Forgotten books: Big Red

Safe in an armchair, contemplating Nature, red in tooth and claw…

I was raised in a community that considered hunting for food to be as natural as driving a car or tractor. I didn’t hunt, but I knew the basics of gun ownership. As a kid I even once qualified for the National Rifle Association’s basic marksmanship certificate (way back when the NRA was primarily a gun safety organization).

Big Red cover Similarly I never owned a dog in my youth, but I knew what it was like to be around dogs, to have them underfoot, and making noise, and nosing in the grass for something to eat and then roll in.

I don’t remember how I discovered Jim Kjelgaard, or which of his nearly 50 juvenile books I read first. Big Red is the one that sticks in my mind, although when I re-opened it for the first time since the 1960s, I didn’t remember much plot or character detail. What did surprise me was how quickly the book drew me into the adventure of a seventeen-year-old Danny Pickett and his champion Irish setter. Surprising, mostly because Big Red features the kind of stirring, archaic prose that might’ve inspired a young Teddy Roosevelt:

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.

Any mongrel with four legs and the ability to run could hunt varmints. Danny looked fondly at the big setter. The first man who had dreamed had dreamed of a dog to hunt birds, and to make Red a varmint dog would almost be betrayal of that man and all the others who had striven to make the breed what it was.

What makes this potential fustiness go down so well is the homely speech of the outdoorsmen who live harmoniously in Kjelgaard’s imaginary wilderness:

Ross [Danny's father] gulped, and then grinned. “Don’t even trouble your head about me. I’m no tenderfoot deer hunter, as has to git his game the first day or he don’t git it.”

The result is an adventure on the scale of Treasure Island or Captains Courageous.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.Like them, Big Red is firmly a chronicle of its time–earnest and epic.

Tellingly, the animals in Danny’s world are heavily anthropomorphized. Danny lives in a world were “monster bears” exhibit “customary cunning”:

The savage, silent, head-swinging bear still roamed the Wintapi, an implacable, hating enemy of all the humans who trod there.

Kjelgaard’s vivid images can stop a reader in his tracks with their precision: “A couple of crows cawed raucously from the top of a beech, and flew on the devil’s business that their kind are always about.”

Crows have their place, however, as does all life. The book presents class hierarchy as an unquestionable given. Danny calls the wolverine that raids his trapline an “Injun devil” with provincial thoughtlessness. And Danny and his father live “by the grace of Mr. Haggin” on the wild edge of their wealthy patron’s “carefully nurtured” estate.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.The book is unabashedly masculine. Its only female character is one of Mr. Haggin’s managers, a “quality woman” visiting from Philadelphia who commits the cardinal sin of valuing Red only as a decorative possession. The bulk of the remaining 200-plus pages focusses on the important manly concerns of trackin’, trappin’, skinnin’, shootin’, fightin’, and rustlin’ up some hearty grub.

Yet for all the shortcomings of its age, Big Red is still worth reading.

Big Red is a detailed catalog of outdoor craft. Danny is an excellent woodsman, whether bleeding a dead bull (one of the bear’s victims) to preserve its meat for the landowner, or outwitting a bear on the run. Even the book’s exaggerated anthropomorphism is grounded in a detailed knowledge of animal behavior that makes its many descriptions pulse with life.

And a young reader could do a lot worse for a role model. Red’s journey from raw potential to disciplined perfection is the result of Danny’s fundamental kindness and unwavering vision.

Ross scoffed at the notion that a whipping would hurt him, but Danny knew better. Red had depths of feeling a sensitivity that he had seen in no other dog, and he was proud, He wouldn’t bear the lash any more than would a proud man.

Line drawings, Shannon Stirnweis.Danny’s trust pays off. In maturing, Red’s good nature blooms, as does his selfless courage in defending his beloved Danny from the mortal threats that lurk in the wilderness. Their united battle to defeat the marauding bear provides the ultimate measure of their partnership.

The best way to appreciate Danny Pickett as a protagonist it to compare him to his fictional contemporary, the far more well known Holden Caulfield. That famously cynical, rude, superficial, selfish, narcissistic twit is Danny’s antithesis.

In contrast, Danny embodies the highest traits of his species–smart, hard-working, uncomplaining, generous, and brave. The kind of honorable young man who deserves the hero worship of the noblest of dogs and the most jaded of contemporary readers.

Forgotten books: The Adventures of Duc of Indochina

Echoes of a distant childhood and a lost war everlasting…

From 1958 to 1963 I attended the parish school of the Saint Robert Bellarmine1 Catholic Church in Merrill, Wis. Although I forgot most of the experience, a few memories endured. One involved a book with a half-remembered title and a vague sense of nobility.

A half-remembered title and sense of nobility…

Why did I hang onto that particular mental scrap for so long? And why did it carry a positive association?

St. Bellarmine’s was a typical small town parish, oppressive in its alligence to dogma. My 7th- and 8th-grade years passed under the eye of a raptorial nun who called herself Constance. Sister Constance’s reputation as a disciplinarian remained more vivid than her ability as a teacher. That’s because her tool of choice was an 18-inch wooden ruler applied sharply to the palm of the hand, a device and a technique that our school’s namesake inquisitor would’ve sneered at.

This isn’t say that those years were without joy, in between paddlings. One routine that I remember fondly a half century later is this: Sister Constance reading to us as a class, daily I think, in a brief but welcome respite from her rigid schedule. Her book selection must’ve been mostly uninspired because later I could recall only a single title, and that imperfectly. But I still thought of it and kept searching from time to time…

Decades later, it surfaced: The Adventures of Duc of Indochina. And I had to re-read it.

I admit that I was wary of Duc and his adventures, having been disappointed by other re-enacted memories. I feared that the book would turn out to be a clumsy and superficial capitalist or missionary screed. (After all, Sister Constance had a job to do in an era not far removed from “adopting pagan babies” and applauding Sen. Joe McCarthy.)

But after reading it, I’ve been amazed by the book’s many qualities. The story concerns teenage Duc’s attempt to save his family from the civil war waging around them in what is now called Vietnam. Failing that, he begins a two-year quest to reunite what remains of his family. Through it all, Duc is loyal to family and community and faithful to his ideals, which include a harmonious relationship between his own Christianity and his neighbors’ mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

Duc of Indochina is a well-researched, largely even-handed tale of innocent people destroyed by a political conflict they didn’t choose. The consequences of Duc’s loyalty to his village and its modest way of life, though unfair, are real and unavoidable. As Nevins puts it:

There were long rows of graves in the cemetery, and each tomb had a concrete slab giving the man’s name, his unit, and the date of death. There was one Vietnamese name after another, and under each name was the legend, “Mort pour la France” (Died for France).

“That is false,” Duc thought to himself. “Those men died for Vietnam, not for France! They did not die so that their children would be tenants in a house owned by a foreigner.”

 

The consequences, though unfair, are real and unavoidable.

Sure, author Albert J. Nevins dumps explanations into the narrative like overpacked duffel bags, but it’s usually only a paragraph or two at a time and, with at least one good fact per paragraph, that’s a good trade. Nevins also speaks with a formality that sometimes sounds corny to the modern ear, but is driven by his desire as a journalist to get the details right.

The Catholic clergy in the story are secondary figures, generally decent men with modest ambitions for themselves and their followers. The Vietminh rebels (precursors of the Viet Cong) come up for more criticism than their French-led opponents, the Vietnamese army. The former are cast as brutal, unempathetic ideologs while the latter “were spick-and-span, determined to show their fellow nationals that their army was capable of protecting the country and the people.” (Of course, President Diem2 taught us otherwise.

After excaping the Vietminh, Duc fights with the French at Dienbienphu. Their defeat there led to the surrender that ended France’s long occupation of the region. It also paved the way for the U.S. to step into that quagmire of death and destruction on its own. (Let us never forget how that turned out.)

Nevins, a Catholic priest, was not unbiased. He made his opposition to the Communist Vietminh clear, calling them “Red hordes.” But as a journalist, he respected his title character and came down squarely on the side of ordinary Vietnamese who wanted only to live their lives unmolested by political theory.

The Adventures of Duc of Indochina ends with the teenage Duc reuniting with the few family members and friends who survived, and fleeing with them to what became South Vietnam. Despite his personal suffering and loss, Duc remained undaunted as he looked forward.

“I see the blood and glory of a thousand yesterdays.”

“Can you see tomorrow?”

“No, Sap. That I cannot see.” Duc straightened up and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We must make tomorrow.”

 

Duc’s lost world.

So that’s what I retained all these years: This fictitious stranger’s optimism made all the more poignant by the knowledge of what happened to his Vietnam after his story ends. Sister Constance might’ve intended to inspire us with a tale of Catholic fortitude, but what I got out of it was something simpler. Upon reflection, given my experience of a wooden ruler compared to weapons of war, I had a renewed appreciation of my own good fortune.

1 Among other duties, Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) served Pope Clement VIII as a Cardinal Inquisitor. In that position, Bellarmine defended the faith against heretics up and including execution and helped persecute Galileo Galilei. We students were oblivious of this background. If we had known, of course, our budding adolescent sarcasm would surely have been merciless. Return

2 Nevins, writing in 1955, characterized South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, as “an honest Nationalist.” However, like Robert Bellarmine, Diem was not what he seemed. Also a Roman Catholic, the new president proved to be remarkably corrupt and went on to oppress followers of other religions, eventually making enough enemies to be deposed and assassinated. Return

Opening for a YA novel I’m working on

It had been a while since I’d worked on a YA novel about a boy confined to his apartment building for the summer. When I ran across this draft opening paragraph I decided it was time to return to the story.

My mother, Abigail Wilson Secrest, doesn’t like the idea of
me watching violence on TV. So I make sure she doesn’t find
out.

I remember this old movie I saw once. Cowboy is sitting in
a saloon alone, drinking a glass of beer. Bad guy walks in and
starts drinking and complaining. Says to the dancing lady: You
know what I hate? I hate this town, it’s dirty and it stinks.

Drinks some more and says to the bartender: You know what I
hate? I hate this rot-gut whiskey of yours. It tastes like the
Pecos River after a herd of cattle went through.

Drinks some more and says to the cowboy: You know what I
hate: I hate your ugly face. And the bad guy pulls out a gun
and waves it at the cowboy. What do you got to say to that? he
says. And then the bad guy puts the gun under the cowboy’s
chin. Answer me, he hollers at the cowboy, or I’ll blow your
head off.

Next thing, the cowboy’s gun goes off from under the bar
and the bad guy flies backwards through the air dead. Cowboy
puts his gun on the bar and says to the bartender: You know what
I hate. I hate a man who needs help shutting up.

Let me tell you what I hate.