The seventh, too, I remember, because when, at night, I returned from filling canteens with water, I saw Crofton kneeling in a singular dog-like posture. When I came quietly up behind him, I saw he had drawn something large and round from his knapsack, and was gnawing at it—gnawing and pulling, as a dog wrenches at gristle and bone.
“For god’s sake, what’s that?” I asked.
Crofton gave the thing a quick push into his knapsack and rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. His push had been too hurried, and the thing rolled out again, like something alive, creeping out to look around. It was a head—an Indian’s head.
I can’t recall what I said, but Crofton came close to me—so close that I backed away and wanted to run. “It’s mine,” he whispered. “No harm taking what’s mine, seeing what they did to my brother!” He laughed with the bubbling sound that a horned owl makes when it holds a rabbit in its claws.
“That’s it. That’s too awful. I’m not reading any more,” Rosely declared, snapping the book as sharply as her tone.
“It’s just a bloody head in the bag. Indian head at that. Hardly counts at all.”
“I just don’t understand why they write about such gory things.”
“Cos they’re the best bits!”
“For you maybe. I think it’s disgusting and unnecessary. And I not going to read any more of this. If you want to know what happened, you’ll just have to read the rest yourself.”
“Oh, I can’t. You know I can’t. Oh please, please, please!”
But this time she was adamant, and we were despatched into another of her seemingly endless series of Famous Five novels by Enid Blyton where such terrible things would never have dared occur.
And there, for me, ends Northwest Passage, by Kenneth Roberts. Somehow, I’ve never been able to get back to finishing it. Of course, I eventually saw the fine film with Spencer Tracy and Robert Young, but that didn’t help much, since it too only told the first half of the story and never got around to the bit that involved its title. I think I was over thirty before I finally found out the location and significance of the Northwest Passage. It is ironic therefore that what I found out was that it never existed.
But there is something fundamentally wrong with the way Americans tell frontier stories and Kenneth Roberts suffers from it. No matter how exciting they were, they were also irritating. It is that desperation to assure you that a myth is being created, rather than allowing history or the reader to judge the character’s mythological status for themselves. Perhaps you need to be an American and love all that parading and flag-waving as they do. Maybe that is why they invented the Western—because of a desperate need to tell their history by means of mythology rather than dreary facts.