Round Two- Trans-Atlantic Battle of the Twist Ending Short Stories from the 1910s
O Henry representing the USA versus Saki representing the UK
O Henry (his real name was William Porter-1862-1910-USA) is one of the most popular American writers of short stories. His stories are famous for twist or surprise endings. His stories are meant as good natured entertainment that almost anyone can appreciate. The style is simple and straightforward and I did get the feeling O Henry had fun writing them.
O Henry's father was a doctor but in those days this did not mean what it does today. O Henry's mother died when he was three, Saki's mother died when he was two. O Henry died at 48, Saki at 46. Both got their professional starts as newspaper writers. Both lived out side their home countries for a time. O Henry left the USA to hide from the police (he came back and turned himself in when he heard his wife was dying) and Saki went to Burma to work for the British police force! O Henry struggled in a good part of his life to support himself and his family. Saki came from a well off family and never suffered any financial anxieties. O Henry spent five years in prison for embezzlement from a bank for which he worked as a teller. He began to write seriously while in prison. Upon release he began to publish one story a week and ending up with over 300 stories. O Henry married twice (he was a widower). Saki never married. O Henry had to make his own way in life and selling his short stories was a big part of how he made his living. Saki was born in comfortable circumstances, not fabulously wealthy by any means but certainly he never had to sell his stories to pay the rent.
I am pretty sure ""Ransom of Red Chief" is the second most still read of O Henry's stories, with "Gift of the Magi" being number one. As the story opens Bill and Sam, two fugitives from the law hiding out in the Deep South of the USA are trying to come up with a way to get $2,000 so they can use it to create a swindle involving fraudulent land sales. They decide to kidnap the son of a local citizen, a man known for sharp financial dealings. (The story is from a period when kidnapping for ransom was not seen as often a prelude to murder. The famous kidnapping and murder of the son of the aviator Charles Lindbergh took place in 1932.) The boy, known by his nickname of "Red Chief" does not know he has been kidnapped, he thinks he is on a camping trip and that Bill and Sam are local rubes his father hired to look after him for a few days. Bill and Sam are not at all violent and it turns out they are in more danger from the antics of Red Chief than he is from them.
I do not want to tell more of the plot as it is a lot of fun. (Teachers should note that there is a use of a term that is very unacceptable today in the story. This would perhaps make it unacceptable for class room usage in some political climates. It does seem a bit mean spirited as it is used in the narrative of the story, not in conversation of the characters. It is possible also some may find the use of the name "Red Chief" as politically incorrect. These issues do not change the literary merit of the story, it is just something for teachers to consider. In terms of content this story could be taught to 5th graders and up, I think).
Of the two writers I like Saki best. The stories of O Henry are fun and well written in an anybody can read style. I just prefer the prose style of Saki. Saki's stories have more of an ironic tone and seem to involve more of a social satire. This, of course, does not make them better! The people in the stories of Saki seem more educated and better off economically than those in the stories of O Henry. In the stories of O Henry, fate seems to play a trick on the characters whereas in the stories of Saki one of the characters seem to provide the twist ending.
"The Ransom of Red Chief" can be read online.