From 1910, this was the first adventure novel by my favorite author, John Buchan. Somehow it seems appropriate that my next book to read is Sick Heart River, his last book.
This isn’t familiar territory for me, so far as Buchan novels go. Although itÂ begins in Scotland, the action moves very quickly to Africa, where the hero David Crawfurd runs a trading post, and begins to learn of an uprising among the natives.
I read an interesting paper online about this novel, and that to fully appreciate it requires more understanding of Buchan’s own life, and his desire as a young man to make his mark down in Africa, but how he eventually went back to England. I may dig up my biography on Buchan next so that I can place this book in context.
At any rate, the antagonist of the book is Reverend John Laputa, heir to the mantle (literally) of Prester John. Because the book’s villains were black “savages,” I had some fears that this would be an embarrassing look into Buchan’s racism. It seemed justified when the dreaded n-word turned up on the third page! And yet, this was the only instance, and it wasn’t uttered by the hero (though it made me wish the character who uttered it would have some comuppance. he doesn’t). But outside of generous use of “savage” and “kaffir,” slurs are avoided. On the other hand, the general treatment of the black characters isn’t going to get this book in a Black History Month display — the usual stereotypes of blacks being lazy or animal-like abound, and I was particularly bemused at various references to how talkative (ie, “jabbering”) they supposedly are (as if men of the western world aren’t in love with their voices!).
But before you go and assume that this is on the level of H. Rider Haggard (well, you might not be far off), consider Rev. Laputa, the foe. He, at least, is treated with respect. Granted, it’s attributed to his upbringing in a white school, but the man is compared favourably to Napoleon, and the heroes despair that they should have to destroy such a great man. He repeatedly demonstrates charity and benevolence to his enemies (and he might have won if he hadn’t repeatedly allowed Crawfurd to live every time he captured him). It may not sound like a great compliment, but he’s the black man’s Fu Manchu. Take it as you will.
I’m already 100 pages into Sick Heart River, and it’s truly engrossing material, possibly the best Buchan I’ve ever read. More on that next week when I’m done — there are some neat comparisons to make between it and Prester John.