Friday, July 10, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Epilogue - Tangled History

There's actually an appendix after Buckskin Brigades' final chapter, but... well, we've already read it.  Remember back in the prologue, when Hubbard borrowed "a few lines" from Captain Lewis' journal, which amounted to five full pages of text?  The book repeats them.  Entirely.  Complete with the italics on the "With the first of these there was a white man" line.  Three pages of paper, wasted.

Well, perhaps I'm missing the point.  Maybe we're supposed to re-read it, and see how our experiences with Yellow Hair these past 286 pages have made us view history differently?  ...Yeah, it's not working for me either.  Captain Lewis camped out with some Indians, some Indians decided to try to rob him, and he shot one and the other got knifed.  Then miles away a fellow named Yellow Hair found out and went off and had some incredible adventures that seem to have vanished from written records, until over a hundred years later the great historian and novelist L. Ron Hubbard came along to tell the real story.

Which brings us to the topic of this little essay: Buckskin Brigades, Hubbard, and history.

I speculated that Mission Earth was, in places, Hubbard's attempt to rewrite his own history.  Buckskin Brigades isn't as bad, it'd probably be classified as historical fiction in that it's a yarn set in the past.  But that seems to be giving it too much credit - it think it'd be better described as historical fanfiction.  It takes a known historical event, Lewis' encounter with some natives, and then sloppily ties it to an original character who is of course handsome, brave, clever, etc. and who goes on to have a rollicking adventure completely divorced from canon.  I mean history.

Because if Fort Chesterfield was indeed burned down in the early 1800's, neither Wikipedia nor a record of Alberta's early history considers it worth mentioning.  Neither does McGlincy show up anywhere, nor does Father Marc, the "Mighty Monk" who completely failed to live up to that name.  I can similarly find no record of this Yellow Hair, Michael Kirk, or his father the former Virginian Senator L. R. Kirk.  The most we can say is that this story accurately represents the fact that there were Indians interacting with fur traders at this time in the northern Great Plains area, and sometimes those interactions were violent.

Now, is this a problem in itself?  Not really.  I mean, it depends on what you're doing with your historical fiction.  If you're telling the story of a known figure, it's probably not a good idea to suggest that President Millard Fillmore took a trip across the Pacific and ended up sumo wrestling the Emperor of Japan during his term, unless of course you're telling a comedic tale that doesn't take itself seriously.  If you're interested mainly in the historical setting and not necessarily the figures in it, there's no harm done in inventing a character to place in the Revolutionary War so you can explore what it was like to live during those tumultuous times.  You may even use a historical setting as an excuse to tell a certain type of story, since a tale about a gang of train robbers wouldn't really work in the modern era.

But Hubbard's doing something different.  As I said, he's used a historical incident as a jumping-off point for his tale, but he is trying to do more than just tell an adventure story that's light on adventure.  Hubbard wants to change the way we view the Native Americans.  In fact, he spends much of the book repeatedly hammering us with the sentiment that those people weren't savages, that the white settlers were often more uncivilized than them, and it was wrong for their lands to be invaded and seized.  And I really, really hope this wasn't revolutionary stuff back in 1937.

Hubbard's big problem is that he's basing his story on history, and then compressing it.  I'm not talking about the frequent timeskips, either, or including Colter's Run a few years too early.

Buckskin Brigades starts with the echoes of the gunshot fired by Captain Lewis in 1806, and how Hubbard thinks it could have affected the life of a white man raised by Indians.  But nothing else that happens in the story has anything to do with this incident.  It may be the catalyst that makes the Blackfoot take action, but then the rest of the tale is about Yellow Hair and the brigades of fur traders up in Canada.  Then there's a whole chain of causes and effects - Yellow Hair works at Fort Chesterfield, McGlincy decides to frame him, Yellow Hair is imprisoned but escapes from York Factory, McGlincy runs into him again at Fort William, and the Blackfoot's response to Yellow Hair's disappearance leads to the conflict in the story's climax.

Captain Lewis has nothing to do with anything after Chapter Four, and the book's bad guy becomes the fictitious McGlincy.  Unfortunately, while the story's events are about Yellow Hair's interactions with McGlincy and the fur brigades, its message is still focused on Captain Lewis.  Or more accurately, what will come after Captain Lewis returns home.

We know about the United States' march westward, the Indian wars, the treaties, the broken treaties, the reservations.  Except this story's setting, as the book's foreword reminds us, is the Early West, so none of that has happened yet.  The most that's going on at this point is some mountain men and explorers poking around, and a few trading posts popping up along rivers - trading posts that the Indians for the most part welcomed, because those "guns" kick ass!

Except Hubbard consistently writes like the invasions and expulsions have already happened, like the Blackfoot are having their lands gobbled up, that the diplomatic overtures of the Lewis and Clark Expedition are somehow the equivalent of a broken peace treaty.  And this means he has to come up with some tortured logic to portray the Blackfoot as victims and justify their actions - they didn't lose two men in an unsuccessful robbery, they knew that Lewis was lying to them and trying to get them to lower their guard so they'd be invaded!  Or he has to depict the fur traders as what can best be described as Hubbard Villains, people so vicious and stupid and viciously stupid that they'd actually go against their own business interests if it means that they'd get to watch some Indians get drunk and kill each other in a brawl.  And then for the grand finale he paints the destruction of a trading post (but not the one across the river) as a great victory against the invaders, even though it was a five days' ride from the Blackfoot's home village.

It's one thing to use allegory in historical fiction, to take an event like the Salem Witch Trials and use it to examine anti-communist hysteria of the 1950's.  Hubbard's doing the opposite, insisting that those Salemites were actually running a far-sighted campaign against communist infiltrators.

The weirdest thing about all this may be that the author decides to end on an unambiguously happy ending, instead of alluding to the Indians' grim future.  Yellow Hair sends his nemesis off in disgrace, becomes a legendary hero whom history will strangely forget, and even gets the girl.

Nobody observes that there's still an HBC outpost in the area, distributing guns to any Indian with beaver pelts.  No dour elder notes that it was the use of the white man's cannon that won the battle for Fort Chesterfield, not bow and arrow - even in victory, the Blackfoot lose a bit of themselves and have to take on the white man's ways.  Long Bow doesn't wonder what happened to that snake-tongued explorer, and if there might be others like him that come to their lands. Motley doesn't show up with a big smile, eager to sign a treaty that will surely ensure peaceful relations between the natives and his traders until the end of time.  A nameless Indian extra doesn't pick up a cough from one of the white prisoners.

For a story that is so heavily influenced by the Indians' future, it bizarrely gives the impression that they all lived happily ever after.

You gotta wonder why Hubbard even bothered to set it during the Early West when he's trying to tell the story of the Old West.  There's nothing about this rather generic tale of revenge that is tied intimately to the fur trade, and with a bit of work you could cast Yellow Hair as a half-breed who joins the US Army as an interpreter, only to be betrayed by his bosses, leading to a war between his tribe and the invaders.  But I guess Hubbard really liked those voyageurs and bullies and fur brigades (or maybe he really hated them, given how he writes about them).

And of course, we have that line from Lewis' journal: "there was a white man," a plot bunny if I've ever heard one.  Guess Hubbard wanted to make his Yellow Hair a part of history, even if that meant twisting history pretty badly to fit the story he wanted to tell.

Back to Chapter 39

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