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Archive for the ‘James Ramsey Ullman’ Category

The 1954 club has arrived!  It was a year full of fantastic children’s historical novels – The Eagle of the NinthKnight Crusader! – but I’m kicking the week off with a slightly more obscure choice: Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman, an adventure tale inspired by the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

Set in 1865 in the fictional town of Kurtal (aka Zermatt), we meet our hero, sixteen-year-old Rudi Matt, as a disgruntled dishwasher at the town’s best hotel.  Slight and cherubic, Rudi is nothing like the bulk of the town’s hearty men, who make their livings as guides for mountain-climbing tourists.  He is, his mother and uncle have decided, to be a hotelier and to train in Zurich after getting experience at home.  They want him far away from the dangerous mountains that have taken too many men from their town, his own father included.

But Rudi is a mountaineer in his heart, and escapes the kitchen to climb whenever he can.  He may never have known his father, the great Josef Matt who died on an expedition to summit the Citadel (aka the Matterhorn), the last great unconquered peak in Switzerland, but he inherited his spirit.

With a disconcerting comfort in bending the truth (a welcome and clever element that saves the Rudi from being too saccharine), Rudi finds himself slowly gaining the support of some in the climbing community – the intrepid Englishman, Captain Winter, and Teo Zurbriggen, a now crippled climber who was part of his father’s final expedition.  Rudi shares Captain Winter’s dream of conquering the Citadel and dedicates himself to being capable of the climb.  In the end, he is one of four men who attempt the ascent.

After an exhausting climb and close to the summit, a fellow climber is injured through sheer hubris.  Rudi, desperate for the glory of being the first man to ever reach the peak and eager to complete his father’s last journey, is torn.  Does he fulfill what he sees as his destiny and summit the peak, or does he follow the code of the mountain guides and care for his incapacitated climbing partner?  His own father knew what it meant to belong to the mountains – and died there not from an accident, but of exposure when he stayed with an injured client and was caught in a storm while waiting for help.

The 1950s was a golden era for children’s adventure tales and Ullman exemplifies the best of the tradition, writing suspenseful scenes along with solid character development.  The book is full of climbing action and it is wonderfully vivid and tense, carrying the reader along with Rudi through his painful and dangerous exploits.  As someone who hates heights, climbing is my idea of torture and I mean it as a compliment to Ullman’s skill that certain scenes made me queasy.  What an idiotic pastime – but what good material for an adventure tale.

With conflict like this, you can see why Disney adapted this shortly after it’s publication.  It’s a perfect blend of adventure tale and morality tale, with sublime scenery to cap it all off.  It was released in 1959 as Third Man on the Mountain with James MacArthur looking cherubic but decidedly more robust than Rudi is described (MacArthur played a Swiss teen again for Disney in Swiss Family Robinson in 1960).

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