Friday, April 24, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Chapter 8 - The Mighty Monk and Bathing

Let's kick things off with two pages of exposition about Father Marc's backstory and character.

Marc Lettau is in the New World because of his irreverent sense of humor, which once caused him to remark out loud "You'd think even an ass could recognize and appreciate Pierre's dignity" when a bishop's donkey threw him.  As we all know, such a shocking statement must be addressed by an ecclesiastical court, and the only remedy was to transfer the father to deepest, darkest Canada in hopes that "the mighty solitudes would quiet him."  This caused the bishop of Quebec two sleepless nights until he decided to make Father Marc the chaplain of Fort William, thus beginning the father's circuit of Nor'Wester holdings.

But even the unrelenting nightmare that is colonial Canada has no effect on Father Marc's ability to laugh.  He thinks it's funny that "a handful of drunken white men should overlook a territory as large as the Russian Empire," that a century-dead king signed over three-quarters of a continent to six men who had never been to it, that despite all these kings and corporations swapping parchment the land really belongs to its original inhabitants, and that traders from the Hudson's Bay Company and the Nor'Westers and the Missouri Fur Company and Rocky Mountain Fur Company are all killing each other over beaver pelts.  I guess sometimes, when faced with the vicious absurdities of the world we live in, it's either laugh or scream.

So that's Father Marc.  Nice of the book to tell us that he was probably being sardonic when he grinned at McGlincy vowing to defy the courts and continue raiding and murdering his fellow man, it makes the father much more sympathetic. Well, a bit more, it'd be nice if someone suggested that all of this was wrong.  Maybe someone who might have access to some scripture to back him up.  But whatever.

The father is interested in Yellow Hair mainly because he'd like to learn some Blackfoot words for the Nor'Westers so that he can be irreverent and sardonic in another language.  Yet the narration also assures us that "It is necessary for even a priest to respect somebody besides his saints and again Yellow Hair was the target."  And thank you, Hubbard, for implying that a priest holds your main character in as high regard as the saints.  I just can't get enough of watching your heroes be worshiped by the rest of the cast.

Switch focus to Yellow Hair.  He's suffering greatly from his week in the "butter tub," because after growing up in spacious Pikuni lodges, he doesn't feel safe in a wooden-walled room with only one entrance.  Now with this statement in mind, go back and read Chapter 6 again for any sign of such distress when he first entered the trading post.  I'll save you some time, there isn't any.

More understandable is Yellow Hair's disgust at the squalid conditions in the fort's jail, the lice, and the stuffy hot air that suffocates him at night.  He can neither eat nor sleep, like a "mere beast" brought in from the wilderness and put into a cage - and yes, that's the simile the author uses, comparing our hero to a wild animal.  I thought Hubbard was going for "noble savage," but meh.

And I think Yellow Hair has turned evil or something, because after a week in that "butter tub," not only has he worn out his moccasins from pacing, but

Rage had burned his eyes deep into his head.  His mane of yellow hair was tangled and unkempt.  His so lately spotless antelope skin was smudged and ripped.

The jacket is dirty, guys, the jacket.  Our hero's probably become as evil as his drunken, murderous captors now.

When he checks on the prisoner, Father Marc is moved by the plight of Yellow Hair's jacket, and using sign language asks if the white Indian could use a drink.  Instead Yellow Hair emphatically signals that he wants a bath.  This puzzles Father Marc, for "No Nor'Wester ever bathed and only one priest in the past hundred years had had a bath---and he died from the effects of it."  But he nevertheless shares his concerns with the fort's leader.

"Alex," said Father Marc with surprising disrespect for such a great man, "I am worried about our young friend."

"Friend?" croaked McGlincy, trying to remember if he had any friends.  He didn't think so.

I don't think this is supposed to evoke sympathy, I suspect it's a "look how evil he is!" moment to help us properly despise our caricature of a villain.

Anyway, Father Marc suggests that having Yellow Hair out and about might reassure the Blackfoot who are undoubtedly spying on the fort so that they don't burn it down out of vengeance, and is sure he could get the savage to promise to behave himself when outside.

"Parole?" shouted McGlincy, sitting up straight.  "What good is an Indian's word?"

Father Marc grinned.  It had flashed across his mind that every man measures another's word by the yardstick of his own.

He's like a satirist or comedian, making these wry and incisive observations about things, except he keeps them all to himself so there's no chance of influencing and improving others' behavior.  Like if Jon Stewart wrote down all his quips in a journal he never shared with anyone and worked as an appliance repairman.  C'mon, surely a fort chaplain is allowed to be preachy!

McGlincy eventually agrees that Yellow Hair can go out in the mornings so long as he's within range of two rifle-toting guards, but he'll still have to be locked up at night.  Father Marc goes back to the "butter tub" and sign-languages the terms of the deal to Yellow Hair.  Yellow Hair isn't happy, and is "impatient to be gone to his town in the south" ...oh, he's abandoned his mission?

I guess not, because Yellow Hair looks back at the jail and reconsiders, then gets to walk down to the river with Father Marc and two nameless riflemen.  Yellow Hair judges that "it would be simple to swim the river" to freedom, again suggesting that he's given up on the reason he came to this fort, but he looks back at Father Marc and "saw no distrust in the fellow's eyes."

So Yellow Hair suddenly dives into the river fully-clothed, nearly startling the guards into shooting and ending this book on page 79, then disrobes, dives in again, and starts scrubbing himself with sand, nature's body wash.  Father Marc concludes that "if a bath felt that good he would certainly have to try one some time," and the chapter ends.

Well... I guess we learned stuff about a major supporting character.  But I think the most important thing that happened this chapter was almost critically understated.

In all of a page we saw Yellow Hair struggling with whether he should make a break for freedom or put up with these savages and learn about them.  I say "struggle," though really he just thought about how easy it'd be to run and how he'd like to go home.  But then he looked in Father Marc's eyes, and he ultimately stuck around, so presumably there was some sort of decision involved, some revelation that changed his mind.  Maybe Yellow Hair felt guilt at the thought of abandoning the father's trust, or maybe he was heartened by someone at the fort actually showing an interest in him or treating him as an equal.

We can only imagine, because the narration focused on Yellow Hair's bath and Father Marc's reaction to it, and as usual most of the hero's thoughts took place behind an iron curtain.  Why waste words on inner conflict or character development when you can leave your readers to try to infer the main character's motivations?

Back to Chapter 7

1 comment:

  1. Father Marc's reaction to Yellow Hair's bath didn't include "Wow! That kid's got impressively Ginormous equipment?" This sure is pre-mission earth.