Thursday, July 13, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Road to Frontenac, by Samuel Merwin

Old Besteller: The Road to Frontenac, by Samuel Merwin

a review by Rich Horton

This book was not a major bestseller, but it seems to have been well-known back in the day, and to have been fairly popular. It is subtitled "A Romance of Early Canada", which sort of fits the occasional Canadiana subset of this series of reviews, though Samuel Merwin was an American (born in Chicago (actually in Evanston, and educated at Northwestern, which is also in Evanston), but eventually based in New Jersey).

Indeed one reason for my interest in this book was the name of the author. Sam Merwin, Jr., was the best editor (by general consensus) in the history of the sister science fiction magazines Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, as well as an SF writer himself; and I wondered if this Samuel Merwin was related. And indeed, the author of The Road to Frontenac (and a number of other novels and plays) was Sam Merwin, Jr.'s father. The elder man was born in 1874 and died in 1936. Besides novels and plays he served as an editor of SUCCESS magazine ... in his son's case, the apple didn't fall too far from the tree.

The Road to Frontenac was Merwin's first solo novel, though he had previously published a couple of novels with his frequent collaborator Henry Kitchell Webster. It was published in 1901 by Doubleday, Page; and it also appears to have been serialized in Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. My edition is a later reprint, part of a series published by P. F. Collier, collectively called American Classical Romances. Most of the books in that series are fairly obscure, though it does include Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp, and books I recognized by the likes of F. Hopkinson Smith, Amelia Barr, Robert W. Chambers, and Paul Leicester Ford. I don't know for sure when this edition came out -- perhaps the '20s? My copy is illustrated by E. Blumenschein.
(Illustration by E. Blumenschein)

The story is set in 1687, right in the middle of the "Beaver Wars" between New France and the Iroquois nations. It opens with the hero, Captain Menard, watching a group of Indians being taken off to be galley slaves. This is an actual historical incident, in which the French governor tricked a group of 50 Iroquois chiefs to meet with his people, then captured them. Menard, it is clear, is disgusted by this action, and is convinced it will lead to nothing but trouble. It is part and parcel of his overall contempt for the Governor, Denonville.

However, as a loyal French soldier, he must follow orders. And his next order is to go to Frontenac (present day Kingston, Ontario) and somehow convince the Iroquois nations (excepting the Senecas) to stay out of the fight when the New French forces attack the Senecas, who have been stealing furs from French traders. To complicate things further, he is also to escort Valerie St. Denis, a young woman, to her cousin in Frontenac. He will be accompanied by a couple of canoemen, and by one soldier -- he chooses the young Lieutenant Danton -- and by one priest, Father Claude de Casson.

The journey starts well enough. Lieutenant Danton seems smitten with Valerie St. Denis (called "the maid" throughout), and she is happy enough to spend time with him. They both begin to learn the Iroquois language. Father Claude, an aspiring artist, shows Captain Menard his portrait of the Iroquois Christian Catherine Outasouren. (I don't know if she was an historical personage.) Danton shows his immaturity, and has to be chastised by Menard, and a time comes when he apparently makes advances to the maid, and is rebuffed. Then disaster strikes, and the band is captured by a group of Onondagas.

It soon becomes clear that the leader of this group, the Long Arrow, is the brother of one of the men taken to be a galley slave, and that he is planning to revenge himself on Menard. His plans are complicated by Menard's own status -- he spent years living with the Onondagas. He is called the Big Buffalo. (I am forced to wonder if the range of the Buffalo (or more correctly, American Bison) extended to Eastern Canada in this period.) The four survivors -- Menard, Father Claude, Danton, and the maid -- are imprisoned, awaiting a planned torture of Menard. Against orders, Danton tries to escape, with an Indian woman, and the two are caught and scalped. And Menard is forced to try desperately to save Father Claude and Valerie, and if possible to use his influence, from this position of weakness, the Iroquois to stay out of the battle with the Senecas. His only hope is to last until the leader of the local Iroquois, the Big Throat, arrives.

The other complicating factor is that, in close proximity with Valerie St. Denis, he falls in love with her. But part of his plan is to offer her cousin, Captain La Grange, to the Iroquois as a scapegoat -- he is apparently a drunk and a bad soldier, and was the true villain (along with the Governor) in the treacherous capture of the galley slaves. His personal position become worse when he realizes that Valerie has been promised to La Grange, her cousin, as his wife.

The core of the story is the time spent imprisoned in the Onondaga village, culminating in a dramatic council meeting, in which sanity appears to reign ... except that more treachery awaits. But of course, after much danger, our heroes win through, only to hear news of an ambiguous New French victory over the Seneca, and to be rebuffed when Menard insists on punishment for La Grange. The day is saved by one of Menard's Indian allies, leading to s somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, including of course success for Menard's suit.

Despite a slightly muffed ending, I thought it a fairly exciting and interesting novel. Its historical details seem mostly pretty correct, though while Menard's efforts in the novels, and real events in history, led to temporary success for New France, the Iroquois soon were resisting more energetically, and the eventual solution involved removing Denonville and having Frontenac return, after he finds the 13 surviving Iroquois chiefs who had been enslaved and returns them to their people.

More problematic historically and culturally, I am sure, is the treatment of the Iroquois, and the depiction of their society. I get the sense that Merwin made a fairly earnest attempt at an accurate and fairly respectful depiction of their society, for all that. Even so, there is a distinct hint of condescension, if coupled with a definite acknowledgement that New France was often profoundly in the wrong in their treatment of the Indians. I don't really know how accurate Merwin's account truly is, to be sure. For popular fiction of its time, it seems like a pretty honest effort, but I dare say it falls short on several grounds.

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