Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Sam Steele's Adventure's: The Scream of the Sacred Ape
The Seagull happens to be near the Karamata Maru when it sinks and they manage to rescue about two-thirds of the people on board. Most of the passengers are transferred to another ship that comes shortly (and, as Sam lets us know, gets all the public credit for the rescue). Three remain behind, a Dr. Gaylord, Prince Kai Lun Pu and his faithful servant Mai Lo.
Prince Kai is badly injured and Dr. Gaylord is sure he is dying. Sam finds the Prince to be an amiable fellow, and they talk about their adventures. The Chinese Prince reveals he has no faith in his family's ancestor worship and doesn't care that he's exhausted his fortune, which according to tradition was supposed to be divided in half and one half buried with the body for use in the afterlife.
However, Kai is also the last of his line: once he dies, the family vaults are to be sealed forever. But as the Prince is sure, that would hide away forever a great treasure that could make someone very rich, such as the people who managed to rescue him from a watery grave and give him some boyish companionship in his final days? He gives Sam, Archie and Joe his blessing to take what they want from the vault, and gives them several points on how to do so.
However, Kai also warns them of Mai Lo. He's sure his servant has also turned away from the ancient traditions and is not looking forward to what he must do as his final act of service to the Pu family: hide any trace of the family vaults and kill himself. Kai is sure Mai Lo will plunder the vault himself and move away from China. So, what he wants Sam and the boys to do is simply beat Mai Lo to the job!
Kai dies as the Seagull heads to China. Knowing that Mai Lo will be shamed if he can't bring back the Prince's body, Sam and Dr. Gaylord make a pretense at embalming the body with rum in private, but replace it with rubbish from the Seagull and give the Prince an impromptu sea burial.
In China, they head into the country and get to Prince Kai's home where they begin to make their plans, offering a pretense that they are collecting gifts to send to Kai's friends in other countries. Mai Lo, who knows that the Prince's body has been replaced somehow, wishes to get rid of Sam and the boys at any time. In Kai's palace, however, they find a friend in the very trusting Chief Eunuch Wi-to.
However, Sam and his friends can't keep themselves out of trouble, and soon, they end up getting into serious danger by meeting Kai's sister, and Mai Lo's daughter and second wife (who is only fifteen), a crime punishable by death! Can Sam and his friends get the treasure and escape with their lives?
Baum writes with a good bit of knowledge of the Chinese traditions. Even though he has Sam and his friends and Prince Kai not believe in them, they are treated rather respectfully. While Mai Lo is rather wicked, it is made clear that he has little respect for the traditions himself and has his own selfish goals in mind.
By introducing Kai's sister and Mai Lo's daughter and wife, Baum allows his feminist side to speak up, speaking against the "women as property" tradition with the now generally accepted "women are equal to men" concept. It was becoming a common tradition in America, but in China, there are two classes. The working class women were generally just regular women (Sam notes some on his trip to Kai's palace), but the daughters and wives of the rulers are pampered and kept away from the outside world.
But these girls want to know things outside of the harem, a need Sam and his friends can see, but they have no real interest in addressing. Thus, Sam and his friends are really no better than Mai Lo in this regard. Of course, Sam and his friends really have no power there.
This is an exception in the series in which Sam and his friends are careful not to publicly offend traditions or laws of the people they visit. They do it in private, but they do oppose these ideas, but with Prince Kai's blessing. Baum is depicting the beginning of the end of this Chinese tradition. Once the people who practice a tradition stop believing in it, continued practice becomes futile.
Perhaps this is actually one of the best of the Sam Steele series! Go ahead and get the Hungry Tiger Press version (if you don't have it already) and check it out!