Friday, May 3, 2013

Tom Stetson and the Giant Jungle Ants (Tom Stetson #1)

Tom Stetson and the Giant Jungle Ants (Tom Stetson #1)
John Henry Cutler
Whitman, 1948

Genre: Adventure


Tom is spending his summer vacation cruising on the Amazon River with Uncle Leo Jason, a medical missionary. They are floating down the river when Tom suddenly sees smoke rising from a supposedly uninhabited island. Leo decides that they should check it out. As they explore the jungle, Manolo, an orphaned native Leo found on one of his many trips and effectively adopted, falls into a pit made to capture enemies. They succeed in pulling him out. Tom notices some odd footprints that appear to be human but are missing the big toe. Leo is reminded of the Motilon Indians. As they continue exploring they run across another hole but inside this one is a man. Leo is pretty sure that he is not of the same tribe and must be a captive of whoever inhabits the island. Leo suggests heading back to their boat because the man seems hostile. He suggests that they try to set up an attraction post and see if any of the Indians come and accept his offerings.

Leo and Manolo take a nap and soon Tom sees a canoe with “several half-naked Indians” in it with huge bows and arrows coming their way. Tom wakes everyone up and they start the boat. The small canoe full of Indians can’t keep up. They try to shoot arrows at the boat to no avail. When setting up their attraction post later that night the Indians appear and start shooting arrows at them again. Luckily they all escape to their boat safely. Tom learns that Leo had found Manolo in a deserted village that was left because of an ant invasion. He tells Tom that if the Indians except their attraction post they will go ashore in the morning and “see what we can do about civilizing them” (p. 58).

They discover a large Indian accepting the gift basket left at the attraction post. He breaks some of his arrows and waves for the boat. Leo takes this as a sign of them being welcomed ashore. Leo talks to the large Indian and discovers that he might actually be related to the Parintin Indians that speak a slightly different language. He understands that the large man's name is Picasto and his brother, Tagana, is the head of the tribe.

They are taken to a ceremony where Tom counts at least 149 males and 205 females in the tribe. It turns out that they are being allowed to witness a marriage. Tagana pulls a tocanderia [really spelled tocandira] ant from a basket. It is one of the largest ants in the world being at least an inch long and having poisonous stings. He places a number of these ants inside the glove and gives it to the groom to wear. If the groom flinches there will be no wedding. After the ceremony they are taken to a settlement where Leo sees tattered clothes tied to trees and realizes that he has seen this pattern before in the village where he found Manolo. Could these people be Manolo's people? Leo further investigates the huts and discovers that their design is very similar to the village where he found Manolo.

Tagana takes Manolo and leaves Leo and Tom to explore the village. Leo is very confused. Some of their customs he has never witnessed before while some of the other customs he has seen from other tribes. This tribe seems to be a mishmash of various natives he has encountered. As they are exploring they discover the prisoner from the pit they found now surrounded by four South American Eagles who could easily rip him to pieces if he attempts to escape.

Tagana invites them to his hut. Leo learns that his people are called the Tapintin. The captive is from a rival Pomora tribe, a headhunting tribe that steals from Tagana's tribe. He also says that Manolo is one of their missing tribe members and that he wants him to stay with the tribe now and marry his daughter, Kalena. They learn that the captive is to be put to death tomorrow. Leo hopes that they can stop his death and save Manolo from a life with this tribe. The captive's death is to be administered by tying him to a tree, pouring syrup all over him, and releasing the ants to eat him alive. In an attempt to trick the tribe Leo plays a radio which the tribe believes is magic and temporarily interrupts the ritual. Tagana is mad but Leo tells him that he should release the captive. Tagana believes that the radio is a God speaking to him and his angry so he reluctantly releases the prisoner for now.

Tom and Leo wonder what they're going to do about Manolo who is currently with the tribe’s medicine man who is ridding him of evil spirits. They worry about angering Tagana and insulting him by trying to take Manolo back, which might be read as an insult by refusing to let Manolo marry his daughter. Leo decides that he should go ahead and attempts to set up a mission in an attempt to delay the wedding. Their conversation gets interrupted by an alarm that signals an outsider has triggered a security trap. Tom and Leo discover that it appears someone actually left the area and did not enter it and they fear the Manolo has run away as the footprints are those of someone wearing sandals.

Tom and Leo attempt to search for Manolo and get trapped in the jungle during a storm. Tom gets separated from Leo and lost. He sees some monkeys and decides to follow them down a trail where he finds a lone bamboo building. He investigates this and can't find any windows or doors. He hears some footsteps and finds Leo. Tom takes him to the building and then notices some pringamona—a type of poison ivy. Tom believes that the tower was built there on purpose with the plant to act like some type of natural security. They hear some footsteps and hide. They see one of the natives approach the building with three dead monkeys. He starts to remove some branches and leaves from the bottom of the building. The man has exposed the entrance which leads underground. They wait for him to come back and leave and then decide to investigate the entrance. The building turns out to be a gigantic underground pit full of the tocandeira ants.

When they make their way back to camp, they discover that Manolo has been found and is being kept guarded by the eagles. Leo fears that Tagana is planning on killing him. They speak to Manolo the next day and discover that he would rather die than marry the chief's daughter. They believe Manolo and go in search of their radio. They discover that it is not where they thought they last left it. They confront Tagana and he says that the medicine man told him that he needed to hide the speaking box.

A plan suddenly occurs to Leo. Before heading to the clearing for Manolo's event, they're going to try to make a pit stop at their ship. It is July 2nd and he hopes that they can scare the tribe with firecrackers. As they watch the beginnings of the rituals they see Kalena enter the area and they discover that they are not going to kill Manolo but instead force him to marry the chief's daughter and force him to perform the test of endurance with the ants. Tom and Leo make it to their boat and back safely and Tom throws a bunch of firecrackers into the clearing which scares the Indians. When chaos ensues, Tom and Leo had toward their boat hoping the Manolo will follow. Unfortunately, Manolo gets away and heads toward where the boat was last kept—in the opposite direction. They know that they cannot rescue him now so they decide to set sail to Santarem and come back with more radios in the hopes of scaring the tribe to release Manolo.

As they're on the boat Tom decides to cook some pancakes and notices that they have three gallons of honey. He asks his uncle if they can possibly save Manolo with the honey. He proposes that they can release the ants and lure them to the clearing by the millions with a honey trail. Tagana and his people will be so scared the runaway and they can rescue Manolo. If he happens to be guarded by the eagles they will also take along some meat to distract the birds.

They turn the boat around and head back to the island to begin the rescue mission by sneaking into the village that night. They discover that Manolo is not with the eagles and figure that he is probably in the witch doctor's hut being guarded. They break into his hut and struggle with him but finally manage to chloroform him into sleep. Sadly, they discover that Manolo is not there. Soon Tagana and his brother appear. They search the hut and don't understand why the medicine man won't wake up. Eventually they leave and Leo decides that Manolo must be in the chief's hut. Their only course of action is to release the ants.

As they are preparing to leave, the Indians come back and attack them. Leo tackles Tagana and tells Tom to make a run for it. He hides from the pursuing Indians and eventually makes his way back to where they stored the honey. He discovers his uncle tied up and guarded by the eagles. Tom rescues Leo and they proceed with their plan to release the ants. They get to the bamboo building and release the ants and start stripping a honey trail back to the village. They wait on the outskirts of the village for quite a while, with Tom eventually going back to see the ants' progress. He's pretty sure that they will make it to the village by morning. The ceremony begins and Manolo is tied to a tree in preparation for death by ants. After number of minutes Tagana realizes that the man he sent to go and retrieve the ants is missing. After discussing what to do, a huge swarm of ants descend on the village. Tom watches as the Indians become panicked and stampede out of the common area. Tom rushes towards Manolo's side and gets stung. Manolo is covered in ants and is unconscious. As Tom is running away with Manolo he gets knocked on the head. When he comes to he's on his bunk aboard the ship. Unfortunately, Manolo was not with him or Leo. When Leo found Tom he was unconscious and there was no one around. Tom remembers seeing Tagana rushing toward him and hitting him on the head. He knows that the chief has taken Manolo. Tom will go and rest in the hospital while Leo gather supplies for a rescue mission to get Manolo back.

Thoughts and Nuggets of Wisdom for Research

There are a few interesting things about the Tom Stetson series, which consisted of three books. The first thing that really sticks out when reading it is that the series is very well written. To me, having read a number of series books, I know that the stereotypes of all series books being pieces of trash and being far cries from quality literature is not true as there are number of series books that are very well written. This was a very compelling adventure story and while I cannot find any information about the actual author he clearly did his research. An interesting thing to note of this series is that a lot of the narration between Tom and Leo includes a lot of background information on real animals, such as anacondas, electric eels, and piranhas. In fact, the ants that are a prime plot element are actually real and most of the information about the ants, including the ritual trials that the tribe members partake in, is all actually real.

The video talks about the indigenous tribes of the Sateré-Mawé people along the River Andirá in Brazil. Unlike the ritual of bravery to get married in this book, this real life tribe performs the ant endurance test as an initiation of growing up. For the occasion ants are stored in a cylinder of bamboo. The insects can not leave because the cylinder is sealed with leaves of white-cashew which the ants hate. In the preparation of the ceremony, the ants are introduced, one by one, inside a sleeve made of straw-caranã. The heads of the animals remain outside of the gloves, while the stingers are concealed on the inside the gloves. The whole process irritates the ants. When the gloves are ready, the young men wear the gloves for 15 minutes while their hands are being bitten by the ants. The ceremony of the Tucandeira is a religious rite that not only tests courage but is an act of bravery and protection for the body.

Another native tribe that performs the ritual is the Marubo. The ritual is designed to test the strength of the young warriors of the tribe. The Marubo believe that enduring the searing pain of the ant sting makes you a stronger person and a better warrior. For the ritual the warriors have red dots painted in strategic places across their bodies from a local plant dye. These are the spots where the ants are applied. The chief and the shaman hold the ants on the spot with a short stick until they sting the warrior. The red dots are painted mainly on the arms, legs and chest, though some young men have them on their throats, lips, and noses.

There are a number of other elements in the stories that are realistic as well. As already mentioned a number of animals that are commented on in the story are factual along with the area of Brazil, Santerm, which Tom and Leo almost set out for. Another example of something real is the comment about Emperor Dom Pedro II who was indeed a ruler of Brazil but he died in 1891 which, if the story is actually taking place in 1948 when it was written, might make it a little impossible for Uncle Leo to know that Pedro was a “nice fellow” (Leo says he is almost 57—in 1948 that means he was born in 1891 so he couldn’t have ever met the man!).

Another occurrence of real life information happens on page 19-21:

“The only Indians I know of that leave tracks like those are the Motilon Indians who make life miserable for white folk in the back lands of Venezuela. . . . The Motilon holds his bow with his big toe when he shoots arrows. As a result, his big toes—both of them—are bent almost at right angles. I was dead sure there were none of those murderers in this neck of the woods.”
“Hope we never run into any of those Indians,” Tom said. “They sound a lot more dangerous than the North American Indians used to be.”
“They are.” Mr. Jason stopped for a moment. “The Motilons are so deadly the employees of the oil companies in Venezuela wear bulletproof vests. Some even wear armor, and only a fool would go around in Motilon territory unarmed. No Motilon has ever been known to attack the person who has firearms. They still are never seen when they trail a victim. They slither through the underbrush without breaking a twig.”

The Motilon Indians are another real tribe. They are a Native American ethnic group, part of the Chibcha family, remnants of the Tairona culture concentrated in northeastern Colombia and western Venezuela in the Catatumbo River basin. The poor people have had a long history of being exploited by foreigners. First in the 16th century the Spaniards came to the area believing the lightning strikes turned stone in the area into gold so they began to settle the area extensively. They stopped a German company from looting gold in the area. Most recently in the 20th century oil was discovered in the area and the territory was subject to oil drilling from 1913-1926 and 1996-2001. While they may have been nasty people when defending their territory from outsiders wishing to exploit them, I didn’t find anything about them being “murderers”.

The last big instance of nonfiction in this series book is in relating the story of Colonel Fawcett, a real explorer who disappeared. The story is told on pages 31-33:

In 1925 Fawcett, his son, and another Englishman set out from the last outpost of civilization and headed into an unknown, unexplored region in the Central Brazilian Plateau. That's the last that was ever heard of any of them, although since then travelers have often claimed that they ran across members of the expedition.

He was looking for what he called the lost world. He sincerely believed that he would find the remains of ruined cities in the interior of the wild region he was penetrating. The general area is known as the Motto Grosso, which means big wood. Much of that region is still unexplored, especially around the tributaries of the Amazon west of the Xingu River. That's still virgin territory, too. At least, I thought it was until I saw that smoke.

Well, Tom, it's a matter of historical record that about two centuries ago an expedition consisting of six Portuguese explorers and some Negro slaves and Indian guides made a startling discovery in the interior of the Central Brazilian Plateau. They came across a mountain range, and when they scaled it they found themselves on a grassy tableland on which were the outlines of an ancient city. It was completely deserted, of course. But they saw tremendous blocks of stones and all kinds of buildings and monuments. There were inscriptions on some of those monuments.

Nobody knows, Tom. The city seems to have been destroyed by an earthquake. Anyway, Fawcett believed the story, and his chief ambition was to rediscover the lost city. The exploring party also reported that they have found gold coins and mine shafts. They sent word back of their findings, but they never returned to civilization. Nobody knows what their fate was, either. They were either lost or killed. Your guess is as good as anyone else's.

Nothing has been heard directly from Colonel Fawcett since May 30, 1925. On that day he sent his last dispatch back to the United States. He said he was penetrating a strange Indian country and that he might not be able to send out any more dispatches. But in 1928 an American exploring party did find some traces of him. Well, they followed the same trail Fawcett had taken. When they reached a village of the Anauqua Indians the chief’s son had a small brass plate hanging around his neck, and it was stamped with the name of the manufacturer that had supplied Colonel Fawcett was some equipment. The chief himself took the expedition to the territory of the Kalapalos Indians, who revealed that they had seen Fawcett and his two companions in 1925. The Kalapalos Indians said that when the party pushed further into the interior smoke from their fires could be seen for five days as they moved forward. Then, the Indians explained, the party was massacred by some hostile Indian tribe. The Kalapalos tribe blamed the massacre on the Anauquas, but the Anauquas said the real murderers were the Suya Indians.

Lt. Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett was a British artillery officer, archaeologist, and South American explorer. Along with his eldest son, Fawcett disappeared under unknown circumstances in 1925 during an expedition to find "Z"—his name for an ancient lost city, which he (in all likelihood, accurately) believed to be El Dorado, in the uncharted jungles of Brazil.

In 1925, with funding from a London-based group of financiers, Fawcett returned to Brazil for an exploratory expedition. He had studied ancient legends and historical records and was convinced a lost city existed somewhere in the Mato Grosso region. On April 20th, 1925, his final expedition departed from Cuiabá. The last communication from the expedition was on May 29th, when Fawcett wrote a letter to his wife that he was ready to go into unexplored territory with only Jack and Rimmell, which was delivered to the outside world by an Indian runner. They were reported to be crossing the Upper Xingu.

Many presumed that local Indians had killed them, several tribes being posited at the time included the Kalapalos, who last saw them, or the Arumás, Suyás or Xavantes tribes whose territory they were entering. In 1927, a nameplate of Fawcett was found with an Indian tribe. In June 1933, a theodolite compass belonging to Fawcett was found near the Baciary Indians of Mato Grosso. During the following decades, various groups mounted several rescue expeditions without results. They heard only various rumors that could not be verified. In addition to reports that Fawcett had been killed by Indians or wild animals, there was a tale that Fawcett had lost his memory and lived out his life as the chief of a tribe of cannibals.

The second interesting thing about the Tom Stetson series is that its format is very different from other series of its time. I would say that nearly 99% of series books are considered series only in the way that it has recurring characters but each plot of each individual book is completely different. Typically in series books the only thing that is recurring is certain personality characteristics and maybe occasionally a villain that just won't die. The thing that really shocked me about the Tom Stetson series was that when I reached the end of the first book there were clearly a lot of unanswered questions. Since I have the other two books in the series, I immediately went and grabbed the second volume and discovered the very unique nature of this series. In the first book Tom and Leo are separated from Manolo and throughout the second and third volumes they’re on the constant search for Tagana in order to rescue Manolo. So what we have here is not only a very well written series but also a very rare one in the fact that is a vintage series that technically is a true trilogy and not connected stand-alone adventures.

Being that this is an adventure boy series written in the 1940s the biggest elements of evidence for my research fall under the realm of racial stereotypes. Just taking one glance at the copy written on the dust jacket reveals the overall tone and volume: “Tom Stetson and his uncle, Leo Jason, watched the smoke rise in a thin column above the South American jungle. That smoke could mean but one thing—a tribe of natives whose camps were not far away. Perhaps at that very moment, someone was watching their every move. How Tom and his uncle strive to rescue a friend from the primitive customs of the savage tribe, and at the same time natural enemies—fierce animals, poisonous plants, and stinging insects—makes exciting reading. John Henry Cutler, the author, has expertly woven into the background of the back waters of the Amazon, a thrilling story of tense mystery and adventure.”

So let’s look at the racist elements.

Manolo’s history (p. 10): He turned to Manolo, an Indian youngster, who, like Tom, was in his early teens. Leo Jason had adopted Manolo eleven years earlier when the Indian was three or four years old. He had found the sad-faced child in an abandoned settlement not far from the headwaters of the Xingu River were headhunters and other wild savages roamed. Manolo, he knew, belonged to one of the primitive tribes haunting the rain-soaked forest in that uncharted region, but Mr. Jason had never been able to find out which one, for Manolo could speak only a few words when he was found.

In regards to the attraction posts (p. 27): “I only set one up when I try to convert the Indians if they've never been contacted by missionaries before.”

About Indians, those “savages!” (p. 29):
 “Well,” Tom grinned as the skiff quieted swiftly towards the Paloma, “I'm certainly glad to hear that those Indians in there eat fish. I was afraid they might be cannibals.”
“Don't be too sure they aren’t cannibals, Tom,” the missionary said grimly as they reached the Paloma. “Cannibalistic Indians eat fish and all kinds of wild animals. If they had to depend on the human enemies they capture, they'd starve to death. Not many strangers ever get very close to them, remember. Wait until we see what the tribe in there does with the captive Indian we saw in the pit. If they're cannibals, we'll soon know.”
“Gosh, Uncle Leo, everything seems so unreal down here in the jungles of Brazil. Just think, we may be the first white men who ever saw this part of the world.”

About Manolo (p. 46-47):
During the whole exciting chase Manolo had remained below, calmly preparing supper, as if nothing were happening. Tom never ceased to wonder at the Indian youngster’s coolness and courage. He was always friendly and courteous, but he rarely displayed any emotion.

It suddenly occurred to him that his uncle and Manolo were closer than even a father and son were ordinarily. The missionary, after all, was the only father Manolo had ever known. The bond between them was so close that they would probably never part company. Wherever the missionary went, the faithful little Indian would follow. He knew that his uncle had spent long hours tutoring his ward, who was no longer a pagan savage, as his tribe had been.

From Leo (p. 54): “But it's just as well, perhaps, that he never finds his people. I could tell from their settlement that they were wild and barbaric. I saw piles of monkey skeletons, which means they ate monkeys. Their malokas, or huts, which looked like big beehives, were filthy, and Manolo himself, when I found him, was a little savage. He looked as though he'd never heard of soap and water.”

Also from Leo (p. 85): “The Tapintins are so crude and savage Manolo could never be happy with them.”

After setting up the attraction point (p. 49): Tom felt for the first time that he was on the threshold of his first real jungle adventure. They were invading hostile Indian territory where one false move might prove fatal. What if the Indians had heard the Paloma's motors as they returned? What if they were lurking in the underbrush, waiting to shower them with arrows? It was a scary thought, and the closer they came to the shore, the higher the tension rose.

About the savage (or native) nature of the tribe (p. 93): “Don't forget they are savages, Tom,” his uncle answered. “They don't consider murder a crime, nor do they believe in a trial of any kind. One of my jobs is to teach them justice and forgiveness. They are cruel, and like many other tribes down in this part of the world, they enjoy seeing others tortured and killed, and the more gruesome the spectacle, the better.”

Page 63: “When I try to teach these heathens I often begin by showing them movies and let them listen to a radio. At times the radio is a very useful gadget, because it mystifies Indians even more than motion pictures do. As a result, they are a lot easier to handle. The first time I showed the Parintin tribe movies they were so scared they all ran off into the woods.”

Page 86: “I told Tagana I'd show him some magic first and then all his tribe could see it. As far as the Tapintins are concerned, movies are magic.”

Page 143-144:
“And remember, Tom, as a missionary and physician I am not allowed to use weapons against the Indians of Brazil, even to save my own life. I'm required to use peaceful measures.”
“Well, uncle,” Tom said seriously, “I didn't have any idea in mind of using weapons against the Tapintins. But I noticed that they don't take their weapons along when they go down to the clearing for ceremonies. Couldn't we hide them while they are busy down there?”
“I suppose we could, but when Tagana found out he probably would never forgive us. And don't forget that I still have hopes of making Christians out of these pagan Indians.”

The general life of a missionary according to Tom (p. 30): The life of a medical missionary was anything but easy, Tom reflected. It was a solitary existence, patrolling the silent backlands of Brazil. There was always the danger of malaria or hookworm or some other disease common in the area near the Equator. And, of course, the jungle was full of wild animals and primitive savages.

To make Tom’s life sound exciting for young male readers, we get a few glimpse into Tom’s background and thoughts that will make any guy wish they were just as lucky as Tom to lead such an exciting life!

Page 9: Tom was an ordinary American youngster in the third year of high school. He liked adventure, the more daring the better!

Page 11: Tom gazed too dreamily at the gigantic wilderness that sprawled out before them. Here he was, in plain view of an unmapped jungle, on the threshold of the largest remaining unexplored area in the world. In the jungle were birds of brilliant plumage and snakes of every description and size. Here were the uncontrolled forces of the untamed wilderness.

Page 35:
“I wish I didn't have to go back to high school next fall. I like school and football and of course it will be wonderful to see Mom and Pop and the family again, but after all this excitement, life in Boston is bound to seem dull.”
“Well, my boy, when you finish school maybe you can come down here and explore places that have never been seen by white men—places, perhaps, but have never been seen by Indians or anyone else, either.”
“Maybe I'll become an explorer at that, Uncle. Nothing would give me more of the kick. Mom won't want me to be a doctor or lawyer or an engineer when I tell her about the wonders of Brazil.”

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