It’s uncanny how quickly books and their authors are forgotten. This is true even of those who have enjoyed some eminence, and all the more of the vast majority who were never widely known to begin with.
I was thinking the other day of Alan McHenry, author of a half-dozen novels published in the 1950s that now would be classified as “Young Adult” but which, back then, would have been shelved alongside volumes in the Hardy Boys series. (The first book I bought with my own money, at Fraser’s Bookstore in Pomona, California, was an early Hardy Boys adventure.)
The McHenry books were given to me by an older man in the Baptist church I attended with my mother and grandmother and my younger brother, Rick. Somehow this man knew that I read a lot, and he thought these stories might be my cup of tea. Young as I was (roughly eleven years old), I had already learned that fiction from Christian publishers was likely, though not certain, to be inferior. I wasn’t sure what I would think of these. Then I made a strange discovery: On the copyright page, I saw my own name, John Wilson!
So, “Alan McHenry” was a pseudonym (I was proud, at eleven, to deploy that word) and the author’s real name was the same as my own. Admittedly, it was then an extremely common name, still reasonably common today. But the man who gave me these books must have noticed it. Now, looking back across the decades, I wonder if he was sending me a message. Perhaps this: “You know, you could be a writer yourself someday.” Or maybe this: “The hero of these stories might be your kind of hero.”
If so, that generous older man, whom we didn’t know well at all, was uncannily insightful. The series hero of McHenry’s books was a globe-trotting American journalist named David Brainerd (yes, his devout parents had named him after the famous missionary to Native Americans). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when every major paper had an extensive network of “foreign bureaus,” I sometimes dreamed of someday sending dispatches from Buenos Aires or Moscow. Pure fantasy, of course—I wasn’t cut out for that role—but I didn’t know that at the time.
When I was fifteen, our family moved from Pomona to a small town in Northern California. Some of our things were put into storage at the time. I’m not sure what happened to my McHenry books—by that time, I was reading Dostoevsky and Kafka—and I didn’t even think of them for many years. But when I did, their very existence seemed at once fascinating and utterly improbable to me. Who was the John Wilson who wrote under the name Alan McHenry? And how on earth did such books appear under the imprint of an obscure Christian publisher in the 1950s?
In time, I learned that John Wilson/Alan McHenry and I had more in common than our name and our faith. He was the son of missionaries to China; I was the grandson of missionaries to China. He was an editor (at a newspaper) for decades; I was an editor (first in reference publishing, then in magazines) for decades. Well, interesting, you may concede, but not exactly mind-bogglingly improbable.
Maybe, maybe not. But the books themselves? Midnight in Mombasa, like all of the books in the series, combined political conflict with combat between the powers of light and the powers of darkness, seasoned with dark humor. And what appeared to be a miracle now and then. These books were intended in the first instance for young readers, but they were nothing like most of the Christian fiction of the time, “juvenile” or adult, which seemed to be the equivalent of pablum. It was almost as if the McHenry books existed in a parallel time stream and had somehow leaked into our own. Strange.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.