"Helen Lester" was published in 1865 by the American Reform Tract and Book Society of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was the prize winner in a contest sponsored by the publishing company. Pansy herself tells the story of the "surprise contest entry" in her autobiography, "Memories of Yesterdays."
The Story of Helen Lester: Pansy's First Book
In Pansy's own words: "Only a few days ago I received a letter from a stranger asking when my first book was published and what was its name. My mind flashed back to Oneida Seminary and one memorable afternoon.
Docia had driven over from Locust Shade for the express purpose of helping me pack up. [Docia was Isabella's best friend and confidant.] It was the closing day of a year of school work and I was planning to leave in the early morning to spend the long vacation at home. A large trunk of mine that had been in the attic was crowded with papers and books put by out of the way. Docia had agreed to look them over and sort them while I was packing a box in the hall. She called to me from time to time for directions or suggestions.
"Why, Belle!" she suddenly exclaimed. "Here is that story you were to send to Cincinnati! Didn't you do it after all?" "No, I didn't," I said. "But you promised!" "No, not exactly. I said I would, if I didn't change my mind, and I changed it."
"Well! I think you were a perfect simpleton! It might have taken the prize. I thought it was the best thing you had written. What do you want done with it? Oh say! Don't you believe! The time for sending manuscripts isn't up yet! Here is the printed slip that tells about it. There are seven days yet. Now do be sensible and send it on. Just think what fun it would be if it should win the prize!"
Then I appeared in the doorway and spoke with decision. "I'll do no such thing. If I can't write a better story than that, it proves that I ought never to write at all. Tear the thing into bits and throw it in the grate with the other rubbish. I'll set fire to them to-night."
"Well," Docia said with a resigned sigh, "I suppose you will do as you please, but I must say I think you are acting like a born idiot."
This was the last I heard about that story until nearly two months later.
There came a letter from Cincinnati containing the first check I had ever received for a book manuscript! Shall I make an attempt at describing the hour of bewilderment, amazement, embarrassment, oddly mingled with delight, which followed the first reading of that letter?
"What can this mean? There must be some mistake Why—that story was burned up!" It presently became impossible not to realize that Docia, instead of burning that story, had mailed it to Cincinnati accompanied by my vacation address, and it had taken the prize! That was "Helen Lester" my first book.
How well I remember what I did with that prize money! Perhaps I have explained in some earlier chapter that my father in all his lifetime struggled with the handicap of a suffering body, and sometimes found it burdensome to meet the daily expenses of a large family. We were all trained from early childhood to habits of careful economy.
"Every little helps," was one of the mottoes I learned in my babyhood, but I want to put on record whenever I have a chance, the fact that we never for one moment believed that there could be any children anywhere who had nicer times than we had. As grown people, looking back, we all knew—and I, left here alone, the others having all reached home before me, know to-day that there could never have been a more faithful, conscientious, earnest, loving father and mother than God gave to us.
But so changed is the estimate of relative values to-day that I think it will hardly be possible, at least for young people, to understand or appreciate the wild heart throbs with which I made two packages each containing the sum of twenty-five dollars, and carefully placed each inside a bound volume of my first book. On the flyleaf of one was written "Presented to my honored father"; the other read: "To my precious mother"; and in both, the wondrous words that must have trembled with excitement, and ought to have been written in capitals: "From the Author."
I am grateful to-day for the gracious reception by the public of the many books that have borne, through the long chain of years, that same pen-name "Pansy." But I know that the multitude of men and women who to-day have precious memories of fathers and mothers, will understand and appreciate the peculiar thrill of joy which was mine that day. A thrill which in the nature of things could never come again.
I like to recall the reason why it won the fifty dollar prize. Because, in the opinion of the committee of award it met the condition imposed by the grand old Christian gentleman who offered the prize. It was to be given for the manuscript that would best explain God's plan of salvation, so plainly that quite young readers would have no difficulty in following its teachings if they would, and so winsomely that some of them might be moved to take Jesus Christ for their Saviour and Friend.