Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Envoi - Hubbard's First Novel

Buckskin Brigades is better than Mission Earth, at least.  Though that's not much of a compliment, I've passed things caked to the road that were better than Mission Earth.

Hubbard's obsession with psychology hasn't surfaced yet, so the villains are all bastards without being made that way by Napoleonic head-plumbers.  No sex scenes, vanilla or perverted.  Genocide isn't committed by the protagonist and presented as a good thing.  But just because a cake doesn't contain any rat droppings doesn't mean it's automatically delicious, and we can see a lot of the problems that will plague Hubbard's later works in this, his first published novel.

The main character is a shallow escapist hero, blandly handsome and strong, unable to be defeated by anything short of field artillery or the awesome power of Plot.  A mook shoots Yellow Hair in the arm, he has to bandage it for a chapter but it's never really a problem.  A bad guy sneaks up on him and takes aim at Yellow Hair from behind, he's able to dodge the bullet as it fires and make a precision shot while diving with a longarm.  Yellow Hair gets shot in the throat at close range, and all it does is make him sooty and bloody.  All a year of miserable imprisonment does is give him another reason to seek revenge.

There's no consequences when our hero is placed in danger, so there's no interest in or excitement during the action sequences.  At most we watched the final battle with minor curiosity over whether Hubbard would find it more satisfying for Yellow Hair to give his life for his people or live happily ever after.

Oh, and he's better than us, as usual.  Jettero Heller was a Royal officer awarded special status and privileges by his government, Jonnie Goodby Tyler was elevated to post-apocalyptic tribes' pantheons once they heard about his exploits, and it turns out Michael Kirk was the son of a celebrated war hero and senator who we learned was undone by jealous, lying rivals.  In one chapter that had no relevance on the rest of the book.

It's really mind-boggling that, in a story that constantly points out how savage the "gentleman" members of the cast are, the author felt the need to give his hero a prestigious pedigree.  What, Yellow Hair's mighty deeds weren't enough?  We couldn't have rooted for him if he'd just been the son of a nameless mountain man?  It's not like the book would have gone any differently, since as I said the revelation about Yellow Hair's father occurs in one chapter and isn't shared with him.  Heck, Yellow Hair doesn't spend much time reflecting on his father or wondering where he came from, did he?  The only people who spoke of Kirk the Elder were the Indians.

The bad guys are as per usual one-dimensional and incompetent, greedy drunkards and arrogant aristocrats just itching to kill some Indians for no reason, even when it makes no sense from a business standpoint.  McGlincy is a lot like Terl or Gris in that his schemes drive the plot, but consistently backfire against him so that he's undone by his own dimwitted machinations.  He decides that he needs to produce an Indian after ambushing Motley's boat and antagonizes a local tribe by abducting one of their own, then he has to flee across the continent to retrieve the captive but instead of handing him over decides to use him to bait a trap.  The bad guy's plan hinges on the good guy behaving exactly as he wants him to, as well as an unfounded belief that he can be coerced into doing otherwise.

The Mustache at least stands out for being an Act Two threat that is strangely sidelined when the initial villain returns, then manages to escape any sort of punishment for what he did to our hero.  He somehow slips out of close combat with Yellow Hair in the final confrontation, and then is allowed to go free - McGlincy goes home in disgrace, but the Mustache is on Yellow Hair's side and eager to tell the truth of McGlincy's misdeeds.  I guess getting shot in the hand was punishment enough for his first attempt on Yellow Hair's life?  And preemptive punishment for his second attempt on Yellow Hair's life?

And then there's the pacing problems, which at least aren't as bad as those in Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth in that we don't waste entire books watching the viewpoint character try to come up with a plan.  Buckskin Brigades may have the opposite problem, in that it's a story where years pass but little happens.

Yellow Hair spends a winter at a trading post, and it's all summarized in one chapter - he learned English and hunted, that's about it.  He's shipped as a prisoner up to York Factory, summarized in another chapter, and then spends half a year in a cell, which is again skimmed through until the night he escapes.  He and Father Marc cross Canada in the dead of winter, and at least we get a few highlights of that perilous journey, but it's again given only a single chapter.  Hubbard finally spends some ink explaining how Yellow Hair's stay at Fort William went, only to again summarize the crossing of Canada so we can get to the final battle.

This is a story eager to get to the action sequences, but doesn't waste any time on the character or plot development to make them meaningful.  We don't get to know any of the bullies or voyageurs at Fort Chesterfield, Yellow Hair despises them as wicked white men and that's that.  We don't see Father Marc's struggles to do the right thing in a corrupt and racist system, he's simply ineffectual at rescuing his friend until Yellow Hair frees himself.  We're told characters are this and this and do that and that, but rarely see them do so.  Hubbard does do better when the story gets to Fort William, and we see a bit of the interactions between the fur traders, the natives, and the colonists, but this only raises the question of why he didn't do the same in the rest of the book.

On the bright side, Buckskin Brigades handles women better than Hubbard's later books, which again isn't saying much.  Our hero and his love interest are introduced as being in love, so we miss out on the growth of their relationship or the specifics of why they like each other - we're told they're in love, so they are.  Our two females' characterization is weak, though that's hardly exclusive to them, and there isn't a disturbing misogynistic streak going through the novel as there was in Mission Earth, and Bright Star at least can look after herself (with the help of two slaves).

Though come to think of it, the female characters are kind of manipulative.  Bright Star goads Yellow Hair into his rash mission to Fort Chesterfield, and then the Mustache's fiancee lies to her future husband in order to goad him into killing a man over her affections.  Hmm.  Well, at least they do something in the story.  Even though Bright Star's later role is as a source of drama - will she be forced to marry someone other than her twue love, did she really die off in the wilds just before the finale?  But she's never objectified, even if she becomes less than a real character, if you get my meaning.

All things considered, Buckskin Brigades is pretty mediocre.  Nothing about it is particularly bad, but it isn't polished enough to be considered good.  I suppose you could call it pulp fiction, just your basic adventure story to give you something to do while you were waiting for World War II to start.  But Buckskin Brigades wants to be more than that.  It wants to be a historical novel, a tale of the early American West, and we've seen that it isn't very good at that.  And as its foreword and central themes show, it's a book that wants to be an account of the American Indians.  We'll take a look at this angle next time.

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