Rube Allyn's Dictionary of Fishes was the first book with which I fell head over heels in love.
I discovered it at the same time I discovered a passion for fishing in 1956. As a curious first-grader, I was determined to learn the names of all the pan-sized fish I caught a few blocks away from home in Miami's Biscayne Bay. Allyn's humble paperback, despite the crude drawings and fanciful text, became at least one barefoot Florida boy's Bible.
In 2004, I wrote a column about my favorite Florida books. Dictionary of Fishes was the guilty pleasure on a list with a dozen serious offerings that included Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Eventually I took my book list on the road and lectured in Florida cities south and north. At virtually every stop someone with graying hair would stand, stare me balefully in the eye and ask, "So where's The Lion's Paw?''
"Never heard of it.''
My interrogators were always too polite to declare: "And you call yourself an expert on Florida books?''
Someone finally lent me a worn-out edition. A novel for older children, The Lion's Paw, set in Florida, hooked me like a hungry kingfish. A day or so after turning the last enchanting page, I received an e-mail from the kindly person in North Florida who had lent me her copy. She wanted it back, tomorrow if not today.
The Lion's Paw no longer was in print. Readers lucky enough to have a copy hated to let it leave their sight for even a few days.
Bookfinder.com, I discovered, ranked it as the most requested out-of-print children's book in the United States. When I looked, the going price for a nice copy with dust jacket on another popular used book site was $700.
I'm no millionaire. So I dreamed about a bedroom nightstand that held not only Dictionary of Fishes but a mint copy of The Lion's Paw. In the dream I have a flashlight handy for reading under the covers.
• • •
The Lion's Paw appeals to readers who sometimes grieve for old Florida and for their youth. It carries them back to a time when children had hours and hours on their hands to enjoy adventure without adult supervision. That Florida seems to be gone now.
The Lion's Paw was written by Navy veteran Robb White in 1946. He wrote many books for children. He was a bit of a kid himself, if you believed the autobiographical sketch he wrote before his death in 1990.
He was born on a remote island near the Philippines in 1909. His parents were Episcopal missionaries. His friends, at least as he described them, sounded like cannibals. Growing up wild, he spent time in North Carolina, Virginia and Thomasville, a small Georgia town just across the Florida border. At 13 he felt destined to be a writer; somehow he ended up at the U.S. Naval Academy.
After military service he married a beautiful but eccentric Georgia woman who wore no lipstick and rode motorcycles. In 1937 they sailed into the Caribbean and bought an island for $60. They did without electricity and running water. When the mosquitoes were bad, White rowed offshore and wrote his first bestselling children's book, Smuggler's Sloop, typewriter in his lap.
He was called back into the service after Pearl Harbor; Rodie, his self-reliant wife, moved back to Thomasville. White trained in Florida, served in the South Pacific and seldom returned home. His three children, raised without him, became strangers to him. After the war, White and Rodie ended their marriage — supposedly as friends.
White wrote The Lion's Paw during his Navy career. It is about a sister and brother, Penny and Nick, who live in an orphanage on Florida's east coast. The siblings, afraid they will be adopted and separated, run away. They meet an older boy, Ben, whose mother died in childbirth and whose Navy hero father is missing in action in the South Pacific. Ben lives with Uncle Pete, who wants to sell dad's beloved sailboat. No way, Uncle Pete! After dark Ben sails the boat away and takes along Penny and Nick.
Of course, the orphanage wants Nick and Penny back. Of course, Uncle Pete wants to find his nephew and the sailboat and offers a reward for their return. All manner of strangers, dangerous and mean like the bad preacher in Night of the Hunter, go hunting for the feral children. They endure storms and mosquitoes, snakes and alligators. "For a second Nick stood in the mud, petrified with fear, as the alligator rushed toward him.'' Well, you get the idea. It's The African Queen set in Florida — for kids.
They end up on Sanibel Island, where they hunt for a special shell known as the lion's paw. Ben's missing dad always talked about lion's paws. They meant good luck. His grieving boy hopes that if he finds a lion's paw shell, perhaps he will find his dad, too.
Get out your handkerchiefs.
• • •
In Florida, elementary teachers for decades read The Lion's Paw to their classes. The kids borrowed the book from the library, saved money from their paper routes, bought their own copies.
In Fort Pierce, Paul Cooper read the book when he was 9 and never forgot it. He is 67 now, a retired St. Petersburg resident who wishes he had a copy of The Lion's Paw and his youth. Recently his adult daughter found a copy in a Michigan used bookstore and bought it for her kids.
In Miami, Rich Clarendon, 10, was enthralled when his third-grade teacher, Miss Myers, read The Lion's Paw to her class. When he grew up, he bought his own sailboat. "I plead guilty to trying to re-create my own Lion Paw adventures,'' he says. He is 55 now, lives in Valrico, grieves for his lost copy of The Lion's Paw.
In Homestead, Bill McKeen's third-grade teacher read the book to her pupils. McKeen got in line at the school library; other kids were in the line in front of him. "The Lion's Paw was part of a Florida kid's folklore. The kids in the book were idealized versions of ourselves.'' McKeen, 54, teaches journalism at the University of Florida. His latest book is Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson took his own life a few years ago. Perhaps had he found a lion's paw seashell things would have been different.
• • •
The Lion's Paw was in and out of print for decades.
The last printing, in 1995, flew off the shelves. Yet thousands of readers kept searching. "We don't see it very much,'' Mike Slicker, who owns Lighthouse Books in St. Petersburg, once told me with a sad shake of his head. Well, I couldn't afford one anyway.
Instead I researched the life of the author. In the 1950s, Robb White moved to Malibu, Calif., where he wrote screenplays for Perry Mason. Even better, he wrote the script for my favorite B-quality horror movies, The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, which starred the Hollywood Hambone, Vincent Price. White stopped writing in 1985. He died five years later as the result of a head injury suffered in a car accident.
He had a son, Robb White Jr., a boatbuilder in the Florida Panhandle, who refused to answer e-mail or talk on the telephone, according to people who knew him. No matter. By the time I tried to contact him, he was dead.
Next I tried my favorite new author's famous daughter Bailey White, who often reads her Southern Gothic essays on National Public Radio. A recluse who lives on her late mother's Georgia farm, she never replied to my interview requests.
So I forgot about The Lion's Paw.
Last month, as I checked messages at my desk one morning, a colleague dropped a package in front of me. Inside was a book with a crisp yellow and black dust jacket on which a boat under sail cruises up a Florida river. Three children stand on the deck.
The Lion's Paw, thank heavens, was back in print.
• • •
I called the new publisher, a woman named Annie Crowther, who turned out to be White's third and final wife. She is 74 and lives in Utah with her daughter, Leslie Saunders. They acquired the copyright two years ago and put the book out on their own. They have 20,000 copies in the garage and hope to sell them all.
They are selling the book over the Internet (e-mail orders@ thelionspaw.org) and by telephone, (801) 694-0533, for $29.95 plus shipping. The online store Amazon.com has had trouble recently keeping it in stock. A few independent Florida bookstores, including Haslam's and Lighthouse Books in St. Petersburg, display it on their shelves.
When I read The Lion's Paw, I am reminded of the boy I am no longer, the boy who caught mangrove snapper in the canal down the block, built rafts, swiped oranges from Mrs. Posner's trees, caught snakes, trapped scorpions, stepped on nails in his bare feet.
The boy is 59 now. He has done his best most of the time but sometimes has fallen short. He has gray hair, cataracts and swallows Lipitor every morning. Sometimes he worries about mortality. He has his own copy of The Lion's Paw, and keeps it on his nightstand.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.