Monday, December 10, 2012

Don Sturdy in the Temples of Fear (Don Sturdy #12)

Don Sturdy in the Temples of Fear (Don Sturdy #12)
Victor Appleton
Grosset & Dunlap, 1932

Genre: Action, Adventure


Don Sturdy is a typical adventuring boy. The series itself opens with his explorer father, mother, and sister all being lost in a supposed shipwreck. Don, with the help of his two bachelor uncles, Frank (an explorer and hunter) and Professor Bruce (an archeologist), travels around the world to find his family. By the end of volume one they save a young boy (and now Don’s best friend) Teddy’s father from death and by the end of volume three Don has relocated his family in Brazil. Every volume after that focuses on Don and his now insatiable thirst for adventure.

In the fifteenth volume, Frank and Bruce met with Senor Vel Puertez who tells them of the famous Temples of Fear in the Central American jungles. Frank wants to explore for the game he might be able to hunt down while Bruce thinks a lost Maya civilization would be a wonderful find for the scientific community. However, Puertez warns the party of the dangers. When he was in the area, the locals refused to take him anywhere near where the valley was supposedly located because the tribe of men living there were reportedly notorious for performing human sacrifices. However, that just adds to the excitement of the trip and Don, Frank, Bruce, Puertez, and Teddy all make plans to travel to Central America and find the Temples of Fear.

On the way there they encounter a bad storm at sea that punches a hole in their vessel, swamps filled with deadly alligators, mosquitoes that want to suck them dry, boa constrictors, a jaguar who tries to attack Teddy, a cave full of bats, a secret tunnel in a temple, and, most deadly of all, a tribe of primitive people who perform human sacrifice.

This volume is most important for being the most individually racist series book of all time.

Thoughts and Nuggets of Wisdom for Research

Don Sturdy in the Temples of Fear is the twelfth book in the Don Sturdy series of fifteen books written by the Stratemeyer Syndicate pseudonym “Victor Appleton” (of Tom Swift fame) and published by Grosset & Dunlap between 1925 and 1935. Currently, collectors and historians know that all but one of the books (the tenth) was written by house ghostwriter John W. Duffield. This volume, in its heyday of 1932, sold nearly 17,500 copies and holds the prime place in series book history for being the most racist individual series book of all time—not the greatest accomplishment one hopes to be remembered by.

According to an early advertisement on the dust jacket of the Don Sturdy books:

Every red-blooded boy will enjoy the thrilling adventures of Don Sturdy. In company with his uncles, one a big game hunter, the other a noted scientist, he travels far and wide—into the jungles of South America, across the Sahara, deep into the African jungle, up where the Alaskan volcanoes spout, down among the head hunters of Borneo and many other places where there is danger and excitement.

Right away there is a lot of talk of human sacrifices. When Puertez tells Frank and Bruce of the rumors he’s heard of the lost city, human sacrifice is the biggest downside to the trip. Early on, Frank is interested in an obsidian knife artifact that Puertez has with him. Puertez wastes no time in explaining its purpose. He says it is a “sacrificial knife” used in Maya ceremonies by priests when they offered up “human victims in sacrifice to the gods.” He says it was probably used in hundreds of such rites and that “like the Aztecs of Mexico, the Mayas practiced human sacrifice. They offered up on their alters the captives taken in the war, and when they were short of these they took some of their own people, chosen by lot as victims.” Frank says that he hopes the priests were merciful and killed with a single thrust, but that is not the case as Puertez informs him, “They cut the man open, reached in and tore out the still-beating heart” (Appleton, 1932, p. 6-7).

Don and his best friend Teddy also make a lot of derogatory comments about the Mayas throughout the entire book. When Don first informs Teddy that the primitive people conduct human sacrifice he jokes, “Whenever they didn’t have anything else to do on a rainy day, they’d bring out a few captives, cut out their hearts and offer them up as sacrifices to their gods. All he [Puertez] told us was merely the word of some natives, and you know how ignorant and superstitious they can be. The chances are ten to one there’s nothing in it” (Appleton, 1932, p. 43). Teddy replies by saying, “I suppose if those old priests in Central America nabbed us, we’d be slaughtered too, to make a Maya holiday. At any rate they wouldn’t charge anything for the operation and that’s something in these days of doctors’ high prices” (p. 44).

However, it is how the party escapes that clearly makes the book unequaled in its racist attitudes. Teddy, who because of his red hair is seen as sacred to the priests and won’t be sacrificed, tells Don he can get into the room were there weapons are being held. Don remembers that they brought some dynamite along and haven’t used any. Dynamite would be helpful for a distraction during the ritual and is small enough for Teddy to sneak out. Turns out, since it doesn’t resemble a weapon, the High Priest lets Teddy walk away with some sticks. Teddy later tells Don, “You’d have laughed to see them smelling and trying to taste the dynamite” (p. 171). Teddy plants the dynamite under the altar and also makes some “first-class bombs” that might come in handy.

When the ritual starts and they are brought into the room, Bruce, being the most respectful one of the bunch, tries to warn the priests to let them go. Of course, he warns them in a condescending manner: “Unless you set us free, your altar shall be destroyed and your golden god shall be cast down by thunder and lightning” (p. 180). What follows is a huge explosion as the altar is blown up by the dynamite Teddy set: “A red spout of flame leaped toward the roof, and the twisted golden idol sword heavenward through a gaping hole, while a vast cloud of smoke billowed through the aperture. Within the temple was wild confusion as fragments of rock whizzed through the air, and carved columns fell with a crash. Stunned by the stupendous explosion, the white men crouched behind the heavy block of stone on which they were to have been sacrificed, but which now had protected them from the fury of the blast. Many of the priests had been killed, and those who had survived the explosion ran about in a frenzy” (p. 181).

Nonetheless, a few brave Mayas still want to try and fight back and a few pages later, after more have died, Teddy sees a group approach the room where the Sacred Fire is burning and in their hands is the remainder of the box of dynamite. The narration informs readers that the Mayas decided that the dynamite was the cause of the explosions and, therefore, it must be filled with evil sprits that they need to vanquish. They decide to throw the dynamite into the Sacred Fire to destroy any demons that dwelt within it. Don and everyone runs as fast as they can as the priests throw the dynamite onto the fire: “A muffled roar came from the depths of the temple, as the explorers turned their heads in amazing thing happened. The ponderous temple seemed to dissolve before their eyes like the fabric of a dream. Walls and columns swayed and crushed inward, while the heavy stone roof thundered down in a cloud of dust. The explosion had disrupted the subterranean supporting walls, and the ponderous structure had collapsed like a house of cards. For few moments the explorers were struck speechless, gazing at the tumbled mass of ruins which a few moments before had been a magnificent building. From the warriors and people there arose a moan of terror that gradually turned into shouts of anger against the white men” (p. 188).

The Mayas have effectively blown up their entire temple and killed more people in the process. Most shocking of all, the Sturdy party, especially Bruce, laments the destruction of the “priceless” temple and carvings and decorations that are now nothing but a heap of ruins. However, when Frank replies, “Well, they blew the place up themselves,” the horror of the situation really sets it for readers—while they are sad that the artifacts of an ancient civilization are now lost to mankind and the scientific community they don’t express a single emotional concern for the hundreds of native people who have been killed technically by them and their attempts to escape. Sure, they were held captive, but their means of escaping pretty much amounted to nothing less than a group of technologically advanced white men who, without any emotion, traipsed into an area where they were not welcome and commit what amounts to a genocidal massacre against a group of primitive native people. This issue is driven home when the book ends two weeks later with the party safe at home. Teddy comments that he misses all the fancy clothes he got to wear when the Mayas where worshipping him and Don says, “It’s too bad you couldn’t have brought it with you. You might have lived in ease and the rest of your life” (Appleton, 1932, p. 201).

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