Saturday, November 17, 2012

100 Books #109 - Louis L'Amour's TO THE FAR BLUE MOUNTAINS

..."There is game."
I smiled. "There are no lords there to bespeak the deer or the hare, William. There is enough for all."
I love this exchange between Barnabas Sackett, gonnabe American pioneer, and the man he's leaving behind to work his tiny plot of land in England's famous fens. Neither can believe that the other wants what he does. William is happy to cut rushes and grow what crops he can on the tillable bits of Barnabas' inheritance; Barnabas wants to be in on the ground floor of history's greatest Do-Over. It's a moment that all but sings with romance and makes the reader want to have been there to sail off with Barnabas, even though that reader knows that yesterday's frontier became today's suburban franchise ghetto and, while there is actually enough for all, the dream of all getting to share in it is far from realized.

But it's a great reminder, a book like this, that the American Experiment really was and still is one. People who knew what had become of hundreds and thousands of years of hereditary aristocracy and hierarchies that might as well have been castes wanted to try something different, but they had to make it up as they went along. And we still are, today. We may be disappointed that this country seems not to be living up to its early promise, but we set ourselves some pretty lofty goals, for which Plan A might not have been the best. Plan B? Plan C? Plan D? Plan E? The important thing is to keep trying.

But that's not what To the Far Blue Mountains is about, of course. All that experimentation is far in the future for America and the Sacketts. First, Barnabas has to gain a proper foothold on the continent and survive and have kids.* But even before that, he has to get out of England, where people in high places have come to think he is a very bad man (some even think he's hiding the Crown Jewels**, which they think he found with the gold coins that started him on his path to independence in Sackett's Land). Which is to say that Barnabas spends the first chunk of this novel (again) in what I like to call "Doctor Who jeopardy"***. There many, many novels after this one, and they're about his descendants, so we kind of know he's not going to be hanged or murdered or anything. Yawn.

Again, this is the stuff of Romance, not history or historical fiction, but fun nonetheless. Swirling capes and salutes, daring escapes, audacious seizures of ships -- all that's missing is D'Artagnan, really, but our Barnabas, so legendary that even weird old men in Welsh shacks know his name without an introduction, makes a pretty fair substitute.

And while he's got him a wife all picked out, the beautiful and tough Abigail (who fought off pirates off the coast of India when she was just 13, apparently), his female companion for a lot of the best bits of this novel would make him a fine match, too. Oh, if you don't love Lila, Abigail's maidservant who got left behind when Abigail and her father sailed for America but who bulls her way into chasing after her with Barnabas, you don't love strong women. Lila is physically imposing, plies a mean sword, cooks a fine supper on no notice and with whatever crap ingredients are on hand, and is fiercely loyal. If Barnabas is larger than life, and he certainly is that, Lila is even larger, a paragon of rough country virtue and can-do-it attitude.

It's a pity that she more or less disappears, for huge chunks of the novel, but this is Barnabas' story, and he's got a lot going on. Like fighting off pirates. Like fighting off the urge to become one himself. Like darting in and out of English ports under the noses of his enemies so he can sell the spars and furs and potash (oh my!) he has collected in the New World and buy clothing and beer and seed corn and whatnot. Like fighting some Indians and befriending others. Like building and rebuilding his fort in Virginia. Like impregnating his wife. Like scenery appreciation.

His is a fun ride on which to be along, and no mistake. Onward to the next book, soon, which appears to concern his first son, the improbably named Kin Ring Sackett.

*So far no plan for dynasty founding has succeeded by avoiding that step.

**Lost in a flash flood by King John's baggage train in the early 13th century.

***As in the way episodes of that show may dangle its title character over any number of cliffs but the fact that the show is his and that he is known to have many future incarnations makes any episodic endings in which he is in danger kind of laughable when one watches, say, Jon Pertwee's turn in the role back in the 1960s.

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