Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
The Young Alaskans by Emerson Hough
There’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned boys’ adventure book. And by that I mean there’s usually nothing quite as obnoxious. At least this one isn’t G.A. Henty.
You’ve probably never heard of Emerson Hough, who wrote today’s book, but he was a successful and prolific author in the early 20th century. Historical fiction and especially Westerns were his main focus. One of his early novels, The Mississippi Bubble, was among the top bestsellers in America in 1902. Young Alaskans here was written in either 1908 or 1910. Intended for younger readers, it was the first in a series.
Our protagonists are three young boys named Rob, John and Jesse. The personality differences between them appear to be minimal at best. They live in the tiny Alaskan coast town of Valdez, spending their days hunting and fishing and doing 1900s boy things. Rob’s uncle takes the boys on a steamboat trip, which at first delights them to no end, but things go wrong when they are separated from the boat and find themselves lost in the wilderness. From there, the book turns into a fairly standard kids’ adventure story. There’s little to no conflict between the three boys, and they don’t have much trouble living off the land either. But they’re not alone in this isolated area, and they end up facing off against — you guessed it — those “savage” natives.
The one good thing I’ll say here is that this is not the most racist 1900s book I’ve ever read. Not by a longshot. Still, my saying that shouldn’t be taken to mean that this book isn’t racist, because wow it absolutely is. The very first native character (identified as Aleut, which seems to be correct for the geographic area but I’m not completely sure) is an opportunistic troublemaker who is described as having “a face with cunning little eyes set slantwise…and long, stringy locks of dark hair hanging down about the cheeks” and a toothy grimace that “he meant to be a smile” (page 69). The boys promptly capture him, name him Jimmy and more or less make him their slave, and this is presented as a good thing. Later on they encounter a tribe of natives who speak broken English and would sell each other for a child’s rifle. And of course you have the token “good native,” a young boy who helps the protagonists and whose happy ending is going off to the mission school to be Anglicized. Yikes.
Were these attitudes common back when this book was written? Yeah. Am I still going to give this book shit because its age doesn’t excuse the repugnant nature of its content? Also yeah.
I suppose there’s one other good thing I can say about this book, which is that it seems to be making an honest attempt at describing aspects of Alaskan frontier life and Aleut culture. About halfway through the book, for example, we get a chapter where the protagonists accompany the natives on a whale hunt, and Hough gets pretty detailed about the steps involved.
The other boats held back until the chief had taken his place at the head of the procession. It now became plain that his was the task of using the mysterious nogock, over whose loss he had seemed so concerned. Even as his bidarka shot forward with its own momentum, he drew out from the forward hatch this sacred instrument and fitted to it the short harpoon. He made over the weapon some mysterious passes with one hand, and as he fitted the harpoon or heavy dart to the throwing-stick he blew three times on the point of it, passing his fingers along the edge. Finally he held the weapon up toward the sky and uttered some loud words in his strange tongue. Having completed these ceremonies, he placed the nogock and harpoon crosswise on the deck in front of him and bent again to his paddle.
Now the Aleut showed at his best. There was no fear or agitation in his conduct. Without hesitation he gazed intently at the dark, glistening bulk in front of him, apparently hunting for the exact spot which he wished to strike—a point about a third of the way back from the angle of the jaw. The whale itself seemed to be stupid, as though sleepy, although now and again it rolled slowly from side to side as though uneasy.
Still the chief poised and waited until the exact spot he wished to strike was exposed as the whale rolled slowly toward the right. Then suddenly, with a sighing hiss of his breath, the dark huntsman leaned swiftly forward. The motion of his hand was so swift the eye could scarcely follow it.
After that all that Rob could tell was that he was in the bidarka speeding swiftly away from a churning mass of white water, in the middle of which a vast black form was rolling. He heard a sort of hoarse roar or expiration of the breath of the stricken monster. Once he thought he caught sight of the slender shaft of the harpoon, which in truth was buried, head and all, eighteen inches or more deep in the side of the whale, the point passing entirely through the blubber and into the red meat of the body. Although Rob did not know it, the shaft did not long remain attached. The struggles of the whale broke off the slate-head at a point near to the shaft, where it was cunningly made thinner in order that it might break. A foot or fifteen inches of the slate-head remained buried deep in the body of the whale. The nogock had done its work!
Rob did not even then understand what he later found to be the truth: that what the Aleut really does with his slate harpoon-head is not to kill the whale with the wound, but to poison it. If the stone harpoon-head passes through the blubber and into the red meat the wound is sure to fester, and in the course of a few days to kill the whale, which then floats ashore somewhere and is discovered by the waiting hunters.pages 115, 116-117, 118-119
Of course, I don’t know how accurate all this is. Hough doesn’t show much respect for the native characters the rest of the time. But an attempt is being made. At least I think it is.
I don’t really have anything more to say about this. I got what I was expecting from the title and cover, which was a run-of-the-mill adventure book for young boys. There isn’t much plot or character, and the uncomfortable racism stains much of the proceedings. While there are certainly some books from this period and/or genre that would hold up as entertaining literature today, this isn’t one of them. Just skip it.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg. See you next time!