruction in Double Ring) suggest that it is an unreliable vehicle and Arthur is not always in complete control. Instead of a safe, harmonious flight, when Judy is present in the airplane, occasionally Arthur loses control and life-threatening events occur. Finally, in Double Ring, the aircraft demonstrates that it is incapable of sustaining their flight together and crashes to the ground, symbolizing the failure of their relationship. This symbolic significance of this airplane is supported by the recognition that no further use of a sport or private airplane occurs in the remaining stories. Although other airplanes appear in some of the later stories, these are always commercial airliners, piloted (with one exception, in Secret of the Musical Tree) safely and skillfully. Arthur apparently never buys another airplane; or, if he does, Judy is not aware of it and shares no further aerial adventures with him, preferring to travel instead with Peter (eventually as Mrs. Peter Dobbs) in their family automobile.