Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sam Steele's Adventures: The Amazing Bubble Car

1907 brought the second installment in L. Frank Baum's pseudonymous Sam Steele series: Sam Steele's Adventures in Panama. The next year, the publishers revamped the series and retitled it The Boy Fortune Hunters in Panama. In 2008, Hungry Tiger Press re-released the book in their Pawprint Adventure Series, a yet-to-be completed reprint series of L. Frank Baum's young adult novels. Hoping to attract new readers, the series was retitled Sam Steele's Adventures, and this book got its third title: The Amazing Bubble Car.

The book finds Sam, his father and their crew relaxing in Chelsea while Mr. Steele oversees the building of their new ship The Seagull. New beginnings are in store for Steele, Perkins & Steele!

A freighter asks Captain Steele to sail a ship that's seen better days that is carrying a load of steel. Captain Steele refuses as he wants his new ship to be the best it can be, but he suggests that Sam sail it instead. Sam decides to take up the job, taking with him Uncle Naboth Perkins, Ned Britton, and Nux and Bryonia.

As Sam prepares to leave, a certain Duncan Moit asks to travel on board the ship with a large crate. He has created an automobile that uses only a drop of an explosive glycerine to start the engines, which use compressed air. The car can run on land or placid water and features a netted glass dome. This is the prototype and is fully functional, and it is Moit's intention to have his wealthy uncle fund a production line of these seemingly perfect automobiles.

Compressed air engines were actually not such a revolutionary idea, but—as over 100 years has proved—they have not proved popular. They're not very fast, and the cost of compressed air is prohibitive. However, Baum has Moit construct a powerful pump that would remove that problem. It is so fast-acting, that the car can go at speeds that must be at least 60 miles per hour. (Though Baum never uses this in the book.) However, this pump must have been a groundbreaking invention, because despite it being 104 years since Baum's book came out, no one has been able to make such a pump.

Sam accepts Duncan Moit on board, and sure enough, despite hugging the coast as much as possible, the ship eventually wrecks.

While exploring the land nearby, they discover a dead man in a boat who has been killed by an arrow. He also had a diary, which tells of the nearby land of the Techlas, a remnant of the Aztecs. The dead man and his friends attempted to trade for raw diamonds the Techlas had, but the Techlas refused, King Nalig-Nad announcing that no one was allowed to have diamonds anymore since they'd attract the troublesome white men. When they tried again, all of the other men were killed, save the one they found dead. He sent a message to the president, who sent a regiment of soldiers, who were also killed. So, the man attempted to sneak into the Techlas' land, but discovered he was being spied on after he hid a trove of diamonds in a stump, and finally was caught, killed, and his body was sent out in a boat to warn other white men.

Sam decides he wants to try to get the diamonds, and Duncan Moit thinks this would be a good chance to prove the invulnerability of the car. They decide Nux and Bryonia will pretend to be kings of their home island of Takayoo, and Sam and Duncan pretend to be their slaves.

Driving boldly into the Techla's land, Nux and Bryonia try to enter peaceful arrangements with Nalig-Nad, who quickly suspects they are lying. However, they don't feel any real need to fear, and Duncan falls in love with Nalig-Nad's daughter Ilalah, set to be ruler when Nalig-Nad dies.

One morning they awake to find a quickly-built wall preventing them from escape in the car, but at night, Duncan uses some of the explosive glycerine in a hole he bores into it, and the next morning, being joined by Ilalah, they shoot at the glycerine, causing it blow up the wall, and they make their escape into the jungle, where they find the stump empty.

However, the stump was emptied by Tcharn, a short native who makes all the arrow heads for the Techlas. He agrees to give them the diamonds, and they give him gifts and a ride in the car as they head back to the wreck, where they are informed Ned Britton sailed a raft to Colon, where he telegraphed for a ship to come rescue them and carry the steel the rest of the way to San Pedro.

During the night back at the ship, Ilalah is taken by the natives, and the next morning, they go after her, discovering the elders of the Techlas declaring her worthy of death for her treachery. Nalig-Nad tries to shoot her, but Tcharn takes the arrow for her. When the men in the car try to save her, they are overpowered and are about to be executed when Ilalah protests, says the white men are good, and their machine is powerful.

Nalig-Nad scoffs at this and proceeds to drive his spear into the car, making holes. However, in doing so, he upsets the store of explosive glycerine, destroying the car, himself, and—as Duncan reveals later—all the plans for the car.

Duncan decides that since he could not hope to rebuild the car without his plans or a prototype, much less having no more money, he will stay with Ilalah, becoming her husband and ruling the Techlas with her. But he warns Sam that they must never return to the land of the Techlas under penalty of death.

Sam and his crew sail up to Colon (which Sam openly detests, and I can't help but wonder if Baum is pulling off some naughty wordplay), and soon to Panama. The steel is recovered and Sam is not held accountable for the loss of the old ship, and the diamonds they have are priced at a hefty sum and are sold. Sam rejoins his father, who is completing work on The Seagull.

This really sets the pace for the rest of the series. Sam, believing himself to be superior due to being an enterprising American, goes to another country and offends the natives by taking treasure. A risky and exciting business to be sure, but does Sam really have the right? And by writing the story, did Baum approve of this invasive treasure-seeking? In the first book, this wasn't an issue as the land they visit is uncharted and part of no country, nor are there natives to offend.

Sam is also quick to disparage the natives, more or less giving the idea that "I'm an American, I have the right to everything!" A rather skewed Manifest Destiny mentality, if you ask me. He sees the Techlas as savages, and he never really says that their actions killed anyone besides Nalig-Nad, but when you consider that wall-breaking scene, surely someone must have died. He does eventually see that they do have some sort of organization and civilization, but it is too late at this point.

Similarly, Sam doesn't think highly of Duncan's decision to marry Ilalah, much less deciding to stay with her. He recognizes that she's beautiful, but, as later books reveal, Sam would never dream of marrying a foreign woman. (I like to think he grows up rich as Croesus, and dies alone.)

So, what is Baum doing here? Is he saying to be this type of person is all right?

Actually, if you ask me, I think Baum is poking a sarcastic finger at adventure stories of the day. Sam is a pig-headed adventurer who thinks himself to be better than the people he's wronging not because of things he's done, but because of his nationality. He thinks only of himself and his close friends' safety and their own interests.

In Baum's controversial editorials about Native Americans, reading them in their full context shows that Baum believed Americans wronged the Indians and have taken away the pride and dignity of the Indians that we might as well finish the job and kill them if that was how we'd treat them. If we end a culture, why not end the people, too? I'm sure Baum was glad when this didn't happen. Thus, looking at these, I think Baum is depicting this very poor aspect of American patriotism in Sam himself. Sam offends the natives and their culture, and only bears little remorse if some native must die.

Today we have generally advanced to be more respectful of other cultures and countries, and if someone tried to do what Sam did, they would be in an awful lot of trouble.

Still, what does this mean for someone in the 21st century reading Baum's stories? Is it a bad story to be avoided because of what the characters do? My answer is: of course not. If you look at Sam's motives in a modern light, the stories are actually quite exciting and enjoyable, and take on a humorous light when you consider that Sam, depicting himself as the hero, is actually more of a villain. Disturbingly, we must remember that there was a time when this mentality was considered to be okay. As an advancing society, we can never risk slipping back into this mentality, and Baum's stories offer a warning.

And anyway, as an alternative to Baum's pig-headed Sam, we have characters like Duncan who originally thought of fame and fortune, but gave it up for love and decided to embrace a foreign culture because of it. Though Sam Steele could never understand why anyone would want to do that...

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