Friday, July 17, 2009

Flashman and the Redskins

(Note: For my overview of the Flashman series, click here)

The wild west has always been of the classic stock settings for tales of high adventure. Incidentally, I've been there to see what's left of the place myself, and it's still an awe-inspiring part of the world. Truly an extreme environment in every sense of the word. Areas of vast emptiness incomparable to any part of western Europe are punctuated only by the occasional ghost town or abandoned mine to remind travelers of the tough hombres who once eked out a life in this parched country. And, as with most hellish parts of the Earth, it was probably inevitable that Harry Paget Flashman would wind up spending a little time there.

While most of Harry Flashman's transatlantic exploits have resulted in some of the more disappointing books, it seems that his creator, the late G. M. Fraser, had a bit of a soft spot for the bastard child of the British Empire. He really went to town on this one. For this book truly is the epic of the series- over 400 pages and 81 friggin' notes. Being a direct sequel to the much-inferior Flash for Freedom, this tome finds our 'hero' in need of a quick exit from New Orleans, circa 1849. After accepting passage with a traveling brothel (what else?), the old lecher effectively becomes one of the 'forty-niners'- those first colonists who headed west in that year following the discovery of gold in the Sunshine State. Thus, in his own words, he has seen the West 'almost from the very beginning'. To Fraser's credit, many hoary tropes now associated with Westerns are avoided- there are no sheriffs, saloon brawls or shoot-outs at noon. Instead, the first half of the book takes Flashy through largely wild, Indian-controlled country. The second part picks up over twenty years later, as he returns just in time to visit his old comrade-in-arms General Custer in the fateful year of 1875...

As usual with Flashman, anyone with leanings further left than the port side of a Nazi U-boat on its way to a BNP meeting will probably find something to be offended by in this chronicle of the old cad Flash Harry's adventures way out west. But in Flashman and the Redskins, the old apologist has his boistrous Briton produce possibly more racism than even I thought he had in him. Yep, as usual old Flashy is not shy about expressing his disdain for the natives of a foreign land, but this time I finally couldn't chuckle along with him. Perhaps it's because in this book above all the other, Fraser really sets down his agenda regarding the treatment of natives by the western nations, and the reader can no longer entertain the fantasy that the opinions expressed are there for 'period accuracy' alone.

But behind all this, there are places in the book where Flashy really engages the reader in some honest debate, and leaves one feeling that there is at least another side to the story. An opening debate between an aging, experienced Flashman and a clueless strawman liberal about the treatment of the native Americans in particular is fantastically written. The conservative old goat is truly allowed to vent his bile in this set-piece scene, and with all the authority of someone who was actually there, he mercilessly destroys the dewy-eyed romanticism his nemesis holds for the Indians. A quote might be in order-

'"-try to enlighten a Cumanche war party, why don't you? Suggest humanity and restraint to the Jicarillas who carved up Mrs. White and her baby on Rock Creek? Have you ever seen a Del Norte Rancho after the Mimbrenos have left their calling cards?"'

Despite such sentiments, it seems Flashy does possess a little respect for the red man. His overall attitude regarding the winning of the West for the white man seems to be-

'"I don't condone it", says I, holding my temper. "And I don't condemn it either. It happened, just as the tide comes in, and since I saw it happen, I know better than to jump to the damnfool sentimental conclusions that are fashionable in college cloisters, let me tell you-"'

And as usual, it's Fraser's remarkable storytelling ability which carries the reader safely through the sea of racism, misogyny and ambiguous morality. And in this book, I think Fraser may have shown once and for all that he is one of the greats. As comedy, as historical fiction, as an adventure story, and as a piece to prompt some serious discussion about our changing attitudes towards race, Empire, and history, Flashman and the Redskins is distinctly top-class. The reader may not agree with his ideas, but rarely will he or she have encountered 400 pages that fly by so easily. Admittedly, the first part of the book is far superior- after Flashy's early Western adventures end, the novel seems to come to a natural, satisfying conclusion. The second part of the book occasionally feels like an overly-long tacked-on afterthought. But containing as it does a fascinating portrait of General George Custer, it is certainly not lacking in merit.

Now, to finish- a little story. I once read a Ray Bradbury tale about a man from the future who brought novelist Thomas Wolf back from the past, because he believed there was no man alive in his own time with the ability to convey, in words, the incredible future world he lived in. Rockets leaping from star to star, with tongues of fire in their belly (you know what Bradbury's like, right?)- what man had imagination enough to capture this time? No man since Tom Wolf, apparently.

Conversely, I reckon that almost no writer before Fraser could convey the old West in quite the same way. This book is not simply the obligatory 'Wild West' entry in a series of 19th century-set adventures. Instead, it should be an important entry in anyone's collection of Western-themed literature. So why not mosey on down the trail, hang em high, and break out the Back to the Future Part 3 soundtrack as Flashy heads West?

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