“Whether for good or for evil, woman was at the bottom of Jasper Perry’s heart and affairs. The cause of his journey was love; the aim and end of it was marriage!” (4)
This century-and-a-half old adventure story, Away in the Wilderness, was a very pleasant read, filled with life, vivid descriptions of the Canadian frontier, and a heavy dose of Christian concern for the social and spiritual state of the North American Indian. Having never read R.M. Ballantyne before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as he details the travels of the bold backwoods hunter and trapper, Jasper Derry, and his Indian friend. Would I find more shameless Darwinian racism, as might be provided in a George Manville Fenn yarn, or might this author be different? Thankfully, Ballantyne is a far cry from Fenn, and his observations raise the moral bar for the mid-nineteenth century youth, in terms both of race and of gender roles.
The story follows Jasper Derry and two friends, a young artist and an Indian, as they venture north towards a far-distant outpost where Jasper hopes to fulfill a promise to marry a young lady he had met a few years before. During their travels, they meet a number of interesting characters and experience no shortage of small adventures, each tinged with a hint of suspense to keep the young readers engaged. Ballantyne explains the scenery, equipment, and roles of the frontiersmen much more than I had anticipated, and much to my pleasure. While it seems as if he’s writing with another age in mind, an age like ours when the frontier life has long been forgotten, he’s in fact writing with another continent in mind, for Ballantyne’s audience is actually the youth of Great Britain, not North America.
Ballantyne also appears to have a strong Christian faith, which plays out in both his social observations and his tendency to fit each chapter with either a Bible verse or a healthy moral for the children to consider. When describing the travelers’ decision on how best to move, Ballanytyne quips: “The more haste the less speed.” And when trying to make sense of murder towards the end of the book, he writes quite philosophically: “As surely as darkness follows light, and night follows day, so surely does sorrow tread on the heels of joy in the history of man. God has so ordained it, and he is wise who counts upon experiencing both.” (69) This is sound advice for any age level in any age, I think!
Regarding the North American Indians in his story, Ballantyne writes fairly and from a sound, biblical perspective. While he use the term “savage” once or twice, certainly a no-no by today’s standards, he does so only when contrasting the lawless behavior of some Indians to the civility of those with law written down and revered. The most striking example is in the “savage” treatment of women, beating them and treating them as nothing more than animals. He writes:
It would seem that, just in proportion as men rise from the savage to the civilized state, they treat their women better. It is certain that when man embraces the blessed gospel of Christ and learns to follow the law of love, he places woman not only on a level with himself, but even above himself, and seeks her comfort and happiness before he seeks his own…Few of the Red-men of North America are yet Christians, therefore they have no gallantry about them–no generous and chivalrous feelings towards the weaker sex. Most of their women are downtrodden and degraded. (25)
And when describing the cure to such behavior, he writes:
The North American Indian has no religion worthy of the name; but he has a conscience, like other men, which tells him that it is wrong to murder and to steal. Yet, although he knows this, he seldom hesitates to do both when he is tempted thereto. Mr Wilson was one of those earnest missionaries who go to that wilderness and face its dangers, as well as its hardships and sufferings, for the sake of teaching the savage that the mere knowledge of right and wrong is not enough–that the love of God, wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit, alone can enable him to resist evil and do good–that belief in the Lord Jesus Christ alone can save the soul. (63)
I was very pleased with this, my first taste of R.M. Ballantyne, both for its solid story and for its strong Christian morality. I plan to find and read more by this author, and as of right now, I would have no qualms about handing him over to my son to enjoy as well. This is the type of story I had hoped to find when I first began searching through my Adventure Classics library, and I’m glad that I found such a gem so early on.