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bomba the jungle boy

3 february 2011

In the first volume of the Stratemeyer Syndicate's Bomba the Jungle Boy series, Bomba, in the space of two days, is attacked by jaguars, a cayman, a puma, more jaguars, vampire bats, vultures, a scorpion, a boa constrictor, more pumas, piranha fish, and a cooanaradi ("the most terrible serpent on earth," 7). This gives the old saying "it's a jungle out there" new meaning. Bomba, I know you love the jungle, old man, but wouldn't life be less complicated if you moved to the suburbs?

In a way, that's what Bomba really does want. Early in Bomba the Jungle Boy, he meets a couple of white American rubber tappers. They slap him on the back, teach him some American slang, and give him a revolver. Bomba spends the rest of the book wishing he could experience more bonhomie and learn more wisecracks. And get more ammunition.

Bomba films starring the late Johnny Sheffield were no-nonsense postwar second features that were a staple of weekend-morning TV when I was a kid in 1960s Chicago. As in the books, Bomba spent most of his time wrestling with wildlife. He was particularly prone to deadly encounters with black panthers. This made a great impression on me when I was five, the more so because my grandmother kept a decorative heavy-glass black panther under her coffee table. That was one table I never hid under.

In fact, Bomba's participation in the war of all against all fit into a general theme in much of my childhood's culture: wild animals insisted on killing and eating you. My trips to the Lincoln Park and Brookfield zoos were undertaken largely for the frisson of standing just a few cage bars away from animals that could make a snack of me. The voraciousness of nature was part of the lesson of the Walt Disney nature films and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom on TV, and of many of the adventure books and kids' nonfiction that I read. Even the Hardy Boys were hard-pressed to go a book or two without being imperiled by a rattlesnake or a puma.

But Bomba, at least in the movies, had to wrestle panthers while wearing only a loincloth, which tipped the odds dangerously in favor of the panthers. He always emerged unscathed, but the stress of these encounters left permanent marks on me. I still don't trust wildlife, even though I now know that it inhabits a peaceful, sustainable circle of life. It seems to me it does so mostly by killing things.

The first Bomba the Jungle Boy book is not without its appreciation of Amazon rainforest biodiversity:

Herons, plover, toucans and scores of other curious birds that make the Amazon jungle the most wonderful natural aviary on earth . . . the giant mora tree, two hundred feet high, aglow with clusters of scarlet blossoms, feathery palms, the bright yellow trumpet flower. . . huge fuchsias with their purplish tubular bells. . . The whole region was ablaze with beauty beyond the power of an artist to paint or the imagination of a dreamer to conceive. (136-137)
But while animal and vegetable diversity is part of the wonder of the jungle, the human diversity there is distinctly uncelebrated in Bomba. Natives are "vacuous" and caboclos are "half-witted." Indeed, Bomba's monkeys have more common sense and humanity – and nearly as much language – as indigenous Amazonians. In the climactic scene of Bomba the Jungle Boy, when headhunters besiege Bomba and his guardian Casson, the invaders are really very much like the vampire bats and jaguars that have made similar raids on Bomba's camp earlier in the novel.

I value books like this because they show, in a deeply uninhibited way, the lowest common denominator of American thought in a given era. If we admire 1920s heroes like Clarence Darrow at the Snopes trial, we must also recognize the context they fought against: a bitter racism and an exploitative attitude toward natural resources that are distilled in the juvenile pulp fiction of the period.

Such syndicate novels didn't really have authors. Well, somebody wrote them, but not the nonexistent "Roy Rockwood" credited on the cover. Each volume was assigned to a different ghost by the packagers who created the series. We may never know who wrote Bomba the Jungle Boy, but he or she certainly knew how to keep the fights to the death coming.

I got my copy of Bomba the Jungle Boy at a used-book store here in Texas. The shop had just opened, and they were selling old juveniles at about $4 a pop. I'd circulate back through every few months to get another in the Bomba series, because I was the only person in North Central Texas remotely interested in collecting Bomba books. Or so it seemed: one day the stock was gone. "Those weren't selling," said an apathetic youth at the front counter, "so the manager got rid of them." My eye. Somebody swept in and cleared them out. They're not rarities (I could collect the whole set for $7 or $8, book by book, on eBay), but I still wish I had moved more quickly. The best time to buy antiques, someone reminded me, is when you see them.

Rockwood, Roy. Bomba the Jungle Boy. New York: Cupples & Leon, 1926.