Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Flashman and the Redskins by George MacDonald Fraser

(Book Review)

And here I am with the 7th book in the Flashman series. (After having read Flashman, Royal Flash, Flash for Freedom, Flashman at the Charge, and Flashman and the Great Game, Flashman's Lady and the original source material Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes.)

One of the reasons I enjoy the Flashman series is that it takes me to so many exotic places. I've so far followed Flashman to the British occupation of Afghanistan, pirate fighting in Borneo, criminal gangs in Singapore, slave traders on the coast of Africa, the Sepoy rebellion in India, the charge of the light brigade in Crimea, peasant rebellions in Russia, insane dictators in Madagascar, et cetera.

This book, from beginning to end, takes place entirely within the boundaries of the United States. Having been born and raised in America, this doesn't strike me as quite so interesting as some of Flashman's previous adventures. But perhaps the American West is regarded as a little bit more exotic in England, where this book was originally published. (Or for that matter in Australia, where I purchased this book.)

However, once I got into the book, I did find it interesting enough.

The story is divided into two parts. The first part takes place in 1849-50, right after the events described in the 3rd book "Flash for Freedom". (Although the first 5 books in this series were chronological, they're starting to jump around all over now.)

Flashman ends up taking part in the great migration of wagon trains across the American West caused by the 1849 gold rush. But it's not your standard "wagon train across the plains" story. There's a bit of a twist. Through the usual series of convoluted events, Flashman ends up in charge of a wagon train of prostitutes, who are going out to set up a new brothel in Santa Fe.

These books can be pretty ludicrous, to be sure. They're also occasionally a bit trashy. But they're great guilty pleasures. Knowing what we know about Flashman's character, we know he's not going to be able to resist temptation, and it's obvious he's going to get himself into plenty of trouble before this trip is over. The pleasure is in waiting to see exactly how Flashman will manage to screw everything up this time.

However, as usual, mixed in with the guilty pleasure are a lot of historical tidbits. This book is even more heavily footnoted than the previous volumes (81 end notes total) meaning that just about every couple of pages you have to break from the story and flip to the back of the book to find out that so-and-so was actually a real historical person, or that such-and-such was a real place, or that this or that event really happened. As always these books are so thoroughly researched it makes a great way to justify reading these otherwise trashy stories.

The second half of the book takes place in 1875-76, and is focused on Custer's Last Stand, and the events leading up to it. Flashman, again through the usual series of convoluted events, ends up being present at Custer's last stand, despite doing just about everything he can to avoid it.

Custer's Last Stand is one of those famous events that everyone has heard about, but no one really knows anything about it.
Or maybe I'm just speaking for myself. Anyway I certainly didn't know what the issues had been leading up to this conflict, nor what exact military blunders Custer had made.

This book does a pretty good job of walking you through the major historical points. Flashman is at the meeting with the Native Americans when the negotiations break down. (Flashman is of the opinion that the negotiations were intended to break down so that the government would have an excuse to go to war.)
Flashman also spends a lot of time with Custer in the months leading up to the conflict. The picture painted of Custer may boarder on being a little bit cliche and one-dimensional. (He's portrayed as being an emotionally fragile, glory seeking basket case.) But again, much of it is backed up with historical footnotes.

And finally, at the actual battle itself, Flashman sees exactly how Custer allowed himself to blunder into a much bigger Native American force.

I have a few more thoughts on this book, which I am presenting below in no particular order:

* Flashman in all of these books is always portrayed as an anti-hero. You root for him to survive everything because he's the only protagonist you've got. At the same time, you're also kind of hoping for him to get his just desserts, and usually most of his evil deeds do come back to bite him in the butt in one way or another.

In the past books, Flashman has done some truly despicable things. And he continues to push the boundaries in this book. For example he sells colored girl into slavery to pocket the money. He also participates in the massacre of a Native American tribe. (Not willingly, albeit. He is in a position where he either has to participate or be killed himself. But he doesn't hesitate to kill the Indians if it will save himself.)

This put me off of the book a little bit. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. When writing about an anti-hero, there is a fine line. On the one hand the whole point of this series of books is that its protagonist is a bully and a coward. (And, based on the portrayal of Flashman from the original source material, "Tom Brown's Schooldays", it would be inconsistent for him to ever do anything that wasn't mean or spiteful.) Still, you don't want to push your audience too far away.

Then again, I suppose the fact that these books give you a protagonist that makes you feel uncomfortable is what's interesting about them. Although it would make me hesitant to recommend them.

* The book perhaps overuses the deus ex machina plot device to deliver Flashman from various tight spots. More than once in this book Flashman will appear to be doomed, and then a stranger will suddenly appear out of nowhere to save him.

* Although this story is about the American West, having it written by a British author does bring a unique perspective to some of the historical details.
For example, more than once the Custer's military blunders are compared with the Charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea. The bungled diplomatic negotiations with the Sioux at Black Hills, and the arrogance of the American government, are compared with William McNaghten in Afghanistan (both incidents described in previous Flashman books).
The relationship between the Native Americans and the British government is touched on (Sitting Bull apparently had a badge of King George III.)
I also learned that President Ulysses S. Grant was a big fan of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" (the original source material for the Flashman character, and there's an interesting joke about this in the book) and that before Texas had officially joined the United States, Britain had once entered into negotiations with the object of persuading Texas to join the British Empire. (Flashman claims this was a bit of a sore point among the Americans of the time.)

* I'm not entirely sure why this book has such a politically incorrect title. To keep with the pulpy feel of the story, perhaps?

Actually speaking of political incorrectness, large parts of this book do seem aimed at upsetting liberal views of history. The author, George MacDonald Fraser, seems to be of the opinion that modern history has completely white-washed the Native Americans, and made them into passive victims of Western Imperialism while ignoring the fact that the Indians committed a lot of atrocities themselves.

Some of this viewpoint comes out through the character of Flashman himself, and admittedly Flashman is not intended to be a reliable narrator in all things. But it also comes through in the historical footnotes, where the author complains about "Indian apologists."

What the actual historical record is, I'm no expert on. It's more than possible that there were plenty of atrocities committed on both sides. However I'm a little uneasy that Fraser seems to think that the Native Americans have gotten off too easily. I seem to remember them being portrayed as bad guys more often than not in many of the films I watched as a child. (Some of these films were a bit older, but dated or not they are still part of the collective media environment.)
Also, in his book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong" (A), James Loewen makes the case that, contrary to popular belief, most history textbooks actually downplay the atrocities committed against Native Americans.

However to Fraser's credit, he certainly shows that the atrocities were not one all way. And he gives a sympathetic viewpoint of the Native American position regarding the Black Hills conflict. (As mentioned above, he places the blame for the negotiations breaking down on the United States government, not on the Indians.)

In conclusion: although I feel conflicted about some of the things inside this book, I certainly can't complain that it was a boring read. It did an excellent job of holding my attention. I enjoyed reading it, and I like to think I learned a few things from it.

Link of the Day
John Pilger Interviews Noam Chomsky 25 Nov 1992

Also: Obama’s War on Schools
The No Child Left Behind Act has been deadly to public education. So why has the president embraced it?

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