While there are some interesting things to say about this book, they are all overshadowed by the unavoidable figure of Gasoline Alley’s housekeeper, a racist stereotype named “Rachel.” I bring her up now, because the collection opens with an extremely callous introduction by Russ Cochran that will offend most readers.
Cochran makes the insulting claim that “our current perspective abhors stereotypical depictions of African Americans, but King portrayed [Rachel] with affectionate respect.” First, to imply as Cochran does that Rachel is only insulting from “our” contemporary perspective overlooks the serious and very negative implications the character had for readers during the series’ period of production, the early 1920s. That is to say, Rachel is not only a racist depiction in the present — she was also clearly a racist depiction in the past.
Secondly, to claim that Rachel — an endlessly befuddled maid who is incapable of outwitting a child — somehow conveys “affectionate respect” is equally absurd. Cochran then bends over backwards to make the even more enraging suggestion that Rachel’s depiction is somehow on par with the series’ presentation of its main white character, Uncle Walt, claiming, “Walt’s features are no less a gross exaggeration of humanity.” On this point he could not be more incorrect, precisely because Rachel’s subhuman features connect her with a long and awful history of racial turmoil in the United States, while Walt’s cartoonish obesity carries absolutely none of the same social and cultural implications.
Readers new to the series who are willing to grapple with such issues and concerns will discover that Gasoline Alley presents a series of scenes in which the main character, Uncle Walt, chases and looks after a child, Skeezik. Their domestic adventures often unfold with Uncle Walt wondering out loud about where Skeezik has gone off to, and usually conclude with him finding the child in some charming but also compromising situation. For example, in one scene Skeezik uses a tablecloth as a blanket, and in the process destroys the place settings (*cue the sad trombone*). And, these moments would be perfectly charming if the terrifying image of Rachel was not always lurking around the corner.
However, it would make no more sense to say that Gasoline Alley is good with the exception of Rachel than, like Cochran, to conclude that Rachel has some redeeming characteristics. She does not, and they series is what it is, warts and all, and it needs to be regarded as such. Given that, we might ask what it offers, and what it offers is a spectrum of concerns relating to race, place, and identity that are for some as much a part of the American experience as the bucolic sunsets in Calvin and Hobbes, or the palpable leftist political frustration in Doonesbury. Precisely because it is so offensive, Gasoline Alley warrants a spot on the collector’s bookshelf — under the heading of “Cautionary Tales.”