Sunday, March 13, 2011

Salute to Adventurers by John Buchan

I suppose you must all know by now how much I love John Buchan--and Salute to Adventurers is one of my many favourites among his works.
It tells the adventures of Andrew Garvald, who is a Scot—in other words, a merchant-poet, a Presbyterian-cavalier, a businessman-romantic. Eighteen years old, he's already had to leave his schooling in Edinburgh to help his Covenanter father escape the King's men to Holland, and it's reluctantly that he lays down his responsibility as current head of the family to return to Edinburgh. On the way he meets two people who will change the course of his life: pretty, aristocratic Elspeth Blair on the one hand, and the ranting fanatic preacher Muckle John Gib on the other.
Oh dear,” you're thinking, “one of those books, where sincere Christians are the bad guys! How fast can I get away from this book?”
Not so fast—you have a pleasant surprise in store! But let me continue.--Andrew finds himself in a nasty spot when the king's dragoons rescue him from John Gib's “Sweet-singers” only to throw him into prison along with them—from whence he is retrieved by Mistress Elspeth Blair, who laughs and pronounces him harmless enough for a whiggamore; pleasantries which wound young Andrew's pride and ensure that he does not forget her in a hurry.
Years pass, and Andrew completes his studies and begins a good sober Scottish career as a grocer; soon he has determined to move to the Virginian colony for to groce in the New World. Not long before he leaves, adventure once more comes to him in the Edinburgh street, where he witnesses three men attack a stranger and leave bleeding from the point of his sword.
The man is Ninian Campbell--
Ye see before you a poor gentleman of fortune, whom poverty and a roving spirit have driven to outland bits o' the earth to ply his lawful trade of sea-captain. They call me by different names. I have passed for a Dutch skipper, and a Maryland planter, and a French trader, and, in spite of my colour, I have been a Spanish don in the Main. At Tortuga you will hear one name, and another at Port o' Spain, and a third at Cartagena. But, seeing we are in the city o' Glasgow in the kindly kingdom o' Scotland, I'll be honest with you. My father called me Ninian Campbell, and there's no better blood in Breadalbane."

Although it is located at the ends of the earth, Andrew finds Virginia a busy place indeed. Who should he catch a sight of on his first evening ashore but that same Muckle John, the visionary heretic from the highlands? Immediately Andrew knows that something wrong is afoot, but the conspiracy is hidden deep below the peaceful surface of Virginia. Meanwhile there are plenty of other things to occupy him: life as a Scots grocer is difficult, owing to England's mercantile policies, and Andrew is by turns ostracised and persecuted by the English traders. Things are not improved by the advent of none other than Elspeth Blair, whose minister uncle has been called to Virginia. Soon all the young aristocrats of Virginia have another reason to hate the quiet, awkward, and proud Andrew Garvald, who is so horrifically middle-classed that he prefers pistols to swords: Elspeth has time for him, and not for them.
Petty raids, grievances, and intimidation from the Virginians, however, even a duel with a local aristocrat—these are the least of Andrew's problems. His investigations into the sinister presence of John Gib and low mutterings of doom from Indian territory bring him back into the society of Ninian Campbell—who here in the wild wears another and a deadlier name.
"You have answered my question," he said quietly. "Draw your cutlass, man. You have maybe one chance in ten thousand for your life."

Then all at once the storm threatens to break over Virginia: danger from the mountains. In the mountains there is a pass, and at the pass a cairn, and in the cairn a message.
Salut to Adventrs.Robbin Studd on ye Sumit of Mountaine ye 3rd
dy of June, yr 1672 hathe sene ye
Promissd Lande.

Andrew gathers his men and sets out for the pass, dogged on every side by danger, as yet unsure what exactly he is looking for, but certain that annihilation threatens Virginia.
I'll stop here, lest I be tempted to recapitulate the whole book.
Salute to Adventurers may be the most perfect historical adventure novel in existence. To begin with, it's an intoxicating blend of Robert Louis Stevenson and James Fenimore Cooper; imagine David Balfour transported to The Last of the Mohicans and you have an idea of this book. It is thrilling all the way through, with suspense deftly maintained whether through scenes of bloodthirsty piracy or of drawing-room intrigue.
As well as being gripping fun, Salute to Adventurers has Depths. In a characteristic Buchan touch, the hero is first and foremost a businessman. He doesn't seek glory in duels and brawls, preferring to settle his disputes with talk, in court if necessary. In Andrew Garvald Buchan paints another of his peaceable, decent heroes—the man who plays by the rule-book, has a healthy respect for authority, and fears God. Many writers choose not to depict such characters, claiming that they are boring. John Buchan, on the other hand, obviously believed that without strong, self-controlled character true heroism is impossible; that responsibility in great things only comes after responsibility in small things. Andrew is a grocer; that is why he makes such a good adventurer.
Just how good an adventurer Andrew is only becomes obvious in the last few chapters, which is when the book switches from a typical boys' adventure story into an almost indescribable genre I will describe only as “Presbyterian adventure”, as Andrew finally comes face-to-face with his old enemy Muckle John Gib, and—broken in body but not in spirit—seeks once and for all to conquer; but not in the usual sense of the word, not by giving death, but by giving life:

"But what is your plan, brother?"
"None," I answered. "God will show me the way. Honesty may trust in Him as well as madness."
"By my father's shade, you are a man, brother," and he gave me the Indian salute.
"A very weary, feckless cripple of a man," I said, smiling. "But the armies of Heaven are on my side, Shalah. Take my pistols and Ringan's sword. I am going into this business with no human weapons."
When was the last time you read a thrilling adventure story in which the climax was introduced in the words quoted above? Or in which the villain had such an ending as in this book? Salute to Adventurers is one of the most perfect pictures of Christian heroism I can remember: a heroism of so much more than violence, a heroism that battles and perseveres and sacrifices. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Meggie said...

Hello Suzannah,

My Mum and I found your blog and have been enjoying it greatly. This book sounds really great, I am defintly going to try and read it somehow... you have convinced me! :)


Suzannah said...

Hi there Meggie! Would you believe, I just found YOUR blog (Inkdrips, if I am correct?) yesterday and was somewhat intrigued. I shall have to add a link to it next time I organise my links.

So glad you like my little blog and oh, do, do read John Buchan. I'll hold off on further panegyric for now; I have raved about him at length on this blog already (try clicking the 'John Buchan' tag!!!). Skimming Salute to Adventurers last night for this review made me so wild to re-read it that I am in fact doing so now, and finding it just as wonderful as I remember.


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