Saturday, September 5, 2009

John Ermine of the Yellowstone by Frederic Remington

While westerns may seem a little off the norm here at Luke Reviews, they are still very much in the escapist fiction realm, and a fun interlude and change-up, so I am going to try a few mixed in with the usual science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, crime, etc. The first western on here, however, also has some historical importance in the field of genre fiction. Frederic Remington, along with being a famous artist, also wrote a number of stories during his time, including John Ermine of the Yellowstone (published in 1902, thus getting completely overlooked due to the publication in the same year of Owen Wister’s classic western, The Virginian). This tale is widely noted as a thematic precursor as well as inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, a well-written thriller in its own right, and from the author who really bought fantastic (simply in the non-realistic sense) fiction a place through his work in the early 1900s. Remington’s western lead to a bedrock of enjoyable, fun, thrilling fiction that is there to be read for sheer enjoyment. That is a lasting legacy.

John Ermine of the Yellowstone follows the title character of John Ermine. He is a white child being raised by Crow, until the medicine man Crooked-Bear decides to train him to be reintroduced into European American society. Crooked-Bear, a runaway from white society himself, teaches White Weasel (the original name of the man who will soon be called John Ermine) English, manners, and other skills to help him blend in. As Ermine finally leaves his old life behind, he enters into the army and their war against the Sioux.

The story is very much a tale of a boy growing up in a culture very much different than that of his birth, and then trying to leave that culture for the white culture, and finding the white culture uninviting, and in this way mirrors Tarzan of the Apes very much (this is not to say that the Crow, or any other Native American tribe, is on the same level intellectually or socially with gorillas, just that the very advanced gorilla culture Burroughs depicts and the culture of the Crows that Remington shares both are used to create a “wild man,” or a white man with a foreign culture).

The writing style is a touch dated at times, particularly towards the beginning, but the last two-thirds of the novel will sweep you away. John Ermine is well-depicted, and shows a very full, rich characterization, with plenty of shades of grey. The stereotypical depictions of Indians in this novel are certainly grating at times, because Remington’s views towards Native Americans as expressed in the novel, while not unkindly, are very much full of ingrained presumptions and an almost parent-child situation, and show a societal racism that is uncomfortable, to say the least. However, as a historical document, and a stepping stone to bigger things, there is no doubt. John Ermine’s struggles are intriguing, and his fate certainly draws the reader in. This is a novel well worth a read, especially for those interested in the first steps of genre fiction.


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