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Tom Playfair or Making a Start by Fr. Francis J. Finn, S.J.
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Tom Playfair is one of "Fr. Finn's Famous Three" —Percy Wynn and Harry Dee. These were the most popular of Fr. Finn's 27 Catholic novels for young people. Resembling a Catholic version of Charles Dickens' stories, or even The Hardy Boys, these books were read by hundreds of thousands of young people in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th century. But besides being fun, the stories have a moral: Tom Playfair is an unruly little boy when he is sent to St. Maure's boarding school, but he develops into a good Catholic young man and leader-without ever losing his high spirit.

About the Author:

In February, 1881, Fr. Finn entrained for St. Mary's, Kansas, and taught grammar to the preparatory classes at St. Mary's College. Besides his teaching duties, he was the general supervisor of the boys. Whatever activity they indulged in, whether it was hiking, swimming, hunting, soccer, or any other sport, Fr. Finn joined them. This opportunity of being with boys in their varied occupations, helped to give him the wealth of experience that flooded his books.

Fr. Finn’s interest in literature and his ability to tell stories-which he always held in reserve for worthy classes-helped to make his teaching a success. His classroom was a one-story log building. One day he found himself "doodling" away his time, while his class worked on compositions. "Why shouldn’t I write, too," he thought. In fifteen minutes he had composed the first chapter of Tom Playfair. Fr. Finn hoped to give his readers-if he might have any-his ideal of a genuine Catholic American boy.

Strong Points:

  • The book breaks down the ill-conceived stereotype of the "goody-goody." It shows that a young boy can be a good balanced Catholic: pious, attentive to studies and charitable to those in need, all the while using common sense, enjoying sports and engaging in a bit of healthy mischief.
  • The lead character, Tom Playfair, portrays charity, honesty and courage through a series of adventures that form the basis for a transformation of his character.
  • Catholic virtues are demonstrated through the real life experiences of young boys that children can relate to.
  • The importance of choosing companions is well illustrated.
  • While fun, the book employs a healthy vocabulary. Absent are the "dumbing down" characteristics of many modern children’s books.


  • Tom Playfair and his friends take some risks, similar to the Hardy boys, which, while a great source of entertainment, are perhaps best reserved to the safety of the confines of the written page.
  • The language is sometimes archaic (autos are called "machines", baseballs, "rounds", boys fall into a "brown study" when they are depressed).


An excellent book, Tom Playfair entertains and inspires character development in its readers (both young and old alike). Fr. Finn distills complex Catholic doctrine into a story replete with practical, real life examples applicable to day-to-day living. The American Catholic Who's Who, for 1911, spoke of Fr. Finn thus: "Fr. Finn is universally acknowledged the foremost Catholic writer of fiction for young people." Grade level (5th through 8, and older!)

This book is so entertaining that it seems to fit into the category of purely recreational reading more than in one of literature. However, since it affords the teacher the opportunity to discuss many important, school related, questions with his students, it is included in our list.


Fr. Finn also wrote books for Catholic girls which are very good. Lepanto Press has recently reprinted The Fairy of the Snows and Lord Bountiful. These two books are both thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly enjoyable.