January 4, 2014

The Frontier Adventure

In Days of the Dead, the 7th novel in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, the amateur detective and his wife ventured into Mexico to rescue their friend and Benjamin’s fellow musician Hannibal Sefton. Since that trip, Benjamin has solved crimes and dodged danger back in his hometown of New Orleans. However, in June 1837, he loses the remainder of the money he had in the Bank of Louisiana when it closes. Since many wealthy citizens of New Orleans also lost money due to the bank failure, Benjamin can no longer find work giving piano lessons to their children or playing the piano for the many balls and operas. Rose’s school also has to close. The loss of income forces him to venture again away from the familiar but perilous streets of New Orleans.
In The Shirt on His Back, the tenth novel in the series, the adventurous amateur detective takes a job helping his friend Lieutenant Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans Guards find the man who killed Shaw’s younger brother Johnny. Into the Oregon Territory go Benjamin, Shaw, and their friend Hannibal. Benjamin carries a notebook to record his observations of the Indians and the flora and fauna for his scientific-minded wife Rose, who can’t accompany him as usual because she is pregnant with their first child.

When the trio reaches Fort Ivy, Shaw’s older brother Tom, the headman, tells him that Johnny was found scalped, but he doesn’t think Indians killed him. He suspects Frank Boden, the former clerk, killed Johnny because he saw the partially contents of a letter containing the name “Hepplewhite” on Boden’s desk. The letter appeared to suggest that Boden wasn’t who he claimed to be and might be up to something nefarious. Tom tells them Boden left a few days ago and might be hiding among the trappers at the rendezvous. The three men set out for the rendezvous where the trappers gather each year to sell their beaver furs to the American Fur Company or the Hudson Bay Company.

The plot involves more than the hunt for Johnny’s killer. Benjamin eventually finds himself having to solve the murder of an old man from Germany and the poisoning of several trappers. When the three man hunters along with Johnny’s killer and his Indian accomplices are captured by Blackfeet, Benjamin has to use his detective skills to prevent the Chief from ordering their deaths by exposing the killer of the old man and the trappers and convincing the chief that he and Shaw must take the killer or killers back to face white man’s justice.

On the frontier, except for one man who shows his prejudice against black folks, Benjamin is treated as an equal once he proves he can shoot and fight and bravely face danger from hostile Indians, bears, and the weather as well as any mountain man.

The narrative voice in The Shirt On His Back, as in Hambly’s other novels in the series, is Benjamin January’s, but the story belongs to Lieutenant Abishag Shaw, a Kentucky mountain man who left the family feuds in his home state and settled in New Orleans. He is one of the most interesting characters in the series and Benjamin’s friend. This lanky Kentucky mountain man is almost as tall as Benjamin, wears dirty clothes, has scraggly hair, and chews tobacco. Since he became a lawman, he rejects the blood feuds of his home state. Thus, wrestling with his conscious, he has to decide whether to kill Johnny’s murderer or bring him in for trial.

As authors in other novels have done, Hambly romanticized the mountain men. Also, she sees the Indians as victims, though she does try to make them more complex—some are villains who are enticed into villainy by white men and a desire for vengeance, and are some good guys. Using Benjamin’s perspective, Hambly does a bit of preaching on a familiar subject, the people responsible for the disappearance of the wilderness:
…the Americans  came . . . Americans wanting beaver skins to sell for hats so they could make money. Americans wanting slaves brought in from Africa so they could grow cotton to sell to make money. Americans wanting land that the Sioux and Shoshone and Cherokee had since time immemorial lived on as hunters and as farmers . . . not so that they could farm themselves, but so they could sell it to other whites for farms, so that they—the sellers—could make money.

If you like tales about the American frontier, you’ll enjoy The Shirt On His Back, a detective-adventure story of detection, murder, and narrow escapes frontier style.

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