Friday, January 20, 2017

The Gold Hunters by James Oliver Curwood

Mystery in the Canadian North
The Gold Hunters, published in 1909, is an adventure novel by American author James Oliver Curwood. As I was reading the book, I got the feeling it might be a sequel because the characters kept referring to events in the past. Upon investigation, I found that, sure enough, it follows Curwood’s 1908 novel The Wolf Hunters, which was made into a John Wayne movie (1934’s The Trail Beyond). Despite the recurring characters, even though I hadn’t read the earlier book, I had no trouble getting into The Gold Hunters.

Roderick Drew is an American enjoying an extended visit at a trading post in the wild country near Hudson Bay, somewhere north of Montreal. His closest companions are two indigenous Canadians, one a young man Rod’s age named Wabigoon, the other an elder gentleman named Mukoki. Apparently, The Wolf Hunters ended with the three adventurers prying a treasure map to a fortune in gold from the fingers of a skeleton. Now they’ve decided to follow that map where it will lead, in hopes of finding untold riches hidden in the remote wilderness. Before they can begin their treasure hunt, however, they must first rescue Rod’s sweetheart, the Indian maiden Minnetaki, from the clutches of the evil tribe known as the Woongas.

Reading this novel today, it’s hard to tell whether it was intended for an audience of teenage boys or grown adults. I would tend to assume the latter, since there are some beautiful passages of nature writing that clearly demonstrate lofty literary aspirations. The Gold Hunters is obviously influenced by the works of James Fenimore Cooper. The trio of heroes bears a suspicious resemblance to the triumvirate of Natty, Chingachgook, and Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans, while the Woongas are blatant stand-ins for the Mingoes. Curwood even repeatedly refers to Mukoki as “pathfinder.” As far as the adventure narrative goes, the action here is too squeaky clean to be mistaken for Jack London’s dark and violent tales of the North, yet wilder than the more genteel boreal romances of Canadian author Harold Bindloss. Curwood’s vision of wilderness strikes a healthy balance between danger and wonder.

What makes the book fun is that it’s really a mystery story that just happens to be set in the wilderness. You never know where the trail will lead, and there are surprises around every bend. Curwood doesn’t haul out the usual lazy adventure-novel clichés. The story is more imaginative than a run-of-the-mill treasure hunt yarn. At times Curwood’s prose lacks clarity, and it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. How’d they escape that whirlpool again? What did they use to get down into the chasm? Overall I liked the novel, but I would have enjoyed it more if I didn’t have to decipher Curwood’s murky action sequences. There's also one odd scene that’s so unintentionally(?) homoerotic it reads like a Saturday Night Live parody.

The ending of The Gold Hunters clearly sets up the characters for another sequel, one that hints at something akin to an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure. Whether that sequel was ever produced, and what its title could be, I do not know. Nevertheless, as a stand-alone novel, The Gold Hunters is a pretty good read for those who like classic adventure stories.
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