Red Dog in Bandit Country – A true story
Bill Redding (as told to Fleur Beale)
Longacre Press, $16.95,
Longacre Press, $16.95,
Longacre Press, $18.95,
Two of these books belong together and one of these books is not the same, as they say on Sesame Street. The matched pair, Watermark and Thunder Road, fall tidily into the young adult category – one aimed at girls and the other at boys. They share a theme common in young adult fiction – the ordinary teenager scooped out of his or her ordinary life by a charismatic friend. Risks are taken, danger faced, lessons learned, and characters develop. The protagonists in these two novels have left school – have almost left their teens, but the books will be read by those in their mid-teens who are rehearsing future possibilities and extending their understanding of here-and-now through fiction.
Red Dog in Bandit Country, on the other hand, is not set here, or now. Danger is faced, but there’s no character development because Red Dog (Bill Redding’s nickname) is a real-life superhero in charge of his own destiny. The book isn’t even a novel, strictly speaking, but Redding’s memoir “as told” to Fleur Beale. Redding was an American who learned survival skills in World War 11, and worked on construction projects all over the world before coming to New Zealand in 1988. Sadly he died just before publication.
So why would a New Zealand teenager want to read about an explosives expert at a mining camp in the mountains of Colombia in 1954? Because Red Dog in Bandit Country is an old-fashioned yarn and Bill Redding an old-fashioned adventurer. This exciting tale includes illegal gold, betrayal, a bandit queen with 12 gun-toting bandit sons, and a moonlit escape over the mountains. Is it all true? Who cares? This man can tell a story. Or perhaps it’s Fleur Beale’s careful structuring that gives the book its torch-under-the-duvet quality. It’s told in a laconic style – the movie would be in black and white and star Humphrey Bogart; Red Dog even calls his girlfriend “kiddo”.
Red Dog in Bandit Country is an unusual book for this age group because there’s no growth or transformation for its characters, only survival. Red Dog is experienced, his motto is “safety first”, but as his skills include being able to pilot a plane, handle dynamite, fix an engine and tame a wild horse, he never gets into trouble that he can’t escape from. As our narrator is always in control there’s no despair, no terror, and not much in the way of moral dilemma (though he’s obviously a decent bloke who does the right thing when he can). This makes the book a fundamentally safe read that could be enjoyed by much younger children than the other two books, but it will also appeal to many adults looking for old-fashioned escapism. Importantly, the sort of reluctant readers who usually get their thrills from play stations will love it.
However, these readers may never open Red Dog in Bandit Country because of its cover. The fine white stripe on a peach colour background looks like waiting-room wallpaper, and the stylised horse in the centre is more My Little Stallion than the vicious man-killer with the floppy left ear described in the story. Children will take one look and say “nah”. So cover it in a plain wrapper and read a bit aloud:
out of the back tumbled three men dressed in scruffy fatigues and bristling with guns. I kind of figured they weren’t from the camp but the guy who confirmed it for me was the one who hip-fired a clip from his AK47 into the brush at the side of the Beaver. He snapped out the expended clip, clicked the new one into place and looked like he was considering whether to ventilate us next.
I shrugged. Win some, lose some.
In Watermark, Penelope Todd’s fourth novel for teenagers, 18-year old Zillah is off to Marlborough to spend the summer nannying. She’s a sensible girl who is struggling to free herself from her controlling mother, so when she receives a mysterious invitation to visit a place called Roimata on the West Coast she postpones her job and sets off for the unknown with only a mobile phone for protection. The map directs her not to the lodge she’s imagined but to a hut on an empty stretch of coast. Zillah may be eager for independence but she doesn’t take responsibility for herself, telling herself, “If this wasn’t safe they wouldn’t expect you to do it”, as she follows instructions to row across the estuary, even though the river’s rising rapidly and she doesn’t know who “they” are.
“They” turn out to be Joss and Hep, an eccentric brother and sister of Zillah’s age, who have planned this adventure as a sort of private Outward Bound course for her. Joss has a heart-stopping smile and is weird in an undefinable way; practical Hep wears only an old green petticoat (and sometimes nothing at all) and interprets her brother to the world and the world to him. Their closeness makes Zillah uncomfortable but she falls in love with Hep almost as much as she inevitably does with Joss. The developing relationship between the three is conveyed convincingly, as is the relationship that Joss and Hep have with the beach, river and bush. Todd’s evocative descriptions of the landscape tether the unfolding drama as the city girl experiences serious West Coast weather, two near-drownings, a flood and a birth.
For Zillah, risk-taking leads to self-knowledge, independence, love and friendship. Todd adds a counterpoint to Zillah’s experience in the form of Bernard – a mysterious man who hangs round her hut. He’s a good man who has (like Zillah) acted impetuously, but for him the consequences have been disastrous. Bernard confesses to Zillah; she hears about his love, loss, jealousy and remorse and convinces him not to commit suicide. But there aren’t enough connections made between Bernard and the rest of the plot, and Bernard’s story is tied up too perfunctorily with news of his accidental death.
The deaths in Thunder Road aren’t accidental (whatever the coroner may conclude) because cause and effect make them horribly inevitable. In Thunder Road, a first novel by Ted Dawe, narrator Trace – a small-town boy who has moved to Auckland – is introduced by Devon to The Strip, where boy racers burn rubber on Saturday nights. But then Devon takes him on an expedition to steal a marijuana crop, and they find themselves in the dangerous world of professional drug dealing where there’s no tolerance for hooning amateurs. The plot complications include a girlfriend whose parents don’t approve, and a variety of violent underworld figures including petrol heads, gang members and Wes, a wealthy Mr Big with a penchant for pretty young men.
What makes Thunder Road such a good book is the central relationship between Trace and Devon, and it’s one that the Keeping ourselves safe school campaigns don’t touch on. It’s not peer pressure that sucks Trace into trouble, but the magic spell cast by his charismatic friend. Devon knows stuff. He has answers for Trace – or at least he knows what they should do next. And Trace is enchanted and wants to believe him. This is an important relationship, and one that reads true, with an element of unspoken homoeroticism and a fair dollop of hero-worship. Even when Trace realises Devon’s fallibility, he doesn’t lose faith: “Devon got so much wrong but they were just details: behind the surfaces, the talk, the act, there was something glowing, something golden. He’s a song that will hum in my heart forever.”
This is a book for older readers, not just because of all the illicit activity, but mainly because, unlike Red Dog, Trace has no control over anything. Thunder Road’s complicated plot speeds along like the Norton Atlas of Trace’s dreams. It hurtles through love, friendship, betrayal, gangs, dope, theft, violence, fast cars, accidental death and murder. Even when their actions result in people getting killed, Trace and Devon can’t pull out.
If this had been written by John Marsden, the narrator would have finished the story from jail, but Dawe takes a softer route. Redemption comes in the rather predictable form of Devon’s wise old koro who is ready to fill Trace with forgiveness and spirituality. Like Red Dog in Bandit Country, Thunder Road is written in a staccato, blokes’ style. The dialogue doesn’t always ring true (what 19-year old says, “She’ll be Jakes. No jiggery pokery,”?), and the narrator’s voice isn’t always consistent, but you’re going so fast you hardly notice.
So, three books, all exciting, all well written. Two of them are typical of the genre: young people experiencing first love, friendship, risk-taking and independence. Important themes, but I wonder if this is all teenagers are interested in. It’ll be interesting to see if Red Dog in Bandit Country is widely read – there’s room for different lives and completely different kinds of stories on the bookshelves of New Zealand teenagers.
Eirlys Hunter is a Wellington writer.