Thursday, March 05, 2015

Yesterday’s Adventure: 'Red Belts' (1920)

Yesterday’s Adventure: 'Red Belts' (1920)
by Fred Blosser

Like the great Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb, Hugh Pendexter regularly contributed rugged outdoor fiction to ADVENTURE magazine in the periodical’s heyday -- the World War I era and the early 1920s.  Where Mundy wrote about derring-do in contemporary India and Palestine, and Lamb favored the Middle East of the Crusades and the Russian steppes of the Cossacks, Pendexter staked claim to early American history for his subject matter.  

One of Pendexter’s best, RED BELTS, was serialized in ADVENTURE in 1919 and appeared in hardcover from Doubleday in 1920.  The setting is the Old American Southwest of 1784, when the "Southwest" comprised the territory between the southern Appalachians and the Mississippi.  The settlers along North Carolina’s western frontier hope the mother state will send fresh militia troops over the mountains to deter attacks from hostile Cherokees and Creeks.  Their hopes are dashed when they learn that North Carolina has ceded the region to the fledgling federal government to pay the state’s Revolutionary War debt.  The national government doesn’t have the resources to defend this distant territory, which will later become Tennessee.

Left to their own resources, the settlers face a choice.  They can rely on their own sparse numbers as frontiersman John Sevier insists, and take pre-emptive action against the Indians if necessary.  Or -- as the sinister Major Tonpit and his co-conspirators suggest -- they can leave the union and seek the protection of Spain, which still rules a goodly part of the continent, including the southern waterways that lead to the rich markets of New Orleans.

Pendexter had the narrative gift of bringing early American history vividly to life.  There are enough chases, double-crosses, and shootouts to keep action fans engaged, but the strongest scenes are those in which the wily John Sevier matches wits rather than bullets or steel with Chief John Watts of the Cherokees and “Emperor” Alexander McGillivray of the Creeks to extricate himself from their hostile strongholds, where his hosts would like nothing better than take his scalp.  The story underscores a lesson that bears repeating: the early politics of America were fragile and contentious.  To appreciate where we are as a nation, we need to know where we were in the beginning.

Stylistically, much of  RED BELTS (the title refers to red wampum belts, the Indians’ signal for war) will strike modern readers as emphatically old-fashioned:

  • As in other stories from the early days of ADVENTURE, profanities and obscenities are strictly censored.  “By God!” is written as “By ---!”
  • Historical information that today would be incorporated into the action or the dialogue, or put into an afterword, or simply kept in the author’s head, is spooned into the narrative.  Clearly, Mr. Pendexter invested a lot of research into the book, and he wasn’t reluctant to share the results with his readers.
  • The narrative focus meanders a bit.  Although the first couple of chapters suggest that young frontiersman Kirk Jackson will be the protagonist of RED BELTS, he disappears for much of the rest of the book.  John Sevier takes center stage instead.  It would have been a great movie role for the late Rod Taylor in his prime.

Along those same lines, some of Pendexter’s cultural views would have been inoffensive to readers in 1920, but now carry considerable baggage.  Accepted in the context of the author’s times, they don’t bother me too much.  Others may be more sensitive.  Regardless, Pendexter tells a crackling good story.  It’s a shame that this kind of fiction -- U.S. history with a jigger of bourbon -- isn’t as popular as it once was.  Black Dog Books recently reprinted the novel as RED TRAILS, along with some other vintage Pendexter titles.

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