Monday, June 7, 2010

Wilderness by David Robbins writing as David Thompson (mountain man series of Western novels)

The first of David Robbins's Wilderness novels (published under the pseudonym David Thompson) that I read was number one: King of the Mountain, which tells of Nate King's journey west (accompanied by his uncle Zeke) away from his old life to begin a new one in the mountains in 1828. The next one I read was a lot more recent. And I've got to tell you: skipping around in a series is asking for confusion.

Fifty-nine books later, a lot has happened. At first, I was confused and thought that the character of Zach that plays the main role in The Outcast (#60 in the series) was the uncle from King of the Mountain — Zach, Zeke: you see the problem — but it turns out he is Nate's grown son by his wife Winona. (In fact, Nate is not even in this book, except by mention.)

Since Winona is full-blooded Shoshone, Zach's half-breed status lends him a notoriously hot temper. So, when his own (pregnant) wife, Louisa, is kidnapped by a Blood Indian cast out from his tribe for an "unthinkable" act, somebody's going to die! Meanwhile, a small band of Tun-kua (Heart Eaters) are on the hunt for vengeance, and Shakespeare McNair nurses his Flathead wife, Blue Water Woman, back to health after she is injured trying to rescue Louisa.

Author David Robbins's Westerns have a devoted following of both male and female readers, which is surprising for a genre believed to have a primarily male fan base (older-male judging by the sheer number of large-print titles available). Some suggest Robbins's more balanced readership is because of the genuine emotion his characters show for one another, and this may be true, but a good story also simply transcends gender.

The Outcast has characters that are devoted to one another, and this speaks to the traditional (some would say "old-fashioned") expectations of couples: the man wants to protect, and the woman wants the security of protection. At the same time, the action rarely lets up, with another conflict arising as soon as the last one has been surmounted.

The saga of the King family (plus McNair) is now almost 20 years old, and Robbins / Thompson shows no signs of slowing down. (In addition to his Wilderness books, he is also the primary writer for the Trailsman series of action Westerns published under the house name Jon Sharpe, as well as others under his own name.)

I was already looking forward to reading my next Wilderness, wherever in the series it took place, when I learned that #62, The Tears of God, was inspired by one of Robbins's favorite writers, Robert E. Howard. As Howard is also one of my favorites, I instantly knew that one had to be next. Interestingly, the cover of Tears of God was previously used on a Trailsman novel, Colorado Carnage, which was also written by Robbins.)

On a search for his daughter Evelyn, Nate King and his friend Shakespeare McNair (so nicknamed for his predilection of quoting the Bard at opportune moments, and otherwise) find she's been escorted by Jeremiah Blunt, who is taking supplies to a group of Shakers in the Valley of Skulls — a "no man's land" so desolate, dangerous, and "evil" that even the Indians avoid it.

Nate sends Evelyn home with Shakespeare and offers to guide Blunt to the Valley since he knows the area and its dangers. But it's Nate's presence that endangers them first because they run into Kuruk, a Pawnee whose uncle Nate killed in self-defense, and Kuruk and some of his friends want revenge. The Shakers don't know what they're in for, though they believe everything is "God's will" even as one of their number is eaten by a grizzly. And Nate tries to encourage them to stay safe, even as he continues to defend himself from Kuruk's attacks.

I definitely see the Robert E. Howard influence in the Valley of Skulls, and though everything can be given a natural explanation, there is a definite air of the supernatural throughout The Tears of God, which would also put it firmly in "weird Western" territory. (Paul Green, author of the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, would no doubt file it under the "weird menace Western.")

The Tears of God takes up the story after #61, The Scalp Hunters, but my enjoyment of it did not diminish from not having read that book. One of the main draws of the series is how Robbins/Thompson captures both the adventure and danger of life in the wilderness. He does not shy away from the realities. When the hungry grizzly attacks a Shaker woman, we see the aftermath fully. It's a shocking, even horrific, scene and one that does not judge the bear or the woman. That kind of even-handed writing is rare, and is one reason I'll continue to seek out these books.

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